There is a lot to say about House of Cards, both the fourth season and the show as a whole. This piece focuses on reconciling the former with reality. Not the obvious stuff; the stuff you need to know about the law and work in politics to catch.
I do not say this as a film critic. This is not me watching the show and going “that’s so unrealistic.” I am a civil rights lawyer, and I have worked in Chicago government and politics. I repeat, for emphasis: Chicago government and politics.
Here, we do not compare the show with reality; we reconcile the show with reality. There is an overarching purpose for making these specific points, which I save for the end. Still, by then, you will probably already know this purpose for yourself, having pieced it together from the individual shards.
In an early episode, Celia Jones, the daughter of a congresswoman, approaches Representative Jackie Sharp, offering her three million dollars in campaign contributions, through a super PAC in exchange for her vote on something. Furthermore, First Lady Claire Underwood and her mother orchestrate the offer in secret and at remove, and the unwitting Congresswoman Sharp brings Remy Denton, the former Chief of Staff to the President, in on the deal. The result is a web of powerful players. This is so, so, so illegal.
First, it’s illegal because candidates and campaigns are not allowed to talk about super PACs, period. Second, it’s illegal because politicians cannot trade their votes for money in a blatant quid pro quo.
Yet, nowhere is it etched in stone that these things must be illegal. They are illegal because the law says they are, and the law can change. And what the law says and whether or not it changes depends, in large part, on what people think should be legal.
Black Voters . . .
Another point raised by Celia Jones and her mother Doris. These two—a woman running for Congress in Texas and a Texas Congresswoman, respectively—sure do spend a lot of time trying to sell a man running for President of the United States to South Carolina voters. So much so that we never actually see them campaign in Texas. I mean, if we only focus on the president’s race, this at least has a sliver of sense; South Carolina is an early, important primary. Still, bringing in someone from another state who doesn’t even hold office yet is campaign management malpractice, no matter what the details. Worse, what about Celia for Congress? Shouldn’t she keep closer to home?
The only thing connecting Celia to the crowds in South Carolina is the color of their skin. The show’s producers treat black people as one monolithic political community. This is so far from the truth.
Of course, the Democratic Party establishment would like it to be that way. Black people make up twelve percent of the population, and ninety percent vote democratic. That’s a sizeable constituency. The Democrats would like to be able to treat them as one. As a group of people with one main issue: racism. Just like environmentalists and global warming, feminists and the right to choose, unions and jobs, and so on.
Note for emphasis that anyone can be a member of multiple groups; there are black people in unions who care about the environment and support the right to choose. What we’re talking about now is categorizing people into groups by their main issues, in order to play politics. And, if black people are one monolithic political community defined by their opposition to racism, life is a lot easier for the Democratic Party establishment.
. . . and Freddy
Now that this black, ribs-cooking, grounds-keeping, flower-arranging character—one of the show’s few loveable ones—has finally treated the President, it’s okay (read: politically correct, don’t get me started) to say something. Since the beginning, Freddy was never more than a tool designed to make Frank Underwood at least somewhat likeable. Worse, he is the embodiment of racial stereotypes. And, for his big send-off, he stays in that vein, leaving us with a cliché exit and missing a great opportunity.
Freddy could have helped to bring down an incredibly corrupt president. Freddy could have helped to save the American people from a tyrant. Freddy could have been a true protagonist. Freddy could have been a model of integrity.
What did Freddy do instead? Freddy perpetuated one of the most basic and counter-productive racial stereotypes in existence. Freddy refused to “snitch.” As if informing the world about the American president’s destructiveness is the same as ratting on a fellow gang member.
Freddy could have brought it all tumbling down. Instead, Freddy was a token.
Heather Dunbar is the best character in the whole show. Not only is she a total badass, she is righteous too.
What brings her down? Her campaign manager arranges a meeting between her and the only person who actually knows—even though he doesn’t know he knows—all of the President’s crimes.
And why does it bring her down? Because the only person who knows that the most powerful man in the free world is also a criminal guilty of Frank Underwood’s crimes is driven to reckless violence by the knowledge. Because the American people are, collectively, so manipulable that they cannot appreciate any nuance in the fact that the meeting took place, even over an articulate and masterful explanation by Heather Dunbar herself, under oath.
Is the previous sentence true? No one can fully answer this question, whatever data they possess. But I do know one thing for a fact. When the Department of Justice interviewed Heather Dunbar about her meeting with Lucas Goodwin—on camera and in front of the entire world—I agreed with every word she said.
P.S. The second and third best characters in the show are Tom Yates and Tom Hammerschmidt, respectively, for reasons irrelevant here.
Pollyhop and Conway
Remember that, above, I remind us that some things “are illegal because the law says they are, and the law can change. And what the law says and whether or not it changes depends, in large part, on what people think should be legal.” Let’s incorporate that here while simultaneously both going one step further and placing it in the context of privacy.
As far as the Constitution is concerned, our rights to privacy go only as far as we want them to go. The best example is our Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches. The next two sentences are legal doctrine, from the Supreme Court. A search is “unreasonable” if it occurs both without a warrant and in an instance in which we have a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” And an instance in which we have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” is, circularly, defined as instances in which people expect to have privacy.
This is profound. Do not gloss over those sentences without appreciating their full meaning. Our privacy rights are defined by what we think our privacy rights are. So, to contextualize even further, when Mark Zuckerberg says “privacy is dead” in an interview read by millions who turn around and think “he’s probably right” or “it makes no difference to me,” the Constitution takes note.
That’s an example. The Constitution’s protections of these rights are only the beginning—the foundation, the floor. Keeping in line with the theme that “the law can change,” there are a lot of ways that federal statutes can protect privacy: some already enacted, and many not.
In House of Card’s fourth season, the Republican candidate for president teams up with a buddy who owns a search engine, tracking queries by likely voters in an effort to influence them—or “brain wash them,” as one of the show’s characters describes. In response, President Underwood fraudulently seeks a warrant for domestic surveillance from the FISA Court, with the intent to use the incredibly valuable data gathered through it as a campaign tool.
It’s no secret that Hollywood has a profound effect on society and culture. House of Cards fictionalizes a more specific piece of society and culture: politics and government. So House of Cards has a profound effect on politics and government.
In a vacuum, the previous sentence—which is an assertion—is empty, meaningless, negligible. People are much more comfortable with general statements that are benign on their face like “Hollywood has a profound effect on society and culture” than with specific ones that point towards actual weaknesses like “House of Cards has a profound effect on politics and government.”
But we just walked through five examples proving the far less palatable assertion’s truthfulness. House of Cards is a dangerous show. If the American people thoughtlessly incorporate it into their understandings of politics and government, we won’t only end up with politicians who murder people. We’ll end up with politicians who don’t believe in democracy.