How ‘House of Cards’ shed light on Mark Sanford’s victory

May 8, 2013

I received the news about the outcome of the special election in my home district at a peculiar time. I was in the middle of an episode of “House of Cards.”

My phone buzzed. “Your boy from SC won his seat back?” a friend texted, referring to Republican Mark Sanford’s victory Tuesday night over Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch for a House seat from South Carolina. My friend has known I’ve often felt like a one-woman diplomatic envoy in D.C., attempting to explain the rationale of my fellow Carolinians to those unfamiliar with the southern Lowcountry.

I returned to watching Rep. Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), who was in his home district of Gaffney, S.C. While attempting to placate some of his constituents, Underwood turned to the camera — a style frequently used on the show — and spoke directly to the audience.

Kevin Spacey in a scene from the Netflix original series, "House of Cards," an adaptation of a British classic. (AP Photo/Netflix, Melinda Sue Gordon)
Kevin Spacey in a scene from the Netflix original series, “House of Cards,” an adaptation of a British classic. (AP Photo/Netflix, Melinda Sue Gordon)

“What you have to understand about my people is that they are a noble people. Humility is their form of pride. It is their strength; it is their weakness. And if you can humble yourself before them they will do anything you ask.”

The lines were so haunting, so apropos I could have sworn Mark Sanford was voicing them directly to me from my MacBook. I replayed the scene again. And again, making sure it was not the real congressman-elect uttering those words.

That deep seeded cultural humility is the missing element that outside observers miss when trying to explain the outcome for the 1st Congressional District in South Carolina. It would’ve been miraculous for a Democrat like Colbert Busch to have won in this deep red district. But the truth is that the majority of voters there would rather a weeping Mark Sanford, hat in hand, acknowledging his imperfections than a polished business woman who has a famous, wealthy brother. No question.

From a now removed perspective – I’ve been in the District for three years – it can seem like a form of masochism. A psychology of imperfection: “We are not perfect so give us the person we know is truly like us, and if he screws up again and embarrasses us all so be it. It is a risk worth taking for one of our own.”

Former South Carolina Governor MarkSanford celebrates his victory with a large crowd in the South Carolina first district congressional race at Liberty Tap Room in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina (REUTERS/Randall Hill).
Former South Carolina Governor MarkSanford celebrates his victory with a large crowd in the South Carolina first district congressional race at Liberty Tap Room in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina (REUTERS/Randall Hill).

If anything, the marital problems and mid-life breakdown ingratiated the former governor to South Carolinians. What people loved about him from his years in Congress was his ability to remain humble. He slept in his office. He carried pigs onto the House floor. He made campaign signs from plywood. His literal fall from the opulence in the Governor’s mansion only furthered his cause in the eyes of many.

And Sandford was happy to oblige. The race felt as if he was groveling for a chance to return to his former job.

And if he stumbles again, will it be all the more endearing to South Carolina voters? Probably.

Related:

Mark Sanford wins South Carolina special election

How Mark Sanford won

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Ron Charles · May 8, 2013