I was watching the State of the Union on Tuesday night and got to thinking, what is it about politics that evokes the best and worst in humanity? No other human endeavor produces more greed, ire, and dishonesty, but also compassion, dedication, and hope for the future. Politics in America represent the quintessential Jekyll and Hyde paradox.
Few things portray and contrast this paradox more readily than two popular and oppositely oriented political dramas: Aaron Sorkin’s network juggernaut The West Wing (1999- 2006), and Beau Willimon’s new Netflix series House of Cards.
The West Wing takes place primarily within the White House and depicts the fictional Democratic Presidency of Josiah Bartlett and his senior staff members as they navigate the complicated world of political crises and disputes, public opinion, ethical dilemmas, and personal dramas.
During each episode, the characters, (along with viewers at home) are presented with moral dilemmas relating to pressing contemporary domestic and world issues. During the hour, the fearless leader and his hardworking staff think through these difficult problems using facts, moral code, analysis, and gut-level intuition, only to emerge successfully from each challenge with their moral integrity intact.
The West Wing’s liberally idealistic White House is a chalice of heroism, morality, intelligence, and sense of duty. The message, slightly left of center in reality, was ostensibly unpartisan, whereby episode after episode, President Bartlett and his senior staff members considered all sides of an issue, both right and left, before making a decision. When partisan divides were addressed in Sorkin’s rose tinted White House, it was with an endearing sense of transparency. In a scene from season one of TWW, Donna Moss, assistant to deputy White House chief of staff Josh Lyman, asks why the President won’t return a budget surplus back to constituents. She says that she wants to buy a DVD player. She promises to buy American. Josh lets her know in no uncertain terms that it’s never going to happen. Why?
“We don’t trust you,” Josh says.
“Why not?” Donna asks.
“We’re Democrats,” he replies. “You shouldn’t have voted for us.”
Seven years later with House of Cards, we are presented with an entirely different depiction of the inner-workings of DC power circles. Narrated by House Majority Whip and South Carolina congressman Francis Underwood, the show revolves around the shady congressman, his cold-as-ice wife Claire, and an ambitious, cutthroat, up and coming young reporter name Zoe Barnes. Each of the main characters is primarily concerned with climbing the DC power ladder at the expense of everyone around them.
It is clear that HOC lacks the warm and alluring appeal of the West Wing from the outset. The first episode begins with a cold opening, darkness, and the visceral sound of a dog being hit by a car. Underwood runs out of his DC brownstone, into the street where the injured dog lies. Crouching over the dog, he addresses the camera directly.
“Moments like this require someone who will act,” he says as he begins to suffocate the dog, “someone to do the unpleasant thing. The necessary thing,”
The dog dies.
“There. No more pain.” Underwood says. He turns around and walks back into the house. This is just a taste of the utilitarian ruthlessness to come from Congressman Underwood.
Another strong contrast between House of Cards and the West Wing is in HOC's harsh depiction of the media. In TWW, the press is largely portrayed in terms of in-house reporters who have personal and positive relationships with senior staff members, whereas the HOC media world cuts a more isolated, dissident figure within the offices of fictional newspaper the Washington Herald. Yellow fluorescent lighting casts harshly onto tired looking, rumpled reporters as they fight among themselves and vie for a leg up on their own power ladder.
Finally, while patriarchal figure President Bartlett is revered for his age and wisdom, HOC seems to touch on clashing themes of aging and irrelevance. During an early episode in the first season, Claire finds herself ordering a coffee from an older woman who cannot operate the electronic cash register. Claire displays mild disgust as a younger woman steps in to take over.
Later in the same episode, an insane man tries to storm the congressional office building, and police handcuff him to a light post. The man begins to scream in frustration. Exiting the building, Frank Underwood notices the man and approaches, crouching in front of him on the ground. Frank says, “Nobody can hear you. Nobody cares about you. Nothing will come of this.”
The man begins to cry, perhaps overwhelmed by the futility of his actions. The message seems to be that individuals don’t actually have a voice in the greater scheme of human existence. That is…unless they occupy a desk on Capital Hill.
So, despite all of this political doom and gloom, why does watching HOC seem like such a cathartic, (albeit cynical) experience?
In a show-to-show comparison, the contrast appears to be between the idealistic greater good verses the cynical personal agenda. Optimistically, we all want to imagine that our government is being driven by the Lincoln ideal , “of the people, by the people, for the people”.
Honestly, I am a bit of a cynic, but even I find myself searching for hope in politics every once in a while. In fact, last Tuesday during the State of the Union, something that President Obama said got me a little teary-eyed:
“The America we want for our kids – a rising America where honest work is plentiful and communities are strong; where prosperity is widely shared and opportunity for all lets us go as far as our dreams and toil will take us – none of it is easy. But if we work together; if we summon what is best in us, with our feet planted firmly in today but our eyes cast towards tomorrow – I know it’s within our reach.
Seemingly ripped from the pages of a Sorkin script, our President had me, hook, line and sinker. But then the next day I woke up to seemingly scathing fact-checking reports from AP, HuffPost…you name it.
“Stretching the facts!”
“Not without support from congress!”
“No real action!”
Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde again.
Ultimately, the historical success of the idealistically minded drama The West Wing seems to indicate that there are still Americans who want to believe in the political idealism of a rising utopian America.
However, the growing popularity of Willimon’s political dystopia, House Of Cards seems to represent the other, more cynical portion of America’s constituents, who would perhaps answer Obama’s plea for faith with “Mr. President, we will believe it…when we see it.” Too much of our day to day reality seems to align with House of Cards, and much less with The West Wing.