One reason for my long-ish sabbatical from the blog was that I went on vacation in February. I spent eight days in Mexico—mostly in Mexico City, but also a few days in Puebla and Xico, a small town in Veracruz. The whole trip was great, and from a city-planning perspective, I was particularly impressed by Mexico City’s public transit network, especially its new Bus Rapid Transit system. I wrote a profile on it for UBM’s Future Cities, on why it works well and what U.S. cities can learn from it.
The easiest thing to do with Paul Ryan is poke holes in his math. Plenty of pundits, from Jonathan Chait to Charles Pierce to Paul Krugman, have torn the 2012 VP nominee to shreds based on numbers alone.
What struck me about last weekend’s CPAC speech by Ryan was how heavily it leaned on the sort of language that the GOP claims to hate: the language of paternalism. The “small-government” party’s rhetoric, over the past few years, has often come back to the idea of government as a hectoring parent figure. Michelle Obama’s exercise and nutrition initiatives are often described as having the trappings of a “nanny state,” for example. During a 2012 GOP primary debate, Rick Perry characterized the relationship between the states and feds as one in which a helpless child must go to his parents and ask, “Mother, may I?” More recently, when discussing the topic of contraceptives, Mike Huckabee imagined the federal government as playing a so-called “Uncle Sugar” role for women who couldn’t keep their libidos in check. Replacing the nuclear family (and church) with the government is a fear that looms large in many Republicans’ imagination.
But last weekend, Ryan stepped into the breach with some paternalistic language of his own. Talking about things like free school lunches for poor children, or unemployment benefits, Ryan claimed that what Democrats had to offer was “a full stomach and an empty soul”—lots of free goodies and handouts, but nothing that would lead Americans to cultivate an inner sense of dignity. When they are not trying to regulate the contents of a women’s uterus or police a relationship between two consenting adults, it’s rare to hear Republicans talk in this way about public policy. Instead, what mainstream Republicans have traditionally done is concede that Democrats’ attempts to expand the social safety net are well-intentioned, but claim that they’re implausible or will lead to expensive, economy-crushing complications (since Obama took office a handful of Republicans have indulged in the idea that Democrats are creating government dependency by design, but this is still a pretty fringe view). In the documentary Mitt, the 2012 Republican candidate basically summed up his feelings on Democratic public policy: “They’re all lawyers.” A party that’s not led by any major private-sector figures will have no clue how to run a government that effectively stewards taxpayer dollars.
You can call this style of government whatever you like — mercenary, austerity, free-market capitalism — but the Republicans’ most successful sales pitch since the Reagan Era has been, “You know what’s best for you and your family. We’ll get the government out of your way.” So it’s odd to hear Paul Ryan come along and talk about how his new goal is to promote soulfulness through public policy. It’s a far cry from “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage,” which is a slogan that dates back to Herbert Hoover but may as well have been the GOP mantra through the turn of the century. “A full stomach and an empty soul” is traditionally what Republicans have promised voters, not an ideal that they’ve attacked (or to be more correct, “a full stomach and whatever kind of soul you want”).
To say that school lunches are harmful because they take away from Americans’ “dignity” is insulting and paternalistic, doubly so in the middle of the worst recession since the 1930s. But Ryan, whose sense of sanctimony knows no bounds, seems to have decided that paternalism is all right as long as his party is the organization whose moral vision is being fulfilled. During the debate over the renewal of unemployment benefits, Rand Paul took a similar tack of telling out-of-work Americans what their priorities should be, saying in December that unemployment benefits “do a disservice” to workers by keeping them out of the workforce. At no point, while talking about service and disservice to the unemployed or hungry, did Ryan or Paul look up to ask unemployed or hungry people what they actually want.
