If you have Netflix and are even vaguely interested in American politics, it is a good bet your nightmares already are, or soon will be, haunted by Francis Underwood. The fictional Democratic congressman from South Carolina is the central antihero in the American version of the British hit “House of Cards” — and he makes quite an impression.
Underwood gets his initials from the British show’s central character Francis Urquhart, and the two share many traits. They are both brilliant, conniving, mercurial and wholly without ideology — that is, as long as you don’t count raw personal ambition as ideology.
There is, however, one huge difference between the two kindred spirits: While Urquhart leads the right-leaning Conservative Party, Underwood directs the ostensibly left-of-center Democratic Party. While this change may seem minor, it is a key linchpin of the show; indeed, the American production probably would not be able to so powerfully deliver its transpartisan political commentary if Underwood were a Republican. That’s because by casting him as a Democrat, “House of Cards” is avoiding the standard cartoonish portrayal of Washington as a place of Evil-And-Powerful Conservatives and Idealistic-But-Powerless Liberals. Instead, it is more honestly admitting that in many cases, both parties’ leaders are equally vicious, powerful and corrupt.
I talked to “House of Cards” showrunner and head writer Beau Willimon about exactly why he cast Underwood as a Democrat, and about what kind of larger message his show is trying to send.
Let’s first talk about the roots of Francis Underwood. He’s from the rural red state of South Carolina, and yet he is a Democrat. Why?
There’s a catchphrase in the British version where Francis Urquhart says, “You very well might think that — I couldn’t possibly comment.” It was something I wanted to resurrect in a couple of places as an homage. It just felt wrong to do “House of Cards” and not have that line exist somewhere. The problem I ran up against in my mind, is that this is not the way Americans talk, it is not idiomatically part of our vernacular to speak with that diction, unless you put it in the mouth of someone with a South Carolina upcountry accent. Then it rolls off the tongue and kind of works.
My dad’s side of the family is from South Carolina, and I know that accent well, and then it got me thinking about what Frank Underwood’s story might be. The American mythology is that anyone could be president — you could be from a town called Hope and be president — so I thought him coming from a small town and coming from nothing is a much more American tale, as opposed to coming from aristocracy, which is much more a British political trajectory.
And so I asked my dad if there is a small town in South Carolina that would be appropriate and he mentioned Gaffney, which, of course, is perfect. It was represented for years by a Democrat, John Spratt. Underwood is in no way like Spratt, but the fact that a Democrat represented a mostly rural district in a mostly red state is fascinating.
It speaks to a way that Southern politics works differently than other places; it is a lot more about personal relationships and connections you make. You have a tradition of Southern Blue Dog Democrats being a lot more conservative than many of their peers from elsewhere … a lot of them historically seem to vote as though they should be in the Republican Party, but because their father was a Democrat and their father’s father was a Democrat, they are a Democrat.
That means politics there has been, up until recently, less about party affiliation, and that means stuff there is inherently more political as opposed to ideological. I found that to be appropriate for Francis Underwood — someone who doesn’t define himself by party or ideology, but operates on personal connections and traverses the political web as a free agent.
In deciding to make Underwood a Democrat, were you making any kind of calculation about how that would be received by an audience that sees Hollywood as liberal?
I don’t have empirical data to back this up, but conventional wisdom veers toward the idea that Hollywood is more on the liberal side of the fence, and if we had made Underwood a Republican, it might look as though we are trying to take cheap potshots and that the show has a political agenda. But the show doesn’t have a political agenda, so making him a Democrat has an ancillary benefit of hopefully diminishing anyone’s thoughts about this show having some sort of political point of view or agenda that we’re trying to push.
But the show does have an underlying message, no?
The broader point of “House of Cards” is that anyone is fair game, no matter what side of the aisle they are on. You could easily write this story about a Republican congressman as well, but we wanted to dramatize the fact that these sort of creatures live on either side of the aisle.
