What the Television We Watch Can Tell Us About Our Politics: West Wing versus House of Cards

Bartlett-Underwood

In 1999, NBC premiered Aaron Sorkin’s new series The West Wing, a television show that follows the life of fictional President Josiah Bartlet and his staff. It was two years before 9/11, and television audiences were enamored by Sorkin’s portrayal of a “utopian” White House. Premiering shortly after the Clinton impeachment, The West Wing debuted during a partisan political climate that split the American electorate. Sorkin’s goal was to humanize the executive branch and combat the cynical beliefs viewers had of politics. He created relatable characters and a President without moral ambiguity, giving audiences an alternative view of public service than what was they saw on the daily news. This optimistic approach definitely became more apparent as the Clinton presidency came to a close and the presidency of George W. Bush began.

Most of The West Wing’s run coincided with the Bush presidency. The turmoil of the Bush years allowed Sorkin to create a “perfect” president. Bush was already vilified in the wake of the contentious 2000 presidential election, and his post-9/11 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq didn’t help his image. Sorkin’s Bartlet served as a foil for George Bush . President Bartlet is an academic but also a devout Catholic. He is morally against abortion but believes in a woman’s right to choose. In one memorable episode, a radio host who opposes Bartlet’s views on gay rights refuses to stand when the president walks into the room Bartlet gives a stoic impromptu response, pointing out contradictions of everyday life in The Bible. He had the political views people liked and the moral beliefs people preferred. The closest President Bartlet ever got to a scandal was his multiple sclerosis cover-up. He never cheated on his wife. He never took military action unless it was warranted. He was against torture. He was the opposite of what audiences had seen in their own government, both current and past.

People enjoyed The West Wing for its optimistic approach to American politics, but the Bush years didn’t move people away from a pessimistic approach to the political system. The Obama campaign introduced a candidate with mantras like “Yes We Can”, “Hope”, and “Change”, but once Barack Obama became president nothing really changed in politics. Money still had a hold of candidates, the American people are divided as ever, and we are still entangled in two of the longest military engagements in American history. No one used “Change” in 2012 when speaking in favor of Obama because change hasn’t really happened. Instead, Republicans attempted to make controversies out of the Affordable Care Act and Benghazi while Democrats reiterated Romney’s 47 percent gaffe at a $2,000-a-plate dinner.

The day after November 6, 2012 felt like a lackluster one night stand: so many promises, okay with the result, and left with a bad taste in your mouth.  Americans have soured not just on the presidential elections, but on gubernatorial and congressional elections as well. Money has never had such an impact on the electoral process; even candidates in small congressional districts spend well over a million dollars. Super PACs dominate every race in the country, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling declaring that money is now political speech. Views of American politics are at an all-time low. Two months later after the election, Netflix introduced their new series House of Cards.

House of Cards is the opposite of everything Aaron Sorkin envisioned on The West Wing. Showrunner Beau Willimon introduced viewers to Frank Underwood, a congressman from South Carolina and the House minority whip. After being passed over for Secretary of State, Frank schemes to manipulate the people who passed him over and ruin their political lives. No dedicated public servant, Frank is a character that understands the political system and uses it to his advantage. If Josiah Bartlet is a foil for President Bush, then Frank Underwood is a foil for Josiah Bartlet. He recognizes that money and power are the lifeblood of politics. He uses other politicians’ shortcomings to convince (or coerce) them into serving his purposes. After finding out a fellow congressman covered up a police arrest for drunk driving that possibly involved prostitution, Frank uses that information to convince the congressman to become his political lackey.

Willimon isn’t the first to create a television show about the pessimistic side of politics. However, he is the first to take the concept of the anti-hero, prominent in television series like the Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men, and introduce it to American politics. Similar to Josiah Bartlet, viewers identify with Frank Underwood. They quote him and cheer for his success. However, most people wouldn’t want Frank as their representative, if only because so many politicians are already just like him. Storylines on House of Cards aren’t that farfetched. An episode revolving around the government using technology to spy on the public doesn’t seem that hard to believe after the Snowden revelations. When Frank convinces a wealthy businessman to take down a political opponent, it echos our broken campaign finance system.

At the end of the day, no one actually wants a real-life Frank Underwood. Yeah, the idea is interesting and everyone loves a good manipulation story, but Frank Underwood is terrifying. His obsession with power puts everyone close to him at risk, including the electorate. The American people might be pessimistic about politics, but if they could have Josiah Bartlet they think they would vote for him in a heartbeat, but they probably wouldn’t. Knowing that Aaron Sorkin’s utopia is unrealistic, the best political figures are those that want to change the system from working within, not take advantage of it like Frank Underwood. Optimistic versus pessimistic approaches to politics are intriguing – especially from the vantage point of my couch – but what we really need is realism. This is why the fictional political figure we all need in the current political climate is Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope.

Angie Hoxie is a content writer living in Brooklyn, New York. She went to Eastern Michigan University where she studied Political Science, Women’s Studies, and a growing Netflix queue. She can turn any conversation about the Real Housewives into an argument about gender and heteronormativity. She is caught up with the Kardashians. Her goal in life is to make fetch happen.