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The Increasingly Ridiculous House of Cards

Netflix’s House of Cards suffers from a number of weaknesses that have become much harder to ignore in its second season. It is overall a much less compelling show than the original, because it tells a story that is unavoidably much more implausible, and its greater length forces the writers to produce an awful lot of dreary dialogue and filler material. At many points, it is completely unmoored from political reality in this country. That wouldn’t be as much of a problem if there were anything remotely likeable or interesting about the characters, or if the show succeeded as a compelling drama, but that’s just not the case. (Spoilers follow)

Perhaps the most egregious example of the show’s lack of realism is its treatment of the politics of impeachment. Because now-Vice President Underwood has to become president sooner or later to imitate the Urquhart story, the sitting president has to be removed from office. That means that some offense has to be cooked up that can be used to justify impeachment, which is duly provided, and that gives Underwood the opening to encourage other Democrats in Congress to pursue it. To that end, he gets House leaders to go along with the scheme by using the new majority whip to persuade the other leaders. Even by the standards of modern television, this was fanciful and completely unbelievable. If Underwood were the canny and savvy operator he is supposed to be, he wouldn’t urge members of his party to impeach their own president, especially not in advance of an election. He would know that majority parties don’t do this to their own side, and he would also know that no House leadership could compel their members to support such a measure. Anyone in a modern party with future ambitions for leadership in that party would want nothing to do with an attempt to depose a president. Sheer partisan tribalism would prevent this from happening in almost every case, and self-interest would take care of the rest. Besides, a president with abysmal approval ratings will harm his party in a midterm election whether they have forced him out or not.

It’s the sort of ludicrous “clever” maneuver that only someone with no grasp of electoral politics would suggest as a winning strategy. As if to emphasize how implausible this part of the story is, there is a scene in which the new majority whip is selling an embittered foe of Underwood on the merits of impeachment, and he agrees with making his hated enemy president because he doesn’t want to be in the minority. In real life, he would still end up in the minority, and it seems unlikely that anyone burned by Underwood would want to cooperate in giving him the presidency.

We know that all of this is unrealistic because we have seen how unwilling Congressional leaders from both parties have been to pursue impeachment against presidents since ’98, and this has been true even when the president is from the opposing party, is deeply unpopular, and deserves to be impeached for breaking the law. It can’t possibly help a majority party to see a president from their side driven from office in disgrace, and to aid in driving him from office would be political suicide. Given all this, it makes no sense for Underwood to want impeachment proceedings to go forward, since it would end up leaving him as the leader of a wrecked party and soon enough no longer in political office of any kind.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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