Warning: This article contains numerous spoilers.
While it’s by no means family friendly programming, the second season of “House of Cards,” the Kevin Spacey-starring Netflix original, is a stunningly right wing piece of entertainment.
Part of this may be accidental. Shows with a cynical bent, like Tina Fey’s “30 Rock,” have sounded conservative at times. Still, House of Cards’ jaundiced take on Washington is unique in the special scorn it displays for Beltway Democrats.
As Spacey noted during a recent interview with George Stephanopoulos, House of Cards is like the “antithesis of what ‘The West Wing’ was,” referring to Aaron Sorkin’s liberal fantasy of political life. His show served as a kind of bizarro history of the Bush years, one where a noble left-wing president and his merry band of geniuses build a thriving, peaceful country here at home.
House of Cards is like the glum, Obama-era antidote to The West Wing’s sanctimony, a tea party fantasy dressed up with all the weird sex and violence expected of premium cable.
Here are five ways House of Cards skews right:
1. Entitlement reform is presented as a necessity.
“Why keep fighting it?” says Frank Underwood, the House Whip-turned-Vice President antihero, as he persuades his fellow Democrats to raise the retirement age to 68. Indeed, everyone on the show sees boosting the retirement age as essential to keeping Social Security solvent, with the exception of limp-wristed liberal Rep. Donald Blythe, who eventually caves anyway.
2. Christians actually come off looking good.
Rachel Posner, the long-suffering prostitute enlisted by Underwood and his aide Doug Stamper to help Rep. Peter Russo destroy himself, finds a path to redemption in the form of a Maryland church and its attractive, kindhearted and weirdly hip congregants. This does not sit well with Doug, who looks positively Demonic as he demands that Rachel stop attending the church because he fears she’ll tell someone about Underwood’s schemes.
3. All the Democrats are beyond terrible.
Underwood, who ascends to the Vice Presidency at the start of the season, has murdered two people since the series began, including Russo and Zoe Barnes, a young female reporter/former girlfriend he tosses in front of a moving train. His boss, President Walker, is weak and easily manipulated. His replacement as House whip, Jackie Sharp (played by the great Molly Parker), destroys the life of her mentor and father figure for a shot at more power. And Raymond Tusk, the liberal billionaire who really runs the administration until Underwood shows up, is more than happy to black out much of the East Coast so long as it gets him some political leverage.
Sure, Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Hector Mendoza might not come off great, but there’s a universe of difference between his run-of-the-mill partisan strategizing and the grand villainy of Underwood and co. Also, the Republican Senate majority leader is Hispanic, which belies common lefty jabs about the GOP leadership’s lack of diversity.
4. Enemies of the administration are harassed, threatened and imprisoned.
Lucas Goodwin, Zoe Barnes’ editor and boyfriend, knows Underwood is responsible for her death. But when he attempts to prove it, he becomes the target of an FBI sting orchestrated by Underwoods’ aide Doug Stamper. The FBI guys are played as thuggish political enforcers (between this and “American Hustle,” it’s been a bad few months for the Bureau on film), intimidating the White House’s enemies in ways the IRS could only dream of.
As an added bonus, Goodwin’s friends in the mainstream media abandon him as soon as the FBI shows up.
5. The whole “War on Women” thing comes across as decidedly less-than-sincere.
“I’m willing to let your child wither and die inside you if that’s what’s required,” hisses Claire, Frank Underwood’s scheming activist wife, to a subordinate-turned-enemy early in the season. It’s an odd turn of phrase for a character that later reveals she has no regrets about her three abortions, one of which was performed because she was too busy campaigning for Frank.
And why does Claire admit to the abortion? Because it allows her to punish the man who raped her in college while, as Mollie Hemingway notes at The Federalist, advancing her and Frank’s political aspirations.
“It’s sort of like House of Cards is running the Democratic playbook’s ‘War on Women’ as a major storyline,” Hemingway writes. “Except, with no thanks to the Washington media that ruthlessly helps advance this campaign, we get to see how calculated and manipulative it really is.”
6. Everything about Washington is just the worst.
Murderous politicians, compromised journalists, scheming lobbyists: The Washington presented in House of Cards’ is a place beyond redemption, which dovetails nicely with conservatives’ loathing of all things within the Beltway.
House of Cards isn’t your typical red state show, a sub-genre defined largely by an embrace of Christianity and an aversion to smut. The target audience is presumably concentrated on the coasts. But any entertainment that makes Washington’s inhabitants look this unsympathetic is appealing to a conservative impulse, whether it wants to or not.