BY Timotheus Vermeulen in Frieze | 01 MAY 14
Featured in
Issue 163

Public Enemy

Machiavellian scheming and political drama

BY Timotheus Vermeulen in Frieze | 01 MAY 14

Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Vice President Selina Meyer in Veep , 2013. Courtesy Home Box Office, Inc.

Democracy is having a tough time of it. First Wikileaks exposed un-democratic things being done in the name of democracy, then right-wing populism made a mockery of the parliamentary system and public debate, followed by leftist protest movements like Occupy expressing distrust in governmental procedures per se. No wonder comedian Russell Brand recently urged people not to bother voting at all. It seems no one takes representative democracy seriously any more. Elected politicians are seen either as unscrupulous, opportunist cheats or as ignorant imbeciles, while parliaments are taken to be lobbyists’ whorehouses. This dissatisfaction is particularly visible in a spate of current television dramas, where the worst human beings make the most successful politicians, idealism is a bad career move, and nothing ever gets done that will change the electorate’s life for the better. With the recent return of HBO’s political satire Veep (2012–ongoing) to the small screen for a fourth season, it seems a pertinent moment to take a look at some of the most odious political characters on TV today.

Few small-screen politicians are, or have ever been, as cynical and self-serving as Frank Underwood in House of Cards (2013–ongoing), a contemporary American reimagining of the 1990 BBC series set at the end of the Thatcher era. Underwood – played by Kevin Spacey – murders his opponents, manipulates and undermines his colleagues and friends, and plans political manoeuvres exclusively for his own advancement. In one particularly painful scene, he sacrifices a friendship of over 20 years (his only true friendship, in fact) to save his political career. Most appallingly, Underwood’s tactics pay off: over the course of two seasons he crosses the road from the House of Representatives to the White House and into the Oval Office. House of Cards presents politics as a game that is won by the most cunning politician. The worst hand of cards you can be dealt includes idealism, empathy and moral principles.

Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis once remarked that the British sitcom Yes Minister (1980–84) was a political pamphlet for public-choice economics – the theory by which political structures and decision-making processes are described in economic terms. In his documentary The Trap (2007), which looked at the history of public choice, he observed that the sitcom naturalized the idea that politicians pursue their own interests rather than the common good – that, indeed, the latter is nothing more than a coincidental side-effect of the former. The same could be argued with respect to House of Cards. The politicians who stay in the game are the ones pursuing their own interests, while those with ideals that extend beyond their own well-being are ousted, locked away or killed. Many of them cry; a few go insane. Self-interest is thus equated with cunning, but also with reason, cogency and longevity. Idealism, by contrast, is linked to sentimentality and feebleness. Tellingly, Underwood is presented as the voice of reason, explaining to the audience in direct-address asides the supposedly rational strategies that inform even his seemingly most intuitive, intimate moves.

Over the past few years, public choice economics has taken hold of the televisual imagination. In both The Wire (2002–08) and Homeland (2011–ongoing), self-serving politicians do more harm than good to the communities they purportedly represent, while in The Good Wife (2009–ongoing), governors, party leaders and public prosecutors consistently use their considerable powers to avenge personal vendettas. Another show in which the concept of public choice economics resonates is the comedy Parks and Recreation (2009–ongoing). Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler) is an over-achieving do-gooder who enters local politics on a mission to serve the community, only to realize that her idealism is appreciated neither by her fellow representatives nor by the electorate. Her campaign to reduce sugar in fizzy drinks, for instance, meets with resistance from another councillor because it could have a detrimental impact on the profitability of his dental practice, while it also provokes outrage from the obese community who defend their right to drink themselves to death.

In On Democracy (1998), Robert Dahl writes that democracy is premised on five principles: firstly, shared control of the agenda, in that each member of a council should be able to put their views forward; secondly, effective participation, meaning that all members should have equal opportunity to make their views known; thirdly, enlightened understanding, signifying that each member is entitled to learn about the implications of those views as well as their alternatives; fourthly, voting equality; and, lastly, the inclusion of adults. What programmes like House of Cards and Parks and Recreation suggest is that these purportedly compulsory criteria are, in fact, optional. Underwood may share his views with others, but he doesn’t have to pay heed to their responses; he may decide to inform people about the consequences of his plans, but he could equally keep them under wraps. With few exceptions, these shows portray the electorate as complicit: uninterested and uninformed, they are unconcerned with the common good and only prompted to act when they consider themselves to have been personally affronted.

Veep is both more hopeful and more cynical than House of Cards. The American adaptation of British comedy The Thick of It (2005–12), Veep parodies the Blairite politics of peer groups and approval ratings, where programmes are dropped in favour of popularity contests. Given the chance, Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her staff would surely play the game Underwood is so good at, but they simply do not have the time. They are constantly playing catch-up, learning of policy changes after they have been passed, trying to minimize public-relations disasters. On one occasion, it’s a military operation gone terribly wrong; on another, it is a sexual assault by the husband of a foreign president. More so even than House of Cards, Veep is like The West Wing (1999–2006) on crack: staffers speed along White House hallways walking-and-talking, but they have no clue where they are heading. In Veep, politics is presented less as a game of strategy than of haste, less as Machiavellian ruthlessness than as something in the vein of W.E. Bowman’s The Ascent of Rum Doodle (1956), with its bunch of climbers absurdly incompetent at what is supposedly their field of expertise. The Danish politicians in The Killing (2007–12) and Borgen (2010–13), in case you wondered, tend to be a combination of the two.

Perhaps it is at least partly because of shows like House of Cards and Veep that I tend to believe most politicians are indeed blabbering idiots driven by greed, and that our current democracies are teetering on the ruins of the democratic ideal. Maybe you share that sentiment, even if you desperately want to believe there are still some well-meaning politicians out there. Yet, I wonder: shouldn’t it also be art’s role – and the TV show has been regarded as a powerful form of art for years now – to present not only what we already know but what we haven’t yet thought of? Is it completely impossible to make a programme that undermines the usual assumptions about public-choice economics; a show that imagines another, new, kind of politics?

Timotheus Vermeulen is professor in Media, Culture and Society at the University of Oslo.