Bhaskar Sunkara, in a leftist reading of the hit series, derides its lack of ideological kick:
After Obama’s election, liberals tried to make over Washington in The West Wing’s image—post-political, free of legislative rancor, fixed to the will of a single charismatic president. But they’ve run into a roadblock, an obstructionist Congress unbound by Sorkin–style civility. No wonder so many liberals eat up the seediness in House of Cards. Underwood is a leading member of the House of Representatives, an institution beset for decades by low approval ratings and lurid scandals. It’s not just legislative policy that is called into question by House of Cards, but the motivations of those doing the legislating. …
But easy cynicism shouldn’t be mistaken for considered political critique. House of Cards’ message is simple: Bad men and women inhabit Capitol Hill. It’s superficially progressive. Like the series’ creators, liberals have a tendency to see the structures of American political life—our Constitution, for example—as being inherently sound instruments of the popular will, rather than systems meant to protect against mob rule.
I have two episodes to go. I don’t look at this inspired miniseries as ideological. It has some clumsy compressions, some melodrama, and a main character so close to Shakespeare’s Richard III I wonder whether Kevin Spacey’s breaking the fourth wall isn’t some sly reference to Richard’s chillingly fun soliloquies to the audience. Robin Wright is like adding Lady MacBeth to Richard III.
But in general, it captures the Washington I know better than almost any movie I have seen. From the power struggle between old and new media to the wonderful humanity of Peter Russo and the subtle but pervasive influence of lobbyists and whom they represent, it takes its time to re-create reality.
My one criticism is that it is too cynical.
Washington is full of the characters you see in the series, but it is also full of people trying to make the world a little better, trying to maneuver their way through the avenues of power without accumulating too many scalps, believers and dreamers and genuinely hard-working folk doing their best. They’re a minority, of course. This is politics. But they are there – and not only among the ranks of the non-profit martyr of Claire’s charity. And there are bloggers more ethical than Zoe Barnes. But her ambition is of an Ezra Klein magnitude.
I like the fact that Underwood is a Southern Democrat. The show’s head writer explains his reasoning behind the choice:
The broader point of “House of Cards” is that anyone is fair game, no matter what side of the aisle they are on. You could easily write this story about a Republican congressman as well, but we wanted to dramatize the fact that these sort of creatures live on either side of the aisle. The things people will find objectionable about Underwood will be about deeper ethical belief systems that transcend political affiliation. If you look at Underwood and what he’s actually doing, he is not someone who binds himself to any particular ideology. His ideology is quicksand, and he would say that the only way to truly survive in Washington and to be effective is to be adaptable.
And he would be right. Which is why the GOP, if it does not mellow its ideological rigidity, is in trouble.