Liberal Idealism Meets Frank Underwood: Why Jed Bartlet is Still Relevant

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Spoiler alert: This article contains mild spoilers for “House of Cards” and “The West Wing”.

I am a long-time fan of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing — a show whose brilliant writing captures a White House that values debate, acts with compassion, and gives life to a liberal dream of American politics. Jed Bartlet, the principled, idealistic, and unimpeachably wise statesman, leads his staff with a unique blend of strength and empathy. We were mystified by his vision and drawn into his optimism; it’s no wonder why Sorkin and company won dozens of awards back in their day.

On the flipside, House of Cards, the darker and sleazier Netflix original, features the antitheses of Bartlet and his dedicated staff. Frank Underwood, the spawn of corruption, greed, and hunger for power, would find only mirth in the softly written narratives of The West Wing. To the Frankster, there is no greater good, no ideal liberalism. There is only power. In the face of House of Cards, the world of Sorkin’s mind seems naïve at best, and laughable at worst.

The New York Times noted this sentiment, stating that while The West Wing “was a vision of American government, presided over by a morally righteous liberal leader… [with a] president… we could believe in”, the leader in House of Cards is “morally bankrupt and endlessly opportunistic. It’s a vision of American government not as we wish it were, but as we secretly fear it is.”

The West Wing is what we hoped politics could be. House of Cards is what we fear it has become.

That’s a sobering thought. I rewatched a few episodes of The West Wing just a few days ago, and I felt this more strongly than ever. While watching Bartlet grapple with the moral struggle of assassinating a known terrorist in violation of international law, I thought to myself how unrealistic this ethical grappling seems. In this scenario, Frank Underwood would lightly chuckle, pull the trigger himself, and gleefully boast to his audience in a trademark breaking of the fourth wall. Frank Underwood’s world leaves no room for idealism — there is only power, power, and power.

Like House of Cards, this election cycle is bringing to light the fears and frustrations of the American people. Only 19% of Americans trust the government. Merely 13% believe that their children will inherit a better economy. Most Americans, by a ratio of 2:1, think that the country is on the wrong path. The approval rating of Congress sits at a dismal 11%. Americans are pessimistic, discouraged, and distrustful of their leaders. So it’s no wonder why so many of us binge watch House of Cards. The dark and dreary vision of our government, it seems, matches our conception of the new DC reality.

So is Bartlet’s America really a relic of a bygone era? Do the demons of contemporary American politics render pure intentions and compassionate leadership irrelevant? Perhaps the innocent, liberal idealism of Bartlet is no longer realistic. Those same storylines superimposed on the present would seem impossible: the compassion too contrived, the bipartisanship too convenient, the noble statesmanship too naive.

Candidates like Bernie Sanders and John Kasich give us sparks of hope that a Bartlet America — one characterized by ethical rhetoric and sincere policy-making — might be possible. But these unlikely hopefuls face a disenchanted electorate and an environment tainted by heightened rhetoric. Unsurprisingly, they’re lagging behind in their respective quests for the nomination.

In our pessimistic visions of distant and corrupt politics that are brought to life by Hollywood, the Jed Bartlets of the world may be supplanted by the powerful and pragmatic Underwoods that be. Underwood blackmails and threatens his way to the highest post in the land — to the same office once occupied by Washington, Lincoln, and the Roosevelts. Bartlet ponders and considers, showing strength through virtue.

But in the end, we love the idealist and hate the tyrant. Idealism, it seems, is losing the electoral and entertainment battles today, but history and hope stand testament to its eventual triumph.

Bartlet’s rightful seat is in the eternal marble structures of Greece, immortalized in the hearts and minds of the people for which our democracy is by and of. And what about Frank? You’ll find him in the depths of hell, competing with the devil himself for its treacherous throne. His tyranny lasts for a day, but falls on the next. There’s a reason they call it a house of cards.

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