House of Cards has everyone enthralled, and they can’t stop recommending it to me. Anytime I mention that I’m interested in policy, within the next minute the words, “Oh, you have to watch House of Cards,” will come out of their mouth. Everyone likes to convert people to their shows, so I can’t hold that against them. After all, how many times have I said the same thing about Game of Thrones, which has the same sort of political intrigue and infighting, but is set in a much more fantastical and violent realm? Yet after watching the first episode of House of Cards, I do feel a bit irked at everyone who told me how much I would love the show. From what I can tell, the show features top-notch acting, complex characters, and engrossing storytelling. It’s a great show. Yet now that I’ve gone three seasons deep into the political drama masterpiece that is West Wing, I can’t help but feel disappointed that everyone in my generation insists that I watch House of Cards. When I respond that, “I would, but I’m already preoccupied with West Wing,” they dismiss it.
Yet West Wing portrays what politics could be – what politics was meant to be. It may not be as realistic as House of Cards, but that’s precisely why it’s so captivating: it depicts a world that feels very real, one that could certainly be a reality, in which dedicated and brilliant public servants strive to do the best job they can for this country. In West Wing, theirs certainly backroom deal-making and political scandals, but ultimately it’s viewed as a setback to doing the real work of governing the country. House of Cards flips this on it’s head: people spend their time plotting political takeovers, and take care to step around any notions of civic responsibility or governance.
We know that Washington has plenty of selfish and power-hungry people, focused entirely on forwarding their own career. There’s ample evidence of that in our dysfunctional Congress (although gridlock and partisanship in Congress certainly isn’t due to having overly nasty people in office). However, we also know that there’s plenty of hard-working people trying to use their abilities to improve policy and the way we govern. I realize that West Wing may not be as popular with people my age because it started airing before we could comprehend or were involved in politics. Yet I also feel discouraged at how quickly it’s dismissed when I bring it up. “We don’t want a show about people in government dealing with complicated issues while striving to uphold our highest ideals about democracy and governance – we want a show full of political thuggery and utter self-absorption.” I understand it’s only television, and this isn’t an argument that people shouldn’t watch House of Cards. Hell, I might get around to it myself sometime. Yet if our most popular shows reflect prominent beliefs and cultural values of our time (and I would argue that they do), it seems that our public life is being cheapened by an over-emphasis on what’s wrong with our system and not enough conversation about how to better it.