North Texas Daily

Column: the politics of “House of Cards”

Column: the politics of “House of Cards”

Column: the politics of “House of Cards”
March 03
23:28 2014

Obed Manuel // Senior Staff Writer

This article contains spoilers for House of Cards up until the end of the second season.

When Francis Underwood looks at the camera, it’s like he’s peering into our souls. He explains his reasoning through vague soliloquies delivered with malicious tones. All along, Underwood lets us in on the game plan, but we’re never sure of just how far this man is willing to go to gain power.

It’s been a little more than two weeks now since Netflix released the entire second season of “House of Cards,” the online-only political drama centers on Francis Underwood, the Democratic majority whip from South Carolina who is passed over for the Secretary of State cabinet position in the first season.

In its second season, House of Cards follows Underwood’s year as the vice president and his eventual taking of the presidency itself. Though the path Underwood takes is extremely improbable, the storyline highlights the undemocratic nature of presidential succession and the vulnerabilities of the executive branch.

Underwood’s Climb

Underwood clears the way to vice presidency at the end of season one by successfully launching Peter Russo, a young Pennsylvania House Representative, into the governor’s race before murdering him. Underwood persuades then-Vice President Jim Matthews into running for his old job as Pennsylvania’s governor.

With no better suitors for the vice presidency, President Garrett Walker nominates Underwood to be his VP, in the hope Underwood can increase the White House’s influence in Congress.

In season two, allegations that the president knowingly benefitted from a money-laundering scheme come to light. Behind closed doors, Underwood pushes for the Democrat-controlled House to bring up charges of impeachment.

In Nixon-esque fashion, Walker resigns the presidency before his inevitable conviction and Underwood is sworn in as president.

The Loophole

The 25th amendment to the U.S. Constitution clarified that “In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.” That was the technicality Underwood always sought to exploit in order to become the most powerful man in the free world.

Raymond Smith of the Daily Beast writes that the scenarios presented in House of Cards are extremely improbable, but he notes that Underwood’s loophole does exist.

“Hopefully, the 25th Amendment will never need to be invoked in such dramatic circumstances,” Smith writes. “But, the reality is that it could be. And in a moment of crisis and confusion, the perception of order and legitimacy may count for a lot.”

By the rules, Underwood has every right to be president at this point in the story. What House of Cards points out is the illegitimacy of his mandate.

No one other than Underwood’s constituents in South Carolina voted for him. No electoral college votes or popular votes were submitted for Underwood.

Gerald Ford became president under the exact same technical similarities. In 1973, President Richard Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew resigned and Nixon nominated Ford for VP.

After the fallout of the Watergate Scandal in 1974, Nixon resigned the presidency and Ford was sworn in as president under the succession order set by the 25th amendment.

While Ford did not scheme way into the presidency as Underwood did, it simply goes to show that a politician can become president without ever having to assemble a campaign.

Presidential Vulnerabilities 

Shingai Masiya, a 2013 UNT political science graduate, said he is an avid fan of the show, but he found Underwood’s rise to the top to be a bit absurd.

“Because of the unrealistic path Francis took to become president, I don’t see the show as exposing the executive branch,” Mayisa said. “Powerful interest groups have a huge impact on the agenda of the executive branch that can expose the presidency if not careful.”

Mayisa, a public policy graduate student at Hawaii Pacific University, said he thinks the connections that follow a president into the White House can reveal possible corruption.

When the allegations against President Walker are made, it is his political relationship to Raymond Tusk, a nuclear energy tycoon that ultimately spells out the president’s political demise. Tusk is the one who testifies the president knew about money laundering.

Season two ends with President Underwood walking into the Oval Office alone. He slowly walks behind the president’s desk and triumphantly pushes the black leather chair aside. He places his hands on the desk as a sign of victory and knocks twice as the screen cuts to black.

It’s not clear how much more President Underwood can gain. Sure, he’ll be up for reelection in three years, or his criminal wrongdoings could come to light. Either way, his name will have been etched into fictional U.S. history as the 46th President of the United States of America.

Feature photo: Kevin Spacey returns in the second season of “House of Cards.” Photo courtesy of Netflix.

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