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Understanding Theories through Popular Culture: Hierarchy and Anarchy in Netflix’s House of Cards

By Nachiket Midha

Popular culture has arguably become a microcosm of the real world. It has become a quintessential part of our experiences and interactions. It wouldn’t be a stretch to claim that popular culture—in its present condition—has become a reflection of what constitutes the realm of the real. Since conceivably, a large part of what constitutes the “real” is political, by way of deduction then, world politics as we know it becomes inseparable from the idea of popular culture. Here, it becomes imperative to mention that this idea of an association between popular culture and world politics is bipartite. In other words, as Susanna Hast argues, “…it is not only that popular culture constructs representations of world politics, but popular culture makes and even is, world politics.”One can take a realist (explicitly concerned with power, force and military) standpoint, wherein through propaganda films, “states actively use popular culture…In both wartime and peacetime.” To that end, this article tries to analyze Netflix’s House of Cards through two theoretical lenses—liberalism and realism. The specific focus of this article will be to decode the U.S-Russia relationship as depicted in season three of the series, with distinguishing attention to the incident where Russia imprisons an American gay rights activist. In that regard, this article intends to discern the role of the theoretical paradigms—and how these contrast—through the interactions and negotiations involving the different protagonists.

Summary of the Plot

Here’s a  summary of the plotline. Since only season three of the series is relevant to this discussion, the focus will be on that. In this season, the protagonist Frank Underwood becomes the President of the United States after ruthlessly ploying and cheating to ‘climb up the ladder’ by pushing the sitting President Walker into a personal and political turmoil leading to his resignation.

Now Frank has a bigger fish to fry. At the starting of the season (in episode three), we see in the opening scene itself a bunch of gay rights activists protesting in front of the White House a few minutes ahead of the Russian President Viktor Petrov’s arrival to meet with Frank Underwood. Interestingly, at that very moment, talking to his chief of staff, Frank instructs him that he wants to “have the band [of activists] …playing as loud as they can” as soon as Petrov’s motorcade arrives. In addition, Frank’s invitation to the Pussy Riots dissidents (indicated a few seconds later in the scene) to the state dinner is indicative of the fact that he needs to build up pressure for something of greater significance. The speculation gets cleared as soon as Petrov arrives, and they have a brief discussion while entering the White House down the aisle. Petrov informs Underwood that he has reviewed the Jordan Valley proposal, and very unambivalently, he repudiated the plan. In the subsequent episode, while the deal remains hanging, in the United Nations, Claire Underwood (the first lady and also the ambassador to the UN) tries to bypass Russia’s veto to garner support for the US’ Jordan valley Proposal. Agitated by this, Russia arrests Michael Corrigan, an American gay rights activist, to prosecute him.

Hierarchy and The Strand of Liberalism

Liberal theory in international relations (IR), like any other IR theory, rests on certain assumptions and deals with certain levels of analysis. In other words, liberal IR theory builds on assumptions and takes a unit to analyze those assumptions. In our case, Andrew Moravcsik’s first assumption that gives primacy to societal actors is pertinent for two reasons. Firstly, it helps explain why states interact and negotiate. Simply, under this framework, inter-state interaction occurs to represent an interest or a coalition of interests that an individual or a group represents to gain a comparative advantage—domestic or international. In our example, Michael Corrigan is that individual, and Frank Underwood (read the United States) represents interests on his behalf to Viktor Petrov (read Russia). Probing this a little further, one can claim that “…much of international politics occurs in spaces which cannot be captured by…four levels of analysis (systemic, regional, bilateral, state),” like in our case, the particularity of an individual and their identity. Second, and more profoundly, the significance of these individual actors in transnational politics attributes a distinct agency to their interests (or cause). In Michael Corrigan’s case, through the state as the supreme negotiator, his release was made conditional on a statement of apology to the Russian Federation. Corrigan’s denial to apologize—seen in the form of him committing suicide—granted meaning to the cause of gay rights he was fighting for, thus attributing an agency to it on its own. The fact that Michael Corrigan as a gay man in Russia, publicly acting against this ‘other’ state truly represents global governance “…result[ing] from citizens going global—from crime to commerce to civic engagement.” In a more liberal perspective, in Corrigan’s context, one can deem this as deterritorialization of ideas and thoughts. Then this becomes a “bottom-up” contextualization to understand world politics. 

