Politics are portrayed as a very sophisticated chess game or House of Cards. One that requires participants to think ahead of time to plan every move and the possible repercussions. A game where, as Machiavelli implied, the ends justify the means. At least this is how the series House of Cards has depicted politics for all its viewers around the world. I will not discuss how real or fact-based this series is, but rather I will analyze several actions and situations in which the characters seem to have a very vast understanding of many political science theories or at least their actions fall within what political scientists have said about the human nature and acts.
The ends justify the means. In most episodes, if not all of them, Frank Underwood represents a character that uses all means possible to achieve an end. He, as the Majority Whip, manipulates and deliberately lies to Congressmen and Women to get what he wants, which is votes. One might think that the lies and manipulations can only last for so long but Frank manages to maintain his course of action by always anticipating what others might do and their reactions. In this sense, he is a rational individual that uses Game Theory to base his decisions and interact with other characters, even with the President himself. In Game Theory, and the Prisoners Dilemma specifically, when players have a fixed horizon and there is repetition involved, they tend to always play as hawks because they know that nothing that they do today will have an impact in tomorrow’s game. Up to a certain extent this does not apply to the series or Frank; he always plays as a hawk in spite of having a fixed horizon-elections or voting death lines-Frank makes an action and always has the ability to know how others will react. The trick here is that he has something others don’t, which is power. He is aware that he might not have the money but he has the power to make the people with money sway in his favor. Power, in the series, is a complete game changer and tilts the board in his favor; somehow forcing other politicians to act as doves when playing a game with him. In addition to this, Underwood falls in a tit for tat game with Raymond Tusk when trying to win over the trust of President Walker, note that Tusk is a millionaire who has been a very close advisor to the President before Frank became the Vice-President.
In spite of the lies and manipulations, Francis Underwood has managed to construct a certain identity that, for some, is the precise image of a good politician because he gets things done, and for others is the image of a ruthless human being. At the beginning of the season he is aware that if people see him very close to the president, “At the edge of the frame” he is building this identity for the future. In later episodes he brings back this notion of the “frame” and he mentions that is quite close to become the person who is in the center of the picture. All these attitudes display that he is conscious of the fact that his image is shaped by himself and the public. He conveniently reveals what he wants to in the precise moment. For example, Frank presents himself as a reliable man to those who are above him in the “food chain”. However, there are many other situations in which he shows his true colors and falls back into being the character he is. Social constructivism does not stop with Frank Underwood, it goes as far as his wife, Claire, she turns out to be victim of media and her image has a direct impact on her husband. After that event, the couple becomes more careful to what they say and do in front of the public eye; surprisingly, their tactics don’t change when it comes to get what they want to get from others.
On top of what has been explained about Underwood, he has a fixed idea of cooperation. He believes that politics have to be carried out with a permanent exchange of favors, that every action deserves reciprocity. He never acts out of good will, instead he always thinks in doing something for someone else so that this person becomes in debt with him; in a way he forces others to act in reciprocity with him. Philosopher Michael Taylor puts cooperation as: “Short-term altruism and long term self interest” and Frank takes this passage as his rule of thumb. When he helps out Linda so that her son can get into a university, he is thinking in the future and how she will be helpful to persuade the President into the decisions he wants him to make. When behaving like this the risk of default is great but Frank anticipates this natural reaction in people and finds yet another string to be able to pull in case this occurs. One huge example of this behavior is when President Walker confronts Frank and then he gives Walker a punching bag. The President, at first, takes the gift as a nice gesture and ends up apologizing. In spite of this, by the end of the second season, President Walker calls Frank and tells him that he sees the punching bag not as a gift but as a sign of calculation. He is not wrong at all, but Frank expected the President’s reaction.
If there is something to learn from this series, it has to be that one can only go so far with justifying the means with the ends. Sooner or later the house of cards made by Frank Underwood will not withstand the force of the wind blowing as hard as a hurricane due to all the things he has done in order to be where he is. Politics are a continuous quest for power and just as he managed to gain all that power someone else with the same abilities could make him fall. I don’t think that only people with this sort of tactics can be winners in politics, I believe in good politicians using the right means to achieve the right ends. But to put an end to someone like Underwood, it requires a little bit of tit for tat.
Photo credit: Bailey Weaver