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Why Frank Underwood is a Democrat

This post originally appeared in Politico Magazine on 5/19/2014.

By now, most “House of Cards” junkies have gotten their fix and consumed all 13 episodes of season two of the buzzy Netflix show. Waiting for season three gives us time to step back and consider what we might learn from what is certainly the best political drama you can stream over the Internet.

If you haven’t seen the show, here’s a capsule summary: “House of Cards” offers a deliciously cynical view of the world’s most important sausage factory. Sure, some of the plot twists are unrealistic, but it does capture the self-interest, pandering and double-dealing that are consistent with the economic theory known as public choice — a theory that views politicians as being much like the rest of us — a mix of self-interest and higher-minded motives.

House of Cards - Underwood

At the center of the show is Frank Underwood, played with such panache by Kevin Spacey. On the surface, Underwood is a classic Washington insider — a wheeler-dealer, a master of the cloakroom, always looking for a leverage point with a colleague that will allow him to get what he wants. What he wants more than anything else is power.

That’s on the surface. We in the audience know better. Deep down there is something rotten in the state of Frank Underwood. He isn’t just self-interested and ambitious. His ambition is boundless. Saying he has no principles is unfair to people without principles. Underwood is willing to do anything to serve himself and accumulate power, and in the first two seasons we’ve seen Frank do horrific things as he tries to climb the greasy pole. In short, Underwood isn’t just an unattractive person. He’s a psychopath. So why did the creators of the show make him a Democrat?

“House of Cards” is based on the British show of the same name. The creator of the American version, Beau Willimon, has followed many of the plot twists of the British version turn for turn. But in the British version, the main character is a conservative. Why did Willimon make Spacey’s character a Democrat who leans liberal, when he leans at all?

In an interview with TV Guide, Willimon described Underwood as “two scoops of LBJ with a dash of Richard III and a pinch of Hannibal Lecter.” Lyndon Baines Johnson was one of the great congressional arm-twisters of the 20th century and one of the most ruthless and ambitious politicians of all time. Underwood’s office has a famous set of pictures of the real-life LBJ working a colleague over with a mixture of charm and bullying, very much in the way Underwood behaves on the show. So there’s an element of cinéma vérité here.

But the real reason they made Underwood a Democrat, I think, is a little stranger and a little darker. And it comes with a lesson for Republicans. I think Willimon made Underwood a Democrat because he wanted us to like him.

Sure, he’s a rat. He’s worse than a rat. He’s a vulture who kills his prey before devouring it. But there’s something charming about him. We root for him despite his evil ways. Why? Is it Kevin Spacey? The way he turns to the camera and confides in us? His honesty?

I don’t know, but the show wouldn’t work if he were totally despicable. And for a lot of viewers, that means he can’t be a Republican. Because for some significant number of Netflix viewers, Republicans are automatically despicable in a way that Democrats can never be.

Why?

The simple answer is that Democrats typically hold the moral high ground, and it’s very high indeed, relative to their Republican opponents. You know the stereotype: Democrats want to help the children, the single mom, the low-wage worker; Republicans want to gut food stamps, reduce spending on education and so on. Being the party of small, or at least smaller, government is very much the GOP’s modern brand.

Until the Republicans have a positive vision of where smaller government can take us, though, they will have a tough time. Because without that positive vision, it’s easy to portray them as merely the opponents of the Democrats. And if the Democrats want to use government to help women, children and the poor, what does that imply about Republicans?

It’s ironic. “House of Cards” suggests that government and the political process is a cesspool. But most of its fans still want more money to be funneled through that cesspool. Why do people feel that way?

A lot of people romanticize government as the way we work together to solve problems. Oh, the solutions often fail to solve the problems (see the public school system or the drug war, for example), but for big government romantics, that just means we have to try harder. But it’s worse than that. Government solutions aren’t really where we work together. That’s just the marketing spiel. It’s a lie. There’s no “we” and there’s no together. It’s just a tagline to make us feel good about the taxes we pay.

Being a classical liberal, I believe smaller government makes room for us to work together in all the truly meaningful ways we come together in a free society — building charities, nonprofits and businesses. Bigger government stifles the ways we help each other through our voluntary choices. It throttles civil society — the network of connections between us that emerges when government gets out of the way. I’m against government spending on education, the poor and the elderly because I actually think voluntary bottom-up initiatives do more to make the world a better place than the top-down, coercive approach of big government. As the Friedrich Hayek character says in my rap video with filmmaker John Papola, “Fight of the Century”: “Give us a chance so we can discover/the most valuable ways we can serve one another.”

Until the Republicans find a way to make the case for smaller government in a way that contributes not just to greater after-tax income but to human flourishing, they will struggle to win elections, they will cede the moral high ground to Democrats and they will never be the stars of a Netflix series.

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