On Our Recent National Fascination With the Dark Art of Politics

Kevin Spacey

Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous…

In all of Shakespeare’s corpus, there is no figure quite like Richard III.  Maybe you like some characters more (Falstaff? Prospero? Rosalind?), maybe you think there are better villains (Iago?), but all have to admit that there is something singular about the hunchbacked Duke of Gloucester.  Politics is a major theme in Shakespeare’s works, and he certainly created characters that displayed all the vices we associate with (and fear in) politicians, from vanity (Julius Caesar) to excessive pride (Coriolanus) to naked, atavistic ambition (Lady Macbeth).  But it’s not just that Richard is ambitious, venal, and unscrupulous; its that in watching the play (at least for a while in the middle), you kind of want Richard to win.  It’s as if, in recognizing that Richard is playing the Game of Thrones (where, to quote Cersei Lannister…), the viewer is willing to suspend the ordinary rules of morality, and actually root for Richard to go over the top in his quest for power.

The last few years have seen a slate of TV shows about politics featuring anti-heroes in the Richard III mold: Scandal, BossThe Borgias, and Game of Thrones (which is, strictly speaking, not a show about politics, but where politics is a major theme; sometimes Veep is included in this category, though Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Selena Meyer is more Buckingham than Richard) to name a few.  But in terms of its portrayal of the dark art of politics none of these shows (in the humble opinion of this author, at least) come close to Netflix’s House of Cards, whose second season arrived last week right on the heels of yet another huge winter storm, thus ensuring that Americans (on the East Coast, at least) had the perfect excuse to stay inside and binge watch.  In many ways, House of Cards is more about our collective anxieties about politics – such as, that American government has been hijacked by monied interests – than any secret fantasies about leadership.  For example, the President in House of Cards is on first name terms with a billionaire, who refers to the President openly as “easily manipulated”, and a lobbyist for a fictional energy company seems to have a universal backstage pass to all of Washington.  But at the center of the show is Frank Underwood, a character cut directly from the Richard III cloth: a totally unscrupulous man, whose ambition appears to know no bounds, capable of imposing his will on everyone around him (including the most powerful person in the world) in his quest for power.  And like Richard III, Underwood is also somehow sympathetic.

This sudden cultural interest in the dark side of politics is not lost on critics and cultural observers, who have drawn comparisons between these and past shows like The West Wing (or current shows like Newsroom) that express a much more hopeful (in Newsroom‘s case, guardededly hopeful) view of politics, and in which there are at least some virtuous individuals in charge, even if they are few and far between.  The popularity of certain kinds of TV shows is not enough reason to believe anything, but there is certainly something suggestive about it, and when considered along with other phenomenon (such as the revival of interest in Lyndon Johnson, who came very close to the dictionary definition of “scumbag” personally yet was an enormously effective politician)…well, two data points are enough to make a trend.  So let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there is such a trend in our cultural views on ethical leadership: is our (alleged) current obsession with leadership that is decidedly not ethical telling us something interesting?

I want to rephrase this question in a roundabout way, by considering a claim made by Machiavelli in The Prince.  Machiavelli argues that it is possible for a politician to be either virtuous or effective, but not both.  Ruling requires tragic choices: it requires choices that, were they made by individuals, we would consider wrong or even evil, but when made by rulers are often necessary to secure certain goods (above all peace and stability.)  This is a part of Machiavelli that is poorly understood; the Florentine courtier is supposed to be the ultimate defender of the amoral quest for power and defender of absolute rule.  But at the heart of The Prince is not a defense of autocracy, but rather a subtle point about politics: namely, whereas we rightly should condemn vices such as naked ambition and ruthlessness in ourselves and others, we would do well to silently tolerate and even encourage them in rulers.  In other words, what we need (according to Machiavelli) is politicians who are willing to get their hands dirty.

The hallmark of recent American politics has been stalemate.  Depending on where you fall on the political spectrum, this may be because of partisan gridlock, or a failure of leadership at the top (or a little of both.)  It’s not outside the realm of possibility that our current obsession with the dark art of politics is perhaps due to a frustration with lack of effective government, and a wish that there were a Frank Underwood in there somewhere, who as a side effect of his personal quest for power nevertheless manages to SPOILERS COMING AVERT YOUR EYES SKIP TO NEXT SENTENCE get an education reform bill through Congress and take the hard line in trade negotiations with China that so many Americans desperately wanted in the last election.  Perhaps we all now entertain a secret willingness to compromise the high standards Americans famously demand in their leaders for someone who can usher in a glorious summer of a functional Congress and an end to the (ridiculous and annoying) practice of naming winter storms.  All of this, of course, is pure speculation, and there may not be any explanation at all for this striking difference in past and current portrayals of politics in media.  Nevertheless, that difference is there, and if nothing else it points to the importance of asking such questions about ethical leadership.

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