Frank Underwood, of the Netflix hit-series House of Cards, is the kind of politician you hope doesn’t actually exist in the reality. He is ruthless, stopping at nothing-bribery, intimidation tactics, deception, and even murder-to get where he wants and what he wants. Even beyond Underwood, other members of the House of Cards‘ Congress and White House are abusing alcohol and drugs, trying constantly to outperform each other on a sly and vindictive level, and willing to cause a government shutdown rather than cooperate with the other party. At least viewers can take solace in the fact that it’s just a television show and that these things don’t actually happen in our real government … right?
Although we don’t know what goes on behind closed doors, it’s probably safe to assume that the majority of the crazy things that happen in the show are fabricated to make good TV. There is one fault, however, that the characters and storylines exhibit that is glaringly similar to reality-the gridlock of party politics.
Last October, the U.S. government shut down for 16 days because Republicans and Democrats in Congress could not agree on a spending bill for the fiscal year. In this specific instance, the primary issue was the Republicans’ desire to defund or at least delay Obamacare, but there have been 17 previous shutdowns-technically termed “spending gaps”-in the government, as well as countless times when a shutdown was imminent because of party gridlock. This is such an unnecessary and unfortunate part of our political system, and it is a direct result of the rigid party polarization characterizing Congress.
No Labels, a national organization that has a Boston College branch, is dedicated to solving this exact problem. As a bipartisan group, its motto is “Not Left. Not Right. Forward.” It works to end the gridlock in Washington through campaigns like “Make Congress Work” and “Make the Presidency Work” that involve policy reform efforts such as requiring Congress to pass a budget before its members are paid. It has the support of many members of Congress who pledge to work across party lines, and while these ideas are not the most concrete or specific, what they represent is extremely important. No Labels is about encouraging collaboration and understanding between members of different parties so that they can do their jobs and fix the problems facing our nation. This cooperation is not a difficult task, and it should be a given in such a progressive democracy as ours.
Although this is most visibly an issue with politicians, ordinary Americans fall prey to this trap as well. A study by psychologist Geoffrey Cohen in 2003 examined the policy preferences of self-proclaimed liberals and conservatives to see whether those preferences were determined by content or party label. The participants evaluated generous or stringent welfare policies that were labeled as supported by either the Democrats or the Republicans, and despite the opposing liberal or conservative content of the policies-liberal ones were marked as Republican, and vice-versa-participants favored the policies associated with their party.
It is pretty appalling that people care more about the party label than the actual substance of the issue, and this does not bode well for elections. What does it say about our electoral process when people are voting strictly on party lines even if the candidates’ views are not in line with their own? Why do we even have debates (debates, bear in mind, that only include the two polarized parties) for the presidential elections if people have already decided for whom they are voting based simply on the party to which the politician belongs?
No one benefits from party polarization, and issues are not going to be fixed when politicians are too caught up in themselves to look at the bigger picture. We shouldn’t have to worry about a future government shutdown occurring-let alone a 19th-and we certainly shouldn’t be finding similarities in our own government to that of House of Cards. We need to find a way for Congress to work again, because no good comes from the politicking of the real Frank Underwoods.
Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.