There aren’t a lot of shows on television today that have won more popular and critical acclaim than Netflix’s “House of Cards”. Available to all Netflix subscribers, the political drama focuses on the exploits of power-hungry congressman Frank Underwood as he cunningly manipulates his way to ever greater amounts of influence within the American political system. Frank is willing to do almost anything to increase his power, a fact that makes every episode quite enthralling.
The show’s second season was released in February of 2014, but today I want to examine a statement Frank made during the first season regarding a former subordinate, a man who once was a part of his congressional staff and had left public service for an extremely lucrative career as a lobbyist:
Such a waste of time, he chose money over power. In this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes. Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I can not respect someone that doesn’t see the difference.
Frank’s words here appear on the surface to work as a pretty strong indictment against the notion that money is in any way more significant or worthwhile than power. In my perusal of many discussions online relating to the show, I have seen Frank Underwood (along with quotes like the one above) used to substantiate claims that money really isn’t everything, that it is overrated and unsubstantial when compared to less tangible things like love or, in this case, power.
Are they correct, though? Does Frank Underwood’s story validate the notion of money over power? It would were it not for a simple truth:
Money Is Power
The choice Frank talks about is usually not nearly as stark as he made it out to be. Power often doesn’t come absent money, and this is a big reason why your typical congressman is quite well off. Your average US Senator is worth just under $3 million, and that’s just account for assets that they are required to disclose publicly. When you start talking about the more powerful, well known and influential members of congress (ex: Pelosi, Issa, Cantor, etc), you begin talking about much larger sums of money than that average.
Money is, more often than not, the main gateway to power: it is the wealthy that get a leg up in the race for elected positions or in the race for influential political appointments (e.g., the appointment of Hank Paulson as Sec. of Treasury, among other similar appointments). Political fundraisers are some of the most powerful people in this country. They use their money and the vast connections they’ve obtained to raise money for political candidates, who in turn often depend on them. Some have gone as far as to say that these people are basically puppet-masters, pulling strings in Congress and ruining the democratic process because their cash is giving them too much influence. This view is not entirely without merit—these people can often control the political narrative with the money they spend funding political campaigns and producing political advertisements, nevermind the business and investment interests they can leverage in their bid to encourage elected officials to do what they like.
Names like Warren Buffett, Koch (both brothers), Sheldon Anderson, and many others who are much less well known (Steyer, Singer, Schlosstein, Norcross, etc), are really some of the most powerful men in the USA, more so than all but a handful of men or women in Washington. These are people whose wealth and fundraising prowess give them control over much of the political narrative. They can almost totally lock down politics in their local stomping grounds (state or municipal elections and appointments, for example) and they can essentially buy influence in the federal legislature. Congressmen grovel to these people — there are hedge fund managers out there who have these men and women lining up outside of their offices just to get a word in edgewise.
In the developing world, the relationship between money and power is even more obvious thanks to lower transparency (more unchecked corruption, nepotism, etc), greater inequality, and other crucial factors. Consider the Philippines, one of the largest nations in South Asia, where political power is almost entirely held up by a handful of wealthy families.
Or consider Thailand, where the control wealthy political dynasties wield is even stronger. It’s bad enough that the Prime Minister’s seat in that nation has essentially been passed around in a single family for the better part of a decade now. Why have they been able to hold onto political power? They’re obscenely rich, that’s why.
I could go on, as these narratives play out in a lot of other developing countries where a cunning individual with just a few million dollars can essentially buy his way to the top.
For all of its outward promotion of the idea that power is more worthwhile than money, House of Cards actually does plenty to affirm the contrary view and does little to contradict any of what I wrote above.
Consider the following (possible mild spoilers here, you’ve been warned):
—Who is Frank’s most powerful rival in the show? Answer: Raymond Tusk. Why is Raymond Tusk so powerful? He’s got absurd amounts of money, which he has used to discreetly exert significant amounts of influence on the political process in Washington for decades.
—Who is the President of the United States in “House of Cards”? Garrett Walker. How did Garrett Walker become the President of the United States? He became bosom buddies with one of its richest men, Raymond Tusk, as the CEO of Tusk’s airline. This relationship made him rich as well, and got him a direct line to the White House.
—Who is a major foreign player in the second season of House of Cards? Xander Feng. Why is Xander Feng such a big factor? He’s a billionaire.
Remy Danton, the man that Frank derided in the quote I mentioned earlier in this article for choosing money over power, actually gained MORE power by moving on. He had more influence as a highly paid lobbyist than he did as one of Frank’s not-so-highly paid congressional henchmen. He didn’t have to sacrifice power at the altar of the almighty dollar—he got to have his cake and eat it too.
It is also worth noting that House of Cards, in its bid to give you good drama, doesn’t tell you the whole story about the influence money has in politics. To keep it simple, the show makes money seem like less of a game-changer than it actually is, and it is that creative license what allows Frank to directly lock horns with someone like Raymond Tusk and other really wealthy people (thus creating good television). In real life, big players like Tusk and Feng have a much easier time influencing US politics with their cash than the show let’s on, and their activities are FAR harder for the likes of Underwood and his henchmen to expose or counter.
And, of course, we cannot forget how Frank Underwood himself got started in politics to begin with: he married a VERY rich woman and rode her money to his first seat in congress. Money was Frank’s gateway to power.
At the end of the day, I think that the false dichotomy presented in House of Cards is a source of comfort for some. The idea that the accumulation of financial wealth and the acquisition of power don’t usually go hand in hand can serve to make those who are pessimistic about their ability to acquire large amounts of money more content with their lot in life. People feel more comfortable believing that the almighty dollar isn’t quite so almighty after all, and that their lack of money doesn’t put them at a tremendous disadvantage relative to the wealthy with regard to and the ability to make a difference in our society.
That’s a fine way to generate warm fuzzies, but digestion of the red pill necessitates the absorption of fundamental truths, and the truth here is this: money is power. Gifted fictional political titans like Frank Underwood can’t avoid that reality, and neither can you.
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