City Journal Autumn 2014

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Autumn 2014
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By Andrew Klavan:

The Identity Man

Books and Culture

Andrew Klavan
A New Thing on Netflix
House of Cards is not a conservative show—except when it is.
5 March 2014
Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in House of Cards

House of Cards, the Netflix series about a lethally unscrupulous Washington politician, is a wonderful show, but it does sometimes stretch the limits of credulity. I have no trouble believing that a Democratic congressman would push a reporter in front of a train, but the idea that anyone in the press would try to expose him for it is flat-out ridiculous. After all, Barack Obama has been pushing reporters under the bus for six years and nobody’s said a word. Ah, well. If the show gives leftist politicos nightmares about being held accountable for their actions by American journalists, they can simply keep repeating, “It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie.”

House of Cards does pose a more realistic threat to leftists, however: their 40-year monopoly on artistic political statements—and their tacit blacklist of anyone who tries to make opposing statements—may finally be coming to an end. House of Cards is not, as left-wing activist Randy Shaw wrote in a blithering and inattentive piece on Huffington Post, a “Republican fantasy world,” but it is not pure leftist cant, either. And that in itself makes it something of a New Thing on the show-business landscape.

Let’s set aside the bigger issues for a moment and consider one small scene in the third episode of the second season. Reporter Janine Skorsky—brought to vivid life by the perfectly cast Constance Zimmer—has left the Washington rat race to teach journalism at an unnamed college in Ithaca, New York. We find her lecturing the class on how a media-manipulated narrative can outweigh the facts. Her example? In 1992, led by the New York Times, the left-wing media reported that President George H.W. Bush was surprised to see a barcode scanner in the checkout line at a grocery store. The president was depicted as an aristocrat out of touch with the common man. In truth, as Skorsky explains to her students, the president was merely remarking on new, cutting-edge scanner technology.

Well, wow! Really, just wow. It would be difficult to express fully how rare a show-business moment this is. It’s almost an unwritten law of Hollywood that any glancing reference to real-life politics in a film or television show must be slanted left. On HBO’s True Detective, a venal evangelist ghoulishly anticipates the school-voucher program that will allow him to reopen his child-molesting religious schools. School vouchers! Bwa ha ha! On Glee, when the gym coach wants to call her students stupid, she compares them to Sarah Palin—though Palin owns hairbands smarter than Joe Biden. Even on House of Cards itself, the Tea Party is used as shorthand for political intransigence rather than, say, constitutional integrity. The redoubtable culture warrior John Nolte, of the Breitbart blog Big Hollywood, has called these left-wing digs “sucker punches,” and he actually formed a “Sucker Punch Squad” to help expose them. “Must be nice being a leftie and NEVER having to worry about some childish television creator taking a gratuitous shot . . . at what you believe in,” Nolte wrote.

For a high-class, high-profile television show like House of Cards to make an off-hand reference to a real-life incident in which a massively biased left-wing press slandered a Republican to reinforce its false narrative . . . I’m telling you, folks: it’s virtually unheard-of. Is it possible, then, that we’re watching a conservative show? Well, no. And also yes.

House of Cards has its origins in a British novel written by Michael Dobbs, a former chief of staff at Conservative Party headquarters in the United Kingdom. But the novel’s evildoing parliamentary whip is himself a Tory, seeking power in the aftermath of the Thatcher years. I don’t know the politics of Andrew Davies, who scripted the much-acclaimed BBC television series, but the people involved in the Netflix remake whose politics I can identify—including the great lead actor Kevin Spacey—are all reliably liberal. (But then, Hollywood conservatives know it’s wise to keep their mouths shut.)

Nonetheless, in the American version, Spacey’s murderous power-seeking congressional whip is a Democrat. This in itself borders on the miraculous. But the actual political maneuvers that move the story forward are ideologically muddy and unrealistic. Democrats seek serious entitlement reform, but Republicans are reluctant to go along. Really? Democrats circumvent teachers’ unions to reform education. Dream on! A Republican politician stands on principle . . . okay, it’s Hollywood, but there’s only so much a fellow can believe.

All that said, however, there is one way in which House of Cards relentlessly and continuously undermines the left-wing narrative, whether it intends to or not. In its heightened way, it shows the government as exactly what it is: a power center, inspiring all the soulless perfidy and amoral ambition that any power center is prone to inspire.

This is devastating to left-wing philosophy, because the central flaw of leftism is not its ceaseless cynicism about business, individualism, religion, or the common man—it’s that its cynicism evaporates into unicorn-and-rainbow stupidity when it comes to government. Insurance companies are too greedy to handle health care, but not the government. Individuals are too reckless to own guns, but not the government. Religion is too corrupt to preach morals, but not the government. The people are too foolish to know their own good, but not our old friend Uncle Government. It’s no wonder some conservatives think leftists are all evil tyrants. It’s easier than believing they could really be such knuckleheads.

America’s Founders did not put check-and-balance brakes on government because they idealized the people. They knew the people all too well. But they also knew that it is in government that power tends to coalesce; that it is in power that men and women become most corrupt and abusive; and that it is corruption and abuse that eat relentlessly into the walls and rafters of the cathedral of liberty, until the entire structure collapses like . . . a house of cards.

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