What a TV Show Can Tell Us about Power and Survival

In a world where power is a zero-sum game, powerlessness won’t make you pure necessarily.

Overlooking his empire, but for how long?

The perception of power that is. Power is based on perception. Power only corrupts your principles if you perceive it as more important than those. Hobbes was wrong: only if we perceive ourselves as “powerless” will we break down. Frank Underwood and Francis Urquhart, respectively the protagonist of the US version of the TV series “House of Cards” and the protagonist of the UK version of “House of Cards,” are power-hungry: not greedy for money, which is concrete, but lusty for power, which is by definition abstract.

Urquhart is not a good power-chaser toward the end. He arrogantly believes that his amorality saves him when it undoes him. Like M. Thatcher, he becomes too self-assured in his reasoning. While she thought her policies were unassailable, Urquhart thinks his wits are sharp enough for any battle. Nixon’s reign ended for that same reason: he thought himself smart enough to outmaneuver any foe. With dictators, who rely on their hard power (force and coercion) a lot more often than the FUs of the world, they think they can forever rely on it. Eventually they will become too hated and their rivals will happily eliminate them. Machiavelli said this himself. Plus power-seekers are easy to spot once they show themselves. Others may fear them or even respect them, but their lack of humanity is repulsive.

Few people are so greedy for power. Ask anyone, and they express a wish to use power as a means to a noble end. But EVERYONE thinks their cause is noble. This is why it is naive to view politics as a noble profession (scandals aside). But it is also naive to be so overtly cynical to think that all people are cooly self-interested. People know both the price and value of things and people. Urquhart’s biggest miscalculation–and perhaps Nixon’s–was assuming that people were either ingenue do-gooders or incompetent rational actors. He assumed Makepeace to be not as sharp as he was at the game of politics, but in reality he knew the game as well as he did & exploited the hostile political environment toward Urquhart to almost knock him out. Makepeace was as opportunistic as FU: he used Claire for information when he took notice that she was playing both sides.

F. Urquhart’s arrogance narrowed his sight, viewing the political world in terms too simplistic for his own good.

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Whether you view politics as a dirty game or a redeemable but tarnished profession, simplistic worldviews are not usually rewarded in the end. The most respected statesmen & politicians were pragmatic in some way. For all his anti-Soviet hard-line rhetoric, Reagan still signed the START Treaty with the USSR, seeing that his military buildup brought favorable terms. Nixon’s visit to China thawed relations between the two countries. Meanwhile, Bachmann has become a laughingstock, wielding less influence in her Party than before. Her Tea Part colleagues I predict will lose influence for their ideological rigidity.

What Urquhart shared with Bachmann is a narrow field of vision & an unwillingness to compromise or reconsider their position. This leads to being incapable of seeing a problem from multiple angles, which is an important step in problem-solving. The last episode in the series is poignant: Urquhart ignores the sensible advice of his advisers to recklessly disperse a crowd that had several children. While Thatcher’s handling of the Falklands and the sinking of the ARA General Belgrano drew criticism for possibly violating international law, Urquhart’s inadvertent slaughter of children ventured too far. The show’s implicit moral structure allows for the murder of less-than-noble characters like O’Neill or Stamper, but the rules cannot allow endangering innocent children.

Urquhart’s obliviousness to his overreach is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

As soon as Macbeth murders the wife & daughter of MacDuff, his rival, his fate is sealed. Likewise is Urquhart’s.Macbeth may be considered a forefather to these evil spawn, but he may not  recognize his kin. Both FUs start their trajectories after a slight from their boss who did not give them their promised Cabinet positions. Shakespeare’s play evokes the supernatural throughout, hinting at otherworldly forces acting upon Scotland. Macbeth’s unnatural acts–which are reflected in an owl biting at a hawk (owls hunt mice)  and day as dark as night. In “House of Cards”, both characters need no clairvoyant tellings to prompt their plots. These two will find closer kinship to Iago, who plotted to destroy Othello’s marriage to Desdemona, rather than to Macbeth. While his motivation continues to mystify readers, Iago feels that the Moor he so hates slighted him (possible explanations include the promotion of a less-worthy crewman or Othello possibly having slept with Iago’s wife). Then cue the the clever stratagems & bloody climax. Furthermore, the FUs do not suffer from Macbeth’s anxiety & indecisiveness; they are, however, serenely self-assured much like Iago.

However  decisive they may be in their actions, it is that confidence that undoes Iago & the FUs: they are far too full of confidence that their wits will clear the way through any tempest that fortune will throw at them. I foresee Francis Underwood’s rise through the ranks of American politics will be met by a fall because of his overconfidence. Urquhart could have avoided defeat in London by simply not having appointed such an untrustworthy person as Claire, who was his rival’s lover. But after all, he loves a good challenge, and so does Congressman Underwood. They can’t avoid desiring to slice their foes with their wits, but they will run into a problem too tangled up to cut through.

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