A question then arises in this strand of liberalism, how does the state operate in this framework? To answer this, we can imagine that within this liberal framework, an inseparable notion of internal hierarchy exists in which states occupy the most distinguished position. The concept of trans-governmental networks could be comprehended to explicate this notion of internal hierarchy in a way. Following up on our example, we earlier labelled the state as the ‘supreme negotiator,’ and in that context, a hierarchy exists very conspicuously. One might ask, how does that hierarchy exist? Crudely put, Michael Corrigan (read a trans-national individual) cannot negotiate with the ‘other’ state all by himself since he is not on an equal footing vis-a-vis the Russian federation. Thus, in this framework, a hierarchy is required. To contextualize this more clearly, in liberal IR theory, “The state is not the only actor in the international system, but it is still the most important actor.” Undoubtedly, this hierarchy is operating in House of Cards, with Corrigan and his agenda, as a distinct component of that state which Frank Underwood is representing. 

But, what does the state—both the Russian and the American—have to gain from all this? Before probing this further, we must note that even while operating in this theoretical paradigm, national interest still remains the referent point. In our case Petrov and Frank, or both states, are negotiating in the backdrop of the Jordan Valley negotiations. Michael Corrigan thus becomes a crucial hinge point for both parties. While Corrigan is Russia’s pressure point against the United States, parallelly, Claire Underwood is building pressure in the United Nations against Russia is United States’ pressure point. Interestingly, these pressure points are products of interactions that happen in a trans-governmental and transnational sense.

Finally, and more importantly so, this strand in House of Cards reinforces the idea that “…state is not disappearing, but it is disaggregating into its component[s].” And, thus showing how this liberal international space opens up as an arena for both contestation (not in a realist militaristic sense) and resolution. 

Power, Anarchy and The Strand of Realism

Power is at the core of realist philosophy. The realist school of IR has produced sub-schools within it, but power remains at the center of them all. The difference lies only in the contextualization and conceptualization of this power. Hitherto, we have negated the concept of power from our analysis; however, it—if not more—is equally vital to understand how the world works. In Morgenthau’s formulation, the ‘greed’ for power is inherent in human nature. In a more radical formulation of this, there is a “lust for power” natural to human beings (and states) that drive their behavior. Since Morgenthau’s classical realism has its roots in human nature, our characters in House of Cards, specifically Viktor and Frank, can be considered to embody their respective states in themselves. In other words, the state’s anthropomorphization becomes essential to understand how power becomes central to all negotiations. 

To better illustrate how power becomes central to this anthropomorphized (humanized) state, one needs to look at the characters themselves. Both Petrov and Frank have apparent greed or ‘lust’ for power rooted in their nature. To quote an instance, one can look at the conversation between Frank and Petrov when the former invites the latter to smoke cigars after the state dinner. Before the actual dialogue, however, Frank addresses the viewers by looking into the camera and says, “I’d push him [Petrov] down the stairs and light his broken body on fire just to watch it burn. If it wouldn’t start a world war.” This example, for any realist thinker, to put it colloquially, is the holy grail. It shows the extent of Frank’s pursuit of power, but at the very moment also subtly indicates the anarchic nature of the international system (since the move might start a world war, and no rules are dictating who can or cannot enter war). A few moments later, Viktor tells Frank that he might consider the Jordan Valley proposal only if the United States agrees to dismantle the missile defense system in Europe. In doing this, Russia (Petrov) is trying to gain a strategic advantage near its borders and secure itself. However, the most compelling exchange was at the end of the conversation after smoking the cigