The third season of the American adaptation of House of Cards is coming in for some harsh reviews. It earned them–this season was a mess. There were many contributing factors to this, but surely one of them was the fact that Frank Underwood began the season as president. That is, his rise to power was inherently more dramatic and interesting than his actual governing. In following this plot point, it earned some comparisons to The West Wing. But that’s unfair to The West Wing, and the reason has to do with what Americans see as dramatic when it comes to governing the United States–how we prefer to see ourselves and our political debates reflected back to us on the television screen.
Over at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, Seth Masket sets out to show why, as the headline has it, “‘House of Cards’ is the worst show about American politics. Ever.” What he appears to mean is that House of Cards is the least-realistic show about American politics. He makes a convincing case. But it’s also worth keeping in mind that these shows are all unrealistic in their own ways. They’re fantasy. And although House of Cards plays out as The West Wing’s evil twin–meaner, edgier, and cynical–The West Wing, while cheesy, gets certain things right. Those things are not exciting, but they contain more truth about American politics than most competitors.
The West Wing was a liberal fantasy version of American politics with a Democratic president. But the fantasy was not about eliminating the competition or bulldozing Congress. The fantasy was defeating the GOP in the battle of ideas, and for it to be a true battle, conservative arguments had to be engaged and overcome with better arguments. It was intended to be a fair fight, and a civil fight, with battles the left didn’t always win.
There are three examples that stand out to me, though I imagine there are plenty more.
The first that comes to mind is an ongoing debate between presidential speechwriter Sam (played by Rob Lowe) and Mallory, who Sam is trying to woo. Mallory is the daughter of the chief of staff, Leo; to make trouble for Sam, Leo gives Mallory, who is a public-school teacher, a position paper Sam wrote defending school vouchers. Mallory is livid (the word “fascist” makes a couple of appearances). They go back and forth a few times throughout the episode, and have the following exchange (via West Wing Transcripts):
Mallory, everything that you’re saying makes sense. I just think that the state of urban schools is such that if you can save even one kid…
[stands] You can save more than one kid.
Tell me how.
By asking Congress to approve, not just a little, but a lot more money for public education.
Public education has been a public policy disaster for 40 years. Having spent around four trillion dollars on public schools since 1965, the result has been a steady and inexorable decline in every measurable standard of student performance, to say nothing of health and safety. But don’t worry about it, because the U.S. House of Representatives is on the case. I feel better already.
And again later:
It occurs to me Mallory, that you attended a private primary school, a private high school and a private college.
What’s your point?
Well, just that liberals have no problem with rich kids going to expensive private schools, that doesn’t undermine public education. And liberals have no problem with middle-class kids going to parochial schools, that doesn’t undermine public education.
The idea that letting poor public school students choose private alternatives would destroy public education is simply contrary to our experience.
Sam finally reveals later on that the position paper was “opposition prep”–Sam’s not pro-school choice, he’s just arguing that position for debate prep. Then he tells Mallory his real opinion on education reform:
Mallory, education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes. We need gigantic monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. School should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.
Now, who has the stronger position here? Is it the side that points out how government has failed public education and how money hasn’t solved the problem? And that liberals only seem to oppose private education for those who can’t afford it? And that the liberal position that school choice for poor students undermines education in America is not only unproven but contrary to the evidence we have?
Or is it the one that insists more money is necessary, a lot more money, because “schools should be palaces” and somehow “free” to taxpayers who are paying for it? And who hasn’t figured out how to get the money for this scheme? It’s incoherent, it’s unrealistic, and it flies in the face of the data on the subject, to say nothing of basic fairness. But it’s the liberal position. And on The West Wing, it loses the argument.
Another example: Josh, a presidential advisor, is being asked by his assistant, Donna, why Democrats oppose the Republican plan of giving back the budget surplus in tax relief:
“We have a $32 billion budget surplus for the first time in three decades.”
“Republicans in Congress want to use this money for tax relief, right?”
“So, essentially what they’re saying is they want to give back the money.”
“Why don’t we want to give back the money?”
“Because we’re Democrats.”
“But it’s not the government’s money.”
“Sure it is, it’s right there in our bank account.”
Later in the episode, Donna reopens the argument:
“What’s wrong with me getting my money back?”
“You won’t spend it right.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let’s say your cut of the surplus is $700. I want to take your money and combine it with everybody else’s money and use it to pay down the debt and further endow social security. What do you want to do with it?”
“Buy a DVD player.”
“But my $700 is helping employ the people who manufacture and sell DVD players. Not to mention the people who manufacture and sell DVDs. It’s the natural evolution of a market economy.”
“The problem is, the DVD player you buy might be made in Japan.”
“I’ll buy an American one.”
“We don’t trust you.”
And the third example occurs when the (Democratic) White House political team initiates efforts to come to a grand bargain to save entitlements. They need Republican buy-in, and they’re willing to make tough concessions if the Republicans match them each step of the way. But they’re encountering suspicion on the part of Republicans in Congress, and the Republican they really need, the guy who could lead such an effort on the right, is not in Congress anymore. A staffer asks one of the presidential advisors what happened to him. The advisor responds:
Josh and I wrote a TV ad that destroyed his career. We figured if we won his seat, maybe a half dozen others, got more Democrats in Congress, we’d be able to get something done around here.
To recap: the first example is a liberal losing an important argument, and badly. The second is some welcome self-awareness, on the part of Democrats writing and consulting on the show, that some of their policies sound awfully ridiculous when you say them out loud. And the third is contrition, an acknowledgement that the throw-grandma-off-the-cliff advertising Democrats do whenever Republicans want to reform an entitlement and are willing to take political risks to do so erodes trust and paves the way to crisis.
Now, obviously these are exceptions on the show, not the rule. The Democrats usually won. But the point is that shows about American politics display their un-realism in different ways. House of Cards was unrealistic in a deeply cynical way. The West Wing was unrealistic in a naïve way. But the naïve way ended up being closer to home because it at least spoke the language of American politics. House of Cards doesn’t.
I also chose those West Wing examples for another reason. In the first and third examples, the problem doesn’t get solved at all; in the second the Democrats’ position shows that sometimes power trumps principle. There are limits to pretty words and fair play.
Neither The West Wing nor House of Cards is a realistic depiction of American politics. But the America of The West Wing was at least recognizable, especially if you were paying attention.