LILLE – I like House of Cards. I like it to the point that I watched the second season in less than 24 hours. I like Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. I like how they portray their characters, Frank and Claire Underwood, a couple who will engineer any imaginable Machiavellian plans in order in the interest of power. I like watching the depiction of the inner-workings of the House of Representatives and the White House.
I like House of Cards and – according to Netflix, most of the press, and many posts I see on Facebook and Twitter – I am not the only one.
I also enjoy The West Wing. The NBC drama that ran from 1999 to 2005 is a captivating dive into the White House. While both shows narrate the adventures of Democratic Party administrations, The West Wing adopts a more positive approach. Its characters are not driven by personal ambition but rather by their desire to serve the greater good.
So what happened between 2005 and 2013 in order for the public opinion to change so drastically? How did we shift from the confidence and positive outlook of the 1990’s to the individualistic, cynicism of the 2010’s?
House of Cards and The West Wing present two extremely different views of the political landscape. The House of Cards point of view is a blunt realism. The end of the 1990’s was marked by a period of growth and political optimism. The Cold War was over, and liberalism was triumphant. Unemployment rates were low, new technology was developing, and it seemed as if the politics of the new millennium would deliver peace and wealth to all. Both the French government of Lionel Jospin and the American government under President Bill Clinton benefited from this outlook.
Fifteen years later, the world has survived 9/11, two wars in the Middle East, and its worst financial and economic crisis in 80 years. The same liberal policies that were welcomed with popular acclaim have led to increasing inequalities and weaker social protection, while the promises of new technologies have resulted in WikiLeaks and – according to many – superficial personal relationships.
In the midst of so much change, politicians continued to preach the same discourse and apply the same policies, leading to the public distrust. Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, and François Hollande promised changes, but failed to put these expected changes into action. And the public turned toward ultra-conservative movements, searching for a better time: the Tea Party in the United States and the Manif Pour Tous in France, a movement that fought against the legalization of gay marriage.
Now, the West Wing approach seems a lot more idealistic at a time when politics has failed to embrace social expectations. But maybe those expectations consist of wanting to be included in the political game. Maybe we have reached a level of political knowledge that does not allow us to be fooled anymore by the strategies of the political elite. Thanks to shows like The West Wing and House of Cards, but also to increasing news coverage across the board, we are now under the impression that politics are accessible and we are claiming a right to less representation and more participation.
But are we really up to that challenge? The non-stop media coverage of politics may have made us more informed, but many aspects of the complexity of the political scene are still imperceptible to the public. Part of those can be perceived in The Thick of It, a BBC political satire that broadcast 24 episodes between 2005 and 2012 that inspired In the Loop and HBO’s Veep. What do you mean here? Did this show inspire the Loop and Veep? Or are you analyzing another evolution in different types of political shows?
The show follows the failures of second-rate British ministers and their condemnation by the foul-mouthed spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker. Beyond its award-winning swearing, The Thick of It lets us see how difficult it is for politicians to manage to reach a compromise with all the various players, while satisfying at the same time the needs of political communication. And it explains why politics often appear like crisis management strategies rather than constructive government.
Between the idealism of The West Wing, the subjectivism of The Thick of It, and the cynicism of House of Cards, we nevertheless tend to be attracted by the latter – and Frank Underwood is the last on a list of revered anti-heroes. This is a very good sign for the future of political fiction, but not for our society and the politics of representative democracy.
Hugo Argenton is LJP’s French columnist. He lives in Lille, France. The opinions expressed in this editorial are his own and are not indicative of LJP’s views.