The things people will find objectionable about Underwood will be about deeper ethical belief systems that transcend political affiliation. If you look at Underwood and what he’s actually doing, he is not someone who binds himself to any particular ideology. His ideology is quicksand, and he would say that the only way to truly survive in Washington and to be effective is to be adaptable.
So even though he’s a Democrat, you find him pushing for an education bill that many Republicans would happily support, a bill that tends to be with many of its planks more on the conservative end of the spectrum.
That analysis, of course, rings very true for those who see the Democratic Party often tilting to the right. Is that part of the point?
Look, the Democratic Party has done a very good job tactically whether you agree with it politically. It has done a good job of acquisitioning parts of the conservative agenda. The rhetoric that comes out of the Democratic Party on fiscal conservatism and its willingness to walk the line on gun control, to be noncommittal about gay marriage and other social issues that are contentious, is an example of that.
Starting with Bill Clinton and going up to Obama, the Democratic Party of today looks very much like the Republican Party of the 1970s. Someone like Francis Underwood is willing to ride the wave of that change and adapt with the times of the changing parties, and to exploit that change for his benefit.
One characteristic of the show is that principled, ideological characters are typically portrayed as politically weak, while unprincipled characters are portrayed as politically strong. Why? Is your theory that principled politicians cannot also be powerful ones?
My personal answer is yes and no. Ideology — firm unwavering ideology — reduces your flexibility. Sometimes it is necessary. Martin Luther King and Ghandi had to remain inflexible because any form of compromise was a form of defeat.
And yet most politics day to day does not operate with those sort of stakes or that clarity of vision. And when you back yourself into an ideological corner with nowhere to maneuver, it makes it more difficult to compromise. And as evil a word as “compromise” has become in the last several years, good government is about compromise. It is about people of different beliefs coming together. People like Frank Underwood are a lot more equipped or able to accomplish that.
One of the questions that show poses is do ends justify means? If Underwood is doing things only for power’s sake, but if he offers forward momentum and progress, is that a bad thing? The audience will make up its own mind. They might say the education bill is disastrous, but at least he got something passed. At a time when we have a Congress choked by gridlock and an administration struggling to push its agenda forward, someone who gets things done may be attractive to people, even if he happens to be compromising.
I have a theory that Underwood is more convincing as a Democrat than a Republican because there are fewer principled ideologues and more shape-shifters in the Democratic Party than there are in the Republican Party. Do you agree?
As it currently stands, you are right; there may be more room in Democratic Party to take less ideological stances, and that might be a result of the Republicans’ having capitalized on such strong ideological stances during the 1990s and aughts. And at that time it was politically beneficial to them. You can look at Contract With America, which put the Republicans in control of the House. You can look at George W. Bush getting elected. But here’s the thing: As proven by the last few presidential elections, eventually that ideology which was at first a springboard can prove to be cement shoes.
Are you basically arguing that while Democrats like Francis Underwood may be bad guys, the bad things they do might be necessary for the greater good?
On the ethical spectrum, most people probably see Underwood as more on the evil end of things, sure. But look at Abraham Lincoln; he’s a perfect example of ends justify the means as an argument for governance.
Remember, Lincoln did break the law to save the union. He deeply believed in the Constitution and yet repeatedly turned his back on it to save it. How can a man who is willing to let 600,000 Americans die and willing to turn his back on the Constitution at the same time deeply believe in that document? And obviously he did, but that paradox and hypocrisy is also his brilliance. He did not allow himself to be limited by the rules.
That’s the hardest thing for us as Americans to swallow: that in order to uphold the rules you sometimes have to break them. And we’re told if you work hard and play by the rules you will succeed — that’s the mythology of the Great American meritocracy. Yet again we see people who drop out of college, who leave their job who then succeed. We also believe in this strong brand of individualism, but individualism is about breaking the rules.
So we have two very strong mythologies that are contradictory. Like Underwood, sometimes our most masterful political leaders — for good or bad — exploit both mythologies and are not bound to either.