Frank Underwood lies, cheats, blackmails and murders – literally and hands-on – his way to power, from the Congress to the Vice-Presidency to the Presidency. Tom Kane, the Mayor of Chicago, doesn’t kill anyone personally, but he has others do it for him, as well as threaten and intimidate lesser threats and inconveniences. Kane himself will assault underlings, frame his political opponents, and sacrifice his family members to further his career.
You know what these two political characters have in common, apart from their Machiavellian amorality and blatant criminality; something that doesn’t get remarked upon as much? The anti-heroes of “House of Cards” and “Boss” are both Democrats.
This is something that started intriguing me recently. The entertainment and popular culture industries are overwhelmingly left-of-centre in their sentiment and ideology if not outright vocal partisanship. In the moral universe of Hollywood and HBO, not to mention countless books, it is the Republicans, conservatives, right-wingers, and traditionalists who are the bad guys. Capitalists, militarists, Christians and assorted others are portrayed as criminals, evil-doers and antagonists, or at the very least hypocrites and objects of deserved ridicule. If you expect someone to murder, steal, corrupt and lie in a political context they are most likely to be a Republican. It has been 25 years since Michael Medved published “Hollywood vs America” – one of a handful of books that most influenced my journey right-ward all that time ago – but nothing has changed in the past quarter of a century; our culture makers are also political crusaders and propagandists.
So why Underwood and Kane?
Because even though they are anti-heroes they are still the heroes of their shows. We all know, regardless of our political persuasion, that they are objectively dreadful and deeply flawed human beings who routinely resort to all sorts of criminal and unethical behaviour to get their way. They don’t play the game fairly, they don’t follow the rules that the rest of us do, and more often than not they get away with it. We would hate them if they were real, but as fictional characters in riveting, well written, well acted and well produced TV dramas if we don’t exactly sympathise with them, then secretly we cheer them on, even if we feel very conflicted and guilty about it – the same way we did when watching “The Sopranos”.
Our “progressive” media-entertainment industrial complex can easily give us evil and dastardly Republicans, but it won’t give us ones we can barrack for. So, rather, they will give us evil and dastardly Democrats that we can. Whatever you do you can never have a right wing character that you can sympathise or empathise with, admire, like or follow, even if grudgingly (there have been some exceptions that prove the rule, including libertarian Ron Swanson in “Parks and Recreation” and two of the main characters in “Brothers and Sisters”). Left-wingers will always be the heroes, even if in few cases like “House of Cards” and “Boss” we can admire them only for their ruthlessness and deviousness.
Ironically, the anti-hero of the original British version of “House of Cards” was a Conservative.
Written initially as a book by a Tory Party operative Michael Dobbs, his murdering, manipulating and lying character Francis Urquhart was a Tory Party whip. While the media and entertainment world in Great Britain are also decidedly left-wing, there are far more writers, musicians, actors and other cultural figures who are openly conservative or at least anti-left. The creators of the American version have chosen to make Francis/Frank a Democrat. True, “House of Cards” UK was written and filmed during the Thatcher/Major years, while “House of Cards” USA started screening during an Obama presidency; yet I strongly suspect that timing had very little to do with it.
One could also add Jack Stanton of “Primary Colors” to the Democrat anti-hero list, though the matter is complicated by the fact Stanton was a very thinly fictionalised Bill Clinton. Stanton lies and manipulates his way to the presidency, while serially cheating on his wife and using his friends and supporters, yet like Clinton’s public persona, he stays lovable in that “aw shucks” Southern manner. His dick might be a-wandering and his moral compass haywire, but his heart as a centrist Democrat definitely remains in the right place. He’s flawed but forgiven, in part because he is such a charming rogue but also because he is “our” rogue, and by “our” I mean a Democratic one, battling against those evil Republicans whose hands can’t be allowed to touch the levers of power.
I don’t want to investigate here whether Stanton is a better or worse individual that Clinton; it’s neither the time nor the place to discuss all the conspiracy theories that have been swirling around the Clintons for over three decades now (the “Clinton death list”, Vince Foster, drug running, corruption, rape and paedophilia, etc.). The American left dismissed all these stories as ugly smears from the vast right wing conspiracy, but I suspect Clinton might have been all that behind his charismatic veneer and many Democrats would have supported him even if they had some niggling doubts. Stanton is a rascal, but unlike Underwood or Kane he doesn’t kill anyone or gets anyone killed (except very indirectly); even more than them he is an anti-hero that viewers can get behind, indeed just as even the disillusioned protagonist of the movie does in the end.
In the TV and movie land, the only good Republican is an evil Republican; you can only hate them. The Democrats, on the other hand, you admire when they’re good, and secretly admire when they’re bad, but admire them you will – the entertainment industry will make sure of that.