So, I’ll bite. I want unemployment benefits because they are quite literally how I can afford to pay my rent every month. Like Social Security and Medicare, they are government expenditures funded by employers and employees who put money into the system in advance (that is, if you are at all opposed to the idea of government handouts, UI shouldn’t actually trouble you at all). They represent a miniscule portion of government spending every month, as do school lunch programs. And they buy people the “dignity,” to use Ryan’s language, of being able to live their lives (look for permanent work, focus on schoolwork, whatever else) without worrying about immediate eviction, foreclosure, or hunger. If the Republicans are prepared to argue to Americans’ faces that this is the wrong sort of “dignity,” and that only Paul Ryan knows what’s actually good for us, that is of course their prerogative. But Republicans’ small-government rhetoric has traditionally been so successful because it hits on a basic truth: Americans, for better or worse, don’t like being told what to do by the government. If Ryan is prepared to cloak his push for austerity in moralistic rhetoric, he’s no longer an accountant as much as he’s a mere sadist.
Good thoughts from my friend Mike Luciano, who hits on why Upworthy will never turn clicks into actual political success: It boils liberal politics down into a series of lifestyle choices.
Been working on this Think Piece-y essay for awhile. I got a late start watching Season 2 of House of Cards, but after watching it and mulling it over, I think the similarities with West Wing are more striking than many people realize.
Also, thanks to the Twitter-er who pointed out that this needs a SPOILER ALERT for HoC.
House of Cards has already earned its place in history. Even if the series itself were an artistic disaster, the fact that it’s Netflix’s first original series, available for streaming and binging on the viewer’s own terms, signals an important shift in the way we watch and analyze TV. But what’s not new about the show is the way it creates a hermetically sealed D.C. Fantasyland for viewers to lose themselves in. Everything about the show furthers the impression that you’ve stepped into a different universe. The show is heavily stylized, brilliantly paced, relentlessly addictive, and makes life in the nation’s capital seem almost seductive. Everyone walks fast, talks fast, and thinks fast. And if all this sounds familiar, it’s probably because a show like this has been done before. The first time around, it was called The West Wing.
Of course, no one would mistake the soap-opera cynicism of House of Cards for The West Wing’s cheery, inspired outlook. But the shows are more alike than partisans of either would admit. The West Wing has a lot of things that House of Cards doesn’t: A president who is one of television’s greatest role models; a cast of characters whose integrity is beyond question; an essentially benign view of the U.S. political system. But ultimately, The West Wing provided viewers with an equally seductive D.C. Fantasyland 15 years before House of Cards did. What House of Cards does is re-imagine this fantasyland so that it speaks to the perceptions of Millennials. The divide between the two shows isn’t ideological; it’s generational.
“Ideological,” in this case, doesn’t refer to a specific political agenda. (It can’t, since House, as a number of writers have noted, decided early in the second season that policy is for losers.) Instead, the ideology of the show is the claim it tries to make about “how politics really works,” from the kind of people who populate D.C. to the way in which things get done. But while both shows — one about a city brimming with idealistic do-gooders, and one about a city filled with treacherous hypocrites — play on common stereotypes about Washington, neither one was designed to give viewers a real-life understanding of politics. Aaron Sorkin has always been up front about this, saying, “The West Wing isn’t meant to be good for you … Our responsibility is to captivate you for however long we’ve asked for your attention.”
Not everyone has listened, of course. Enough young liberals inspired by The West Wing came to D.C. with Barack Obama, that Vanity Fair ran an article on the phenomenon. Meanwhile, House of Cards has become a hit not just in the U.S., but among the Chinese political elite, largely for its ostensible insight into the workings of American politics. I suspect that most people who live in the capital, as I did for three years, know at heart that it’s a complicated place, and that reality doesn’t conform to the expectations of either show. But damn if it isn’t fun to pretend.
It’s in this sense that House of Cards is the Millennial Generation’s response to The West Wing — it’s our generation’s idea of what it would look like to be seduced by the glamour and power of Washington, D.C. For despite all the hope that accompanied Barack Obama’s ascent in national politics, the last decade has not been a good one when it comes to reinforcing young people’s faith in our institutions. In his book Twilight of the Elites, Christopher Hayes calls the period between 2000 and 2010 “the Fail Decade,” a 10-year span in which every major pillar of American life, from the federal government and banking system to the Catholic Church and Major League Baseball, betrayed our trust.
House of Cards should be seen in this context, and its bleak cynicism about politics is borne out by Millennials’ attitudes. In August, National Journal’s Ron Fournier wrote a long piece for The Atlantic on how Millennials may be civic-minded, but hold government in very low regard. He cites a 2013 survey by the Harvard Institute of Politics revealing revealing across-the-board disgust with politics. One-third of respondents agreed that “political involvement rarely has any tangible results.” Nearly 60 percent believed that politicians acted for mostly selfish reasons, regardless of party. And Fournier quoted a student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who said, “Results are important to us, and sadly, politics isn’t a place for results.”
The uncritical use of the phrase “results” raises what should be an obvious question: What good are results if they aren’t good results? The answer House of Cards gives is quite clear: We are meant to admire Frank Underwood’s skill at passing legislation, or as he would say, “whipping the damn vote.” As for considering whether or not he’s passing useful legislation? This is a luxury we can’t afford. The parallels to the Obama era are striking — liberals are desperate to pass a bill, any bill, just to prove they can. The awfulness of government has now gotten so bad that organizations like Run For America are springing up to encourage millennials to run for office, because so few are choosing to do so of their own volition.
Meanwhile, the moments of The West Wing that are meant to tug at our patriotic heartstrings — Sam Seaborn’s “last full measure of devotion” speech, or the military funeral in “In Excelsis Deo” — exhibit a level of sincerity that seems delusional in today’s political climate. By Sorkin’s own admission, he laid on the schmaltz partially because The West Wing was designed as an idealized retelling of the Clinton administration. It’s a world where viewers can have it both ways: a principled liberal administration, presiding over a booming economy and digital revolution. In the House of Cards era, the myth of endless abundance is over. Every resource we have — not just money, but time, column inches, political capital — is suddenly scarcer and more valuable, and even people with good intentions must turn to evil means to get their way.
Capitalizing on this heightened level of conflict, House of Cards takes many of The West Wing’s most memorable tropes and updates them for a darker time. Laurie, the call girl who Sam Seaborn befriends in The West Wing’s first season, quickly becomes fodder for jokes (“Knock knock. Who’s there? Sam and his prostitute friend.”). Laurie’s equivalent in House of Cards, Rachel Posner, becomes the target of Douglas Stamper’s creepy obsessions before turning to Christianity in a Dostoevsky-style conversion, and then killing her tormentor in an act of self-defense.
Likewise, in The West Wing, lobbyists are a secondary concern at best. They’re either blithely amoral (Bruno Giannelli), people who share the president’s views but want things done on a faster schedule (Amy Gardner), or comic relief (Cartographers for Social Equality). Meanwhile, the main lobbyist in House of Cards, Remy Danton, is all-knowing, all-seeing, and totally devoid of any policy goals — a one-man embodiment of the Revolving Door between K Street and Capitol Hill. (Political patronage is decades old, of course, but you could be forgiven for thinking it’s more intractable than ever.) And as for journalism? Both shows feature reporters who get romantically entangled with a source, but one romance ends with a baby and a house in Santa Monica, while the other ends with a dead body on the Metro tracks. (And this is to say nothing of the actual journalism in House of Cards, which, as a number of writers have noted, leaves much to be desired.)
The truth is that despite each show creating a convincing universe in its own way, no single television show is ever going to capture “the real D.C.,” because D.C. is a city with over 600,000 people that sits at the heart of a metro area of more than five million. It’s the nation’s political capital, yes, but it’s also a rapidly gentrifying tech hub, a magnet for immigration, the birthplace of hardcore punk, and home to one of the country’s largest black middle classes. And Beau Willimon and Aaron Sorkin are both smart enough to know this, which renders “Which show is more true to life?” a moot question. House of Cards revels in its emptiness so unabashedly that the only possible defense of Frank Underwood is, as Nicole Hemmer wrote in U.S. News, that he “gets things done.” Toby Ziegler would read a phrase like that and go berserk: “Yes, but what exactly is he getting done?” And Zoe Barnes would shrug and reply, “Does it matter?”