Shows like Scandal and House of Cards make for interesting entertainment, but they tell us little about how politics actually works.
The conspiracy theory holds an honored place in American politics. And during the recent media hype over the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, we got to revisit all those old ideas about “second shooters” and “grassy knolls.” I am no exception to this strange American past time, one summer during my misspent teenage years I too got obsessed with theories about Kennedy’s death (it was the mob! no the CIA! no the Cubans!) after watching Oliver Stone’s mesmerizing but deeply non-factual movie JFK.
Since then I’ve learned a lot more about how politics and government actually work and have come to the conclusion that the whole idea that there can be massive untraceable conspiracies is pretty silly. At the same time I’ve noticed that the entertainment industry seems to be bringing the idea of political corruption and nefarious schemes back into the limelight.
There have been a variety of TV shows focusing on political corruption and machinations to seize power recently. There’s ABC’s Scandal focusing on an all-powerful Washington “fixer” and Starz’s Boss about a corrupt mayor of Chicago who’s losing his mind. But for my money the biggest example of this trend would have to Netflix’s House of Cards, which will soon be releasing its second season. Based on a British miniseries from 1990 with the same name, House of Cards follows the quest of South Carolinian Congressman Frank Underwood, played wonderfully by Kevin Spacey, as he seeks to take revenge on the system that denied him promotion by bringing down the sitting President and taking the White House for himself. Undaunted by such petty things as laws or morality, Underwood begins destroying anyone and everyone in his way.
It makes for a great political thriller, but like so many other similar works it unfortunately doesn’t tell us anything about how politics actually works.
Corruption and nepotism do of course exist in our politics. But it’s hardly ever on the grand scale presented in House of Cards. Instead, it’s usually of a more pathetic greedy kind that ends with the FBI finding cash crammed into frozen food packages in your freezer. Not some hair brain scheme to make yourself president. The reality is that while massive political conspiracies can in fact happen in developed democracies, they almost always fail, and when they succeed they tend to be military coups that aren’t exactly secret.
To begin with, a life spent climbing the political ladder doesn’t really prepare you for doing criminal acts like killing or blackmailing people. America’s most famous political scandal, Watergate, is very instructive in this regard. To review, Richard Nixon wanted a secret domestic spying operation set up to work against his political opponents that would be run by the FBI. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover thought this was insane and basically refused by creating bureaucratic problems to block its implementation. In response, Nixon ordered the creation of a secret “counter intelligence” organization with illegally gathered money called “The Plumbers” to, among other things, plug leaks to the press caused in no small way by Nixon’s dictatorial style of dealing with government bureaucracies.
“The Plumbers” and other groups recruited by Nixon’s acolytes then went on to commit all sorts of criminal acts to smear and bug The President’s political foes. But then in June of 1972 they got caught trying to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building (hence the name) in Washington. This began the chain of events that led to President Nixon resigning in disgrace a little over two years later.
But in the meantime Nixon tried all sorts of ways to try and cover up his initial criminal acts with more criminal conspiracies. One of which was to pay the arrested Watergate burglars hush money to keep quiet. Unfortunately this plan didn’t go very well. The burglars kept demanding more money and threatened to tell what they knew about The White House’s involvement if they didn’t get it. Here’s a transcript of Nixon talking with then White House Counsel John Dean (with emphasis added):
Dean [to Nixon]: …Now, where, where are the soft spots on this? Well, first of all, there’s the, there’s the problem of the continued blackmail…which will not only go on now, it’ll go on when these people are in prison, and it will compound the obstruction-of-justice situation. It’ll cost money. It’s dangerous. Nobody, nothing — people around here are not pros at this sort of thing. This is the sort of thing Mafia people can do: washing money, getting clean money, and things like that uh, — we’re — we just don’t know about those things, because we’re not use to, you know — we are not criminals.
Nixon: That’s right….How much money do you need?
Dean: I would say these people are going to cost, uh, a million dollars over the next, oh, two years.
Nixon: We could get that…if you need the money…you could get the money….What I mean is, you could, you could get a million dollars. And you could get in in cash. I, I know where it could be gotten.
That really puts the main problem a Frank Underwood or anyone else trying to orchestrate a massive conspiracy in the American political system into sharp relief. You, unlike a KGB operative or member of the Gambino crime family, probably have no idea what you’re doing. And even if you do, it would be even harder to assemble a team of people in the government who also knew what they were doing and could assist you.
Another major mistake a lot of conspiracy theorists make is how they often ignore how the other bureaucratic institutions of the state work. Bureaucracies simply don’t respond well to dictatorial orders in this country or others. If fact if you want an extreme example, even Adolf Hitler, who had no legal constraints on his powers and could quite literally have people who disagreed with him shot, couldn’t get the bureaucracies of the Nazi state to give him exactly what he wanted.
Once again Watergate is helpful to understand this principle in an American context. The press loves to claim that Bob Woodard and Carl Bernstein brought down Nixon single handed. But that’s mainly a myth created by their presence of mind to write a book about their experiences and luck to have it turned into a movie a few years later (not to mention to media’s tendency to always explain politics in terms of how the media influenced the outcome). Their coverage, and the coverage of many other journalists that aren’t remembered today, certainly helped push the story forward. But what ultimately caused Nixon’s downfall was the criminal investigation by career prosecutors in the Department of Justice that ultimately uncovered the so called “smoking gun” tape of Nixon ordering a cover up, and the Congressional investigations that resulted in the beginning of impeachment proceedings that forced Nixon to resign.
In a large way the story of Watergate can be seen as a reality check on what happens to political conspiracies in real life. Part of the government, the President and his immediate staff, broke the law and subverted the Constitution to try and gain political power. In response, the rest of the government, that is the Judicial Branch, Congress, and the parts of the Executive Branch outside of the Presidency, resisted the President’s efforts and then ultimately destroyed him in their response.
That might be how House of Cards ends, we’ll have to wait and see for season two to come out to know for sure. But if it doesn’t, don’t take it too seriously.
–Photo by wallyg/Flickr