House of Cards: Making Machiavelli Modern




Viewing the Netflix Series through the lens of The Prince….

Before the 2nd season of House of Cards became available last Friday, I binge-watched the 13 episodes of the first season in a week’s time. House of Cards, about Washington political life, is Netflix’s entry into the “quality” TV series category and it has earned the commendation of the Emmy committee and many TV/media critics. In writing about South Carolina Congressman Frank Underwood’s climb up through the Washington food chain, critics have made comparisons of the show to Shakespeare, specifically to Richard III, the play in which the hunch-backed villain kills off his wife and two young princes who are in line for the throne to which he aspires. In the relationship of Frank (Kevin Spacey) to his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), other critics have drawn comparison of the power couple to Lord and Lady Macbeth. In attempts to distill all of the features of the cunning and deceitful Congressman, commentators have invoked the catchphrase “Machiavellian.” And so, my enthusiasm for the first season of the series led me to pick up for the first time one of the Great Books in Western intellectual history. I wanted to see the connections between Producer Beau Willomon’s Netflix project and The Prince, the guidebook to gaining and securing political power written by the Renaissance diplomat, advisor to the nobility, and historian  Nicollo Machiavelli.

Today The Prince (1532) is read as a clear-eyed if not cynical instruction manual to leadership, an exercise in realpolitik. It’s a treasure trove of advice for the new prince who must gain, consolidate, use this power for constructive purposes as defined by the benevolent dictator. It’s supported by numerous historical (classical Rome) and contemporary (the age of the Medici) case studies of successful and unsuccessful uses of power. Much of it has to do with counsel about the strategies for acquiring new principalities, selecting the appropriate military force to defend the realm, and placating conquered people. But the parts that have drawn the most attention — and produce the most quotable quotes — and inform our viewing of House of Cards have to do with the personal qualities that the prince must foster, the nature of the people who must be lead, and the public presentation of his leadership.

Although there is nothing in the script to indicate that Underwood is familiar with Machiavelli’s writings, he could easily be considered a disciple if not modern reincarnation of an exemplary prince. [Underwood was educated at The Sentinel, an elite South Carolina military college where he might have had exposure to Machiavelli.]

Machiavelli is an epigrammatic writer. The text of The Prince is replete with nuggets of wisdom. Reading through a selection of key quotes may be enough for any reader to get a sense of the guiding philosophy. Frank Underwood is epigrammatic as well. In a cleverly used device, Willomon and his screenwriters have Frank utter a number of knowing and cynical asides to the viewers. Breaking through the dramatic artifice to engage the audience, he reveals his operating philosophy and world view that are implicit in the previous scene.

Thus we have a host of pithy statements:

Machiavelli: “If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.”

Underwood: “I may have pushed him too far, which is worrisome. Friends make the worst enemies.”

Machiavelli: “It is double pleasure to deceive the deceiver.”

Underwood: Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.

Both Machiavelli and Underwood start from the proposition that humans are “ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly and covetous.” Machiavelli advises that it is less dangerous to kill a man’s father than to take his property because self-centered and greedy men care more about their patrimony than they do about the patriarch. Underwood, fighting off a charge by a political rival that he is indirectly responsible for the death of a teenage girl, he repents in front of the small town church congregation, knowing that earnest but gullible Southern people, his constituents, can’t resist and will invariably follow a man who humbles himself in their presence. He follows Machiavelli’s idea that people are easily flattered and deceived. And he implicitly agrees with Machiavelli’s idea that “He who builds on the people builds on the mud,” a most undemocratic idea.

Machiavelli advocates an instrumental approach to leadership, which has been condensed as “the end justifies the means.” Although some interpreters have raised the possibility that Machiavelli is being playfully facetious, he endorses the idea that more good might come from wicked  strategies than from well-intentioned ones. Ineffectual even harmful policies are more likely to result from the virtuous than from those who can capitalize on useful vices.

The tactics of Frank Underwood illustrate the idea that “it’s better that we not know how sausage and legislation is made.” Underwood’s political life is about contributing to a favor bank and drawing from that bank when the moment is right, until such time as it is necessary to destroy one with whom you have traded favors. Frank’s killing of the malleable and inexperienced congressman Peter Russo is an example of his ruthlessness. He’s rescued the substance-addicted Russo on a number of occasions and used the grateful amateur as a pawn in an elaborate chess-game to his own path from 3rd-in-command Democratic House majority whip to the Vice-Presidency. To Underwood’s way of thinking, he has simply fastened Russo’s self-destruction.

Machiavelli believes that for his prince it is “better to be feared than loved.” And it is better to be impetuous than cautious. Subscribing to the notion that one has to observe the world as it is rather than the world as you want it to be, Machiavelli and Underwood see the political struggle as taking place in a Darwinian world where politics is disconnected from morality. You’re either a hunter or prey. For Machiavelli one has to be a fox to avoid the snares and a lion to repel the wolves. To a fellow hunter, Underwood says “treading water is the same as drowning for people like you and me.”

Machiavelli could hardly have imagined the media world in which the modern politician must run for office and govern when elected. But what he has to say about the public image that the prince must create can be read as a primer for any contemporary politician’s press secretaries and image-crafters. The prince must appear to be “merciful, faithful, humane, religious, and upright,” until such moments when it is necessary to be the opposite.  An ambitious contemporary candidate for office must not appear to be too ambitious. This is doubly true for today’s aspiring female candidate. Underwood can put on any of these masks – he’s an atheist even though he can sing in church — and exploit the image if it will help him to achieve his personal and legislative goals, though these legislative goals almost always seem the means to gaining more personal power. Southern gentility and cracker-barrel charm are the fig leaves for rapacity. One is put in mind of Lyndon Johnson when he was master of the Senate in the 1950’s, though Underwood seems to lack thread of idealism that runs through Johnson’s career.

One of the bolder moves on the part of Netflix has been to make all of the episodes of a season available simultaneously, instead of releasing them in week intervals. And so there are faithful followers who already know the answer to the question of whether or Underwood has followed or abandoned  Machiavelli’s playbook for remaining in power during season two. Eager to get see the second season, I prefer now not to know whether Underwood’s house of cards is still standing.  Time to go out and buy the blu-ray player and subscribe to Netflix streaming.




About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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