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The Political Fact and Fiction behind the NetFlix Series “House of Cards”

23 February 2014 | 8:18 am By:

To hundreds of thousands of people around the world, South Carolina 5th District Congressman Francis “Frank” Underwood is an ambitious politician who knows how to work the system and pull the right strings to get bills passed.  Others see Congressman Underwood as a vindictive politician who is only out to gain power and destroy anyone who gets in his way.

Not bad for a Congressman who doesn’t exist.House_of_Cards_title_card

Congressman Underwood is the character played by actor Kevin Spacey in the award-winning Netflix series “House of Cards.” The second season of the show was released on February 14, 2014.

[Related: Snowstorm in the Northeast prompted fans to ask for early release – Netflix says no.]

“House of Cards” presents a much darker portrait of American politics than previous television series such as “The West Wing.”  Although “House of Cards” is filled with political references and intriguing plots, College of Charleston Political Science Professor Jordan Ragusa says it is still more akin to the make believe of Hollywood than the reality of politics inside the Washington beltway. He says although the show is very entertaining, it is clearly a work of fiction and doesn’t truly represent how Congress operates.

[Related: Read Ragusa’s blog, Rule 22.]

“First, despite the conventional wisdom, members of Congress are typically highly educated and quite astute politically.  I don’t think a single member of Congress—even the majority whip—can be that influential in bending fellow lawmakers to his will,” says Ragusa, “Second, Kevin Spacey’s character is over-the-top in his game theoretic strategizing.  Yes, members of Congress are strategic.  But Frank Underwood is just too Machiavellian for my taste.”

Jordan Ragusa, Political Science Professor

Jordan Ragusa, Political Science Professor

There are some realistic moments in the program. “House of Cards” has been able to carefully weave social media into the plot. Cellphone calls replace face-to-face meetings and text messages speed up negotiations.  In one episode, a congressman’s meltdown on a cable news program quickly showed up on a YouTube video that included a dance track. You know, real life stuff.

But the reality is far and few between.

Even the bio on Congressman Underwood is a little sketchy.  Spacey’s character is a democrat from Gaffney, South Carolina.  He attended military college at “The Sentinel” (based on The Citadel in Charleston) and was elected to the U.S. Representative from South Carolina’s 5th congressional district in 1990.

Ragusa says even that is a little tough to swallow. He says the fact that Underwood is a white, southern Democrat elected to a congressional seat from the conservative upstate of South Carolina is a little hard to imagine.

“Currently, there is just one such lawmaker in the U.S. House, which is significant change from the 1960s when white southern Democrats populated the South, “ says Ragusa. “In short, Spacey’s character is a dying breed.”

For more information or media interviews, contact Jordan Ragusa at ragusajm@cofc.edu.

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