5 Ways 'House of Cards' Gets the 2016 Election Right—and Wrong

Netflix’s hit show “House of Cards” just released its fourth season, and with it, the show received its highest ratings yet, according to Rotten Tomatoes. The show loosely follows real political trends in the United States, and this year it scored some major wins — but also hit a few large snags. Here are the five most notable things it gets right, and wrong.


1. Old Democrats, Young Republicans

This season of “House of Cards” features a campaign showdown much in keeping with the 2016 race. An older Democratic couple in an open marriage faces a young Republican challenger who is intensely devoted to his wife and two young children. This foil fits a Clinton-Rubio or Clinton-Cruz race very well, without being overbearing with the comparison. Naturally, if Trump becomes the Republican nominee the parallel won’t quite work. Not to mention the fact that the Clintons have a daughter and granddaughter while “House of Cards” main characters Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) do not.

2. Technology and Politics

Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) is not only a young and compelling Republican candidate — he also has ties to a data analytics company, Polyhop. Conway’s team delves deeply into the electorate using metadata — where certain types of voters go to eat, go to work, get their coffee. This kind of information exists in real life, but it is not as easy to pin to political views as the show suggests. Nevertheless, metadata and analytics have made a huge difference in political campaigns in recent years, and it is refreshing to see “House of Cards” take up this complex issue.


3. The IRS Scandal, Emails, and Transparency

Conway and his wife Hannah (Dominique McElligott) post a huge amount of their lives on social media, breaking new ground in terms of “transparency.” Conway’s family videos put me in mind of the excellent videos the Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz campaigns released, and the livestream of Rand Paul’s life when he was a presidential candidate — which NPR heralded as “the future of campaigning.”

They contrast this with Underwood’s backdoor dealings. At one point, Frank Underwood toys with the idea of using the National Security Agency (NSA) to match Polyhop:

Imagine a duel, me and Conway. Now Conway has a powerful gun, a search engine. It’s powerful because, with it, he can tell what you think, what you want, where you are, and who you are. He can turn all those searches into votes, and that’s enough bullets to kill my chances of winning. But I have an even bigger gun — it’s called the NSA, one of the perks of being president…I can see you, and I can use what I see to rig this election.

This is the “House of Cards” version of the IRS scandal, where the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative groups, giving the other side an advantage in the 2012 election. But this theme also plays with the issue of privacy, and the civil liberties potentially violated by government accessing data from your phone. Very on-point.


4. Gun Control

“House of Cards” nails some issues, but it gets gun control laughably wrong. Not only does it present a Democratic Party divided on the issue, it also mentions ways of acquiring guns which are not possible in real life. This seems like a subtle way of mis-educating the public on the issue. Claire Underwood declares:

This gun was illegally obtained by a career criminal, at a gun show, where background checks aren’t mandatory….This one was ordered on the internet, no background checks.

These events may be permissible, since “House of Cards” is clearly a work of fiction. But they do tend to back up demonstrably false claims about gun sales, such as the idea of a “gun show loophole” or President Obama’s claims that violent felons can purchase firearms online.

Warning: Spoilers on Next Page

5. Season Four Gets Politics Right

After the one time in American history when a president resigned in order to avoid impeachment, his vice president faced a tough primary battle and was defeated in the general election. It would have been very hard for Gerald Ford to have been elected in his own right, after the sting of Richard Nixon’s scandal. Recent presidents who have gotten shot, however, experienced a huge boost in approval ratings: Kennedy is remembered as an icon of hope, and Reagan’s cross-party appeal traces back to the assassination attempt against his life.


When Frank Underwood takes a bullet, his Democratic primary opponent knows her campaign is finished. She drops out, and Underwood’s recovery brings him almost even with the popular rising star Republican governor of New York. These events would have this political result, and the show deserves credit for that.



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