On-demand television has not only transformed the market for drama of reasonable quality but it has filled my navel with chip dust. This past weekend, I glanced south of the breasts that had been serving as a food tray and saw the belly button that now functioned as a kind of pre-emptive sewer. I wasn’t the world’s only citizen sufficiently privileged to give this past weekend to a binge on the just-released House of Cards. And, I doubt that I was the only one whose own lethargy gave her cause for revulsion.
If you’ve not seen or heard word of this Netflix Whitehouse drama, then you clearly have no great interest in either television or unhealthy snacks. Featuring the unctuous charm of a Carolinian Kevin Spacey as President and the malevolent grace of a First Lady played by Robin Wright, this show has become a must-watch. And less because it is very good, as it really only was in its first season which borrowed liberally from its 1990 British inspiration. But, more because it feeds us the comforting fiction that politicians are evil.
As anyone who has spent any time in the press gallery will tell you, western politicians are not as plainly evil as they are on TV. This is not to say that the policies they oversee do not result in death and indignity. It is to say that Spacey’s homicidal, selfish, narcissistic Frank Underwood is not compelling because he’s realistic. He’s compelling because he’s a fake.
Underwood is the underside to Martin Sheen’s equally false Commander in Chief. The West Wing’s Josiah Bartlet was a compassionate liberal of an integrity and optimistic vision so immense he made FDR look like an insurance salesman. Bartlet was an act of pure idealised bullshit set against Aaron Sorkin’s triumphal trough of American lies. But, he gave us comfort just as Underwood does.
It is a foolish luxury to believe in pure evil just as it is to believe in pure good. As much as progressives like to demonise Abbott and the Right is given to calling Shorten a union marionette, the truth of these men is much more boring. And can be read in their policies and not in their political backstories. The measure of a politician is not his fondness for tail, like Underwood, or his ability to conceal a neurological disorder, like Bartlet. Actually, it’s not even his tendency to hurl (spoiler) ambitious girl reporters under a train. (Although, you know, I would prefer my leaders to refrain from vengeance killing.) The measure of a politician is his policies.
Actually, Bartlet’s policies were kind of shit. They were ostentatiously liberal, as in his support for allowing gay personnel in the military, but ultimately ineffective. The guy never ratified universal healthcare or initiated a truly progressive tax system. As a policy maker, Bartlet stood somewhere to the right of fellow fictional democrat Underwood who, at the very least, has developed a (questionable) labour policy this season. But. He was GOOD. And, apparently, personal goodness is far more important, in the real as well as the fictional realms, than decent policy.
And so is evil. This is why critics of Abbott set upon his infamous “sexist” wink or his sloppy decision to knight a Prince consort with much more force than the terms of his cuts to crucial services for people with little financial or social capital and his favours to people with loads. Abbott’s intrinsic evil should not be a matter for discussion. His spending derives not from poor character but from a poor theoretical tradition that starts with Adam Smith. If there is a problem with Abbott, it is not that he is not a nice man but that he believes that the market is benevolent. And, all the while, millions of Australians are goosed by the Invisible Hand.
Still. It’s fun to think that bad policies have their origin in bad character and good policies, despite even the fictional President Bartlet’s dearth of them, originate from good. Good policy is derived from evidence and good thinking and bad policy is derived from wilful stupidity. And it is wilful stupidity that drives me to watch House of Cards and cram at least two of my orifices with chili-flavoured chips.
To enjoy our political drama through the personae of Underwood and Bartlet is just an extension of what we might do anyway. We do not assess politicians for their judicious spending of revenue — their primary task — but for their perceived good and evil. And, really, as more “realistic” political shows like the very good comedy Veep and the even better The Thick of It demonstrate more ably, politicians are neither good nor evil. They are simply conduits for ideas and revenues.
The popular semi-progressive idea that Malcolm Turnbull would be a better Prime Minister than Abbott derives from this belief in Great Men. And, certainly, he would be more palatable to watch as I cram my face and my navel with chips than the fumbling Abbott. Ultimately, though, his perceived goodness will not translate to civic good; the guy’s a neoliberal through-and-through.
To believe that individual goodness or individual evil can influence policy is as ludicrous as believing, like Smith, that the market can fix everything. The market has no morals and the morals of politicians who must manage it are not, or should not be, the question. The question in a liberal democracy is “How good are you with a calculator and some basic economic principles of middle-out growth?”. Instead, we ask, “What kind of man is he?”
The idea we have of liberty that we bring to our viewing of political fiction and political fact is broken. We think that we can see it in instances of personal good or evil. But, really, we may as well be gazing at our navels.