Throughout its run, “House of Cards” committed the ultimate sin: The series presented itself as a savvy look at the dark heart of national politics, when actually it was a wildly naive conspiracy story that only worked by making Frank Underwood’s (Spacey) opponents too dumb to catch him. “House of Cards” suggested that Washington institutions were basically simple and easy to manipulate, smoothing away the irritating narrative inconveniences that are constituent politics, congressional caucuses and the workings of the bureaucracy. The series ran down journalism and journalists, particularly in its egregious portrayal of Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) as an eager up-and-comer willing to sleep her way to the top. And it treated ideology as a rube’s fantasy, rather than as a real and powerful motivation for a lot of what goes on in Washington.
“House of Cards,” seemingly by design, gleefully embraced some of the worst tendencies in our actual politics, without having wit or insight about them. Frank and his wife, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright, who hopefully will be freed to do something much better after this), racked up the kind of body count that conspiracy theorists actually attribute to Bill and Hillary Clinton. But the show had nothing to say about why those murders might be necessary to Underwood’s ascendance, or what in the culture of Washington would let them get away with killing people. Instead, “House of Cards” reveled in the idea that this was just one more dark, edgy element of their will to power.
In a similar way, the show relied for much of its action on the idea that Washington is governed by a series of devious plots, and an extremely adept mastermind can accomplish pretty much whatever he or she desires. But once again, “House of Cards” had no particular insight as to why Washington power brokers in particular and American voters in general would be so easily duped. Frank Underwood, like our current president, is basically a man without ideology. But unlike Donald Trump, he is also someone without qualities that speak to any particular strain in the American electorate. He is hyper-controlled rather than emotional impulsive, calculating rather than triumphantly un-politically correct. His instincts are reptilian rather than hot-blooded.
Just as “The West Wing” promoted a relatively naive vision for how principle could power a presidential administration, “House of Cards” has promulgated a view of politics that is actually dangerously unsuited to help us deal with our present moment. By presenting Washington and the people who run it as grimly competent manipulators working in single-minded pursuit of their own interest, “House of Cards” encouraged viewers to assume the worst about politicians and to dramatically underestimate their own power to check them. It argued that we ought to look out for the glossy, perfectly functioning criminal machines eating our politics, rather than being sufficiently horrified by the shambling ethical disaster that is our actual reality. And “House of Cards” suggested that the smart thing to do was to fall for all of this nonsense, rather than assessing the complexities and fault lines in our political system as a whole.
I’m not entirely sure what kind of pop culture argument about politics would be useful in our current, hyper-polarized environment, though ABC’s rookie sitcom “The Mayor” has some ideas about the virtues and rewards of local engagement that I don’t completely hate. But I know we’ll be better off without “House of Cards.”