I’m probably not the first to say that the frustration many feel today when engaging in discussions about politics is often driven by an unwillingness or, in some cases, an inability to hear the opposing side’s argument. Our disenchantment with the political status quo has fed into our harsh partisanship and facilitated a view of all public servants as futile and depraved bureaucrats. And it seems that Netflix has capitalized on our feelings by portraying hyperbolic versions of America’s political system that are chock full of gratuitous sex, violence, and conspiracy.
Unfortunately, these dramas not only fail to contradict our entrenched ideologies, but they actually run the risk of encouraging them to persist. In today’s world, our entertainment plays a significant role in our lives, and, because of that, even fictional portrayals of our government can shape our outlook.
According to Dr. Russ Tisinger, a Senior Fellow at L&M Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania, “the continual presence of political content on entertainment programs has prompted a wider recognition [of] fictional programs as significant sources of influence on political attitudes.” Given the wide viewership and critical acclaim of series such as House of Cards and Scandal, it’s clear that these shows have the potential to reaffirm a jaded perspective of government as a dog-eat-dog world with an inherent disrespect for policy or process.
Political television often focuses on a character’s quest for power, prestige, or influence at a cost to others. They often promise pain and retribution to those standing in their way. This use of scorched-earth tactics, including frequent classified leaks of information that is embarrassing to all involved, normalizes their brutal methods of governance in the eye of the people. Whether it be Olivia Pope dragging responsible people “into the light” no matter the cost or Frank Underwood (spoiler alert) sacrificing Peter Russo and Zoe Barnes for the vice presidency, there one rule, according to Underwood: “hunt or be hunted.”
Beau Wilimon, the executive producer of House of Cards, recently said “politics is theater,” highlighting the unique ability of these shows to demonstrate the intersection of reality and fiction. But the theatrical elements of the latest political series are usually over the top. For instance, the political dramas of late increasingly take a pragmatic approach to define the show’s arc. The lack of optimism and idealistic vision in these shows not only contributes to the viewer’s already-established scorn of Washington D.C. but also places inappropriate emphasis on winning for winning’s sake.
“Democracy is so overrated.” These words, as delivered by Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood, ring eerily true in today’s America.
Nowhere is winning more hyperbolized than in depictions of elections. The continual succession of last minute developments, deaths, and other scandals reinforces the viewer’s distrust of electoral results. In comparison, Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing, played no games when it game to legitimizing government; even in Matthew Santos’ upset victory in the final season, both candidates were given the opportunity to question the results but instead set an ethical and statesman-like example for what needed to be done. Additionally, three-way presidential campaigns shown in Scandal and Madam Secretary in which no candidate gets a clear majority of the votes as well as Underwood’s own duplicitous maneuvering in his reelection casts doubt on the integrity of the ballot box and on how accurately the people’s will is reflected in government.
Paradoxically, the victor’s failure to win a mandate does nothing to inhibit the huge political capital they gain as a result, despite a lack of public policy programs or reforms of any sort; the old “campaign of ideas,” focusing on policy and political vision rather than negative branding, is no longer applicable. Given that both Republicans and Democrats deal with similar trials and tribulations, ideology becomes irrelevant. The only person who really wins is the one who can weather the storm longer.
And we should be wary of the disparities between what we see on television, whether on Netflix or CNN, and what actually happens. Such inherent contradictions between the two threaten to leave the American public divided and disoriented by suggesting that even the narrowest electoral win will be enough to completely shift the country towards one ideology. The 2016 election left the Republican Party with somewhat small majorities despite losing seats in both houses of Congress through what some might call “technicalities” (i.e. gerrymandering, the electoral college, voter ID laws). However, the President’s low approval rating as well as polling that reveals staunch opposition to many GOP’s efforts such as Trumpcare, does not give many lawmakers a moment’s hesitation when calling for sweeping reforms and claiming the election was a landslide.
I’m not suggesting that real politicians take their cues from fictional ones, but I do believe that we, the public, should be concerned about the underlying messages of these shows. Consider the rise of leaders such as Fitzgerald Grant in Scandal and Frank Underwood in House of Cards. They not only represent change or a hope for a better future but also claim to be the only ones to know how to get there. Amidst rising populism on the world stage, one can recognize the demagogic roots underlining some of these character’s promises that weren’t found in political dramas such as West Wing that predates Scandal by only six years. Even milder shows like Madam Secretary and Designated Survivor portray a person whose lack of political allegiance to anyone and disdain for sleazy politics makes them the only one able to cut through the gridlock they’re faced with and get the work done. If we accept a narrative that presents our ideal leaders as full of simple, easy solutions that are fast-tracked through Congress and into law, then our expectations of our actual leaders will probably never be met.
But, at the end of the day, these shows are indeed entertainment. Netflix attempts to satisfy the public’s appetite for excitement by exhibiting the more raw, exaggerated aspects of political life. However, even the darkest, most cutthroat side of the political process exhibited in these shows is now sometimes laughable in comparison to our reality. We need to reinvent our entertainment media by rediscovering the optimistic and inspiring roots of arguably the best political series: West Wing. In a time when people yearn for hope, shows seeking to portray government should not be encouraged to inject unnecessary violence or drama to spice things up. Instead of focusing so much on the dramatic aspect of these series, we need to reexamine the kind of politics we depict, sparking intellectual debate and inspiring civic duty.
Milan Vivanco is a first-year in Branford College.