Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Washington, not exactly a 'House of Cards'?

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 6:32 PM EST, Mon February 24, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Netflix show depicts Washington in which power is used ruthlessly
  • He says the show is compelling but paints too dark a portrait of the nation's capital
  • Political leaders used power to end threats and attain social justice, he says
  • Zelizer: Enjoy show, but don't take it as statement about limits of American politics

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- Many Americans, including President Obama, have become fans of the Netflix series "House of Cards."

The show, starting Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, is the story of the House majority whip who, through many devious machinations, becomes vice president of the United States. The show presents a devastating portrait of the nation's capital in which the major players care only about advancing their careers.

Public policy and the democratic process are just vehicles for the fulfillment of Spacey's career ambitions. He is willing to resort to any tactic -- even murder -- to achieve his goals.

Without question, the show is riveting. The writing is impressive, and the acting is phenomenal. It is difficult to avoid binge-watching one of the most compelling pieces of television in years.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Yet the portrait of politics that "House of Cards" provides viewers is extremely skewed, a vision so devious and so cynical that it neglects the great things that our democratic process and our leaders have produced over time. "Even in a landscape newly populated with cynical-to-downright-nihilistic political shows," wrote an editor for The New York Times, the show "stands out for its unblinking commitment to a singularly dark vision of politics."

To be sure, politicians can be extraordinarily cold and calculating, ruthless in their pursuit of power, and some do spend almost all of their time figuring up how to move up the political ladder.

But American politics has been much more than the world depicted in "House of Cards." Many politicians are ruthless and calculating but use those traits for bigger objectives and sometimes will risk sacrificing their career for principle.

While serving as Senate majority leader, Lyndon Johnson famously relied on his ambition and thirst for power to produce some rather notable legislative accomplishments, such as the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 and the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Are ambassador nominees clueless?
The GOP Civil War
Obama's about-face

Johnson did things that would make New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie cringe, but the results were often impressive.

President Franklin Roosevelt could be ruthless with his opponents, isolating them from his inner circle and castigating them in public, but his terms in office produced a New Deal and won a world war against fascism. (Even Spacey's character was responsible for education reform in season one and entitlement reform in season two.)

Our political system, with these kinds of power brokers at their helm, has produced great legislation. During the 1930s, the New Deal offered a federal blanket of security to America's workers -- by insuring bank accounts, providing old age pensions, regulating financial markets, legitimating industrial unions, enacting a minimum wage and more -- that have remained integral to the nation's landscape and were a foundation for the middle class.

During the mid-1960s, LBJ and the 89th Congress used the government to help tackle many of the big problems that faced the nation, such as providing health insurance to the elderly through Medicare and Medicaid and guaranteeing that African-Americans would not have to live in racially segregated societies through the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

American politics is also filled with examples of great leaders. Not everyone is as despicable as Frank Underwood.

In the White House, the nation's first president, George Washington, set the bar when he voluntarily stepped down from power and demonstrated that the United States would not become a monarchy.

Abraham Lincoln guided the nation through the brutal Civil War and brought end to the horrendous institution of slavery. Franklin Roosevelt led Americans through the Great Depression and a major world war, and Dwight Eisenhower, as Evan Thomas showed in his recent book, worked hard to calm the tension of the Cold War and find peaceful solutions to diplomatic challenges.

John F. Kennedy carefully negotiated with the Soviets through the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, avoiding a catastrophic nuclear war, while President Ronald Reagan seized an opportunity for peace over an arms agreement in 1987 after the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev, who wanted to change the course of world history.

There have also been great legislative leaders whose ambitions made important contributions to Congress.

Henry Clay set the bar in the 19th century for how a legislative leader could forge compromise.

New York's Robert Wagner promoted many of the ideas that ultimately became the New Deal. His colleague Emanuel Celler spent much of the 20th century fighting from his seat in the House of Representatives to champion the cause of immigrants, workers and African-Americans.

Michigan Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, a one-time isolationist, changed his tune and worked with President Harry Truman to design America's Cold War policies in the late 1940s. In 1964, Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen, a staunch conservative, convinced a large bloc of fellow Republicans to come around to vote in favor of ending the filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Rep. John Conyers brought the energy he developed during the civil rights movement to the halls of Congress, defending the Voting Rights Act during the 1980s and 1990s.

Great ideas have also come out of Washington rather than the private sector. During the 19th century, the belief in public investment, the idea that the federal government should help create a national infrastructure to connect communities, took hold as public funds were used to build roads and create a mail system.

Between the 1940s and 1960s, the federal government championed the cause of computing technology and space exploration at a time when neither seemed very profitable to most in the private sector. A number of politicians, such as Minnesota Sen. (and future Vice President) Hubert Humphrey, were central to promoting the idea of racial equality.

So although "House of Cards" is a great show, viewers need to remember that politics is much more than that. We have become so cynical in this day and age that we can no longer see what is good about our democratic system.

The history of our country reveals that this democratic process can also produce great things. Washington is more than a power game: It is a town where those in power have the potential to make important changes and contributions to our history. And sometimes, they have done just that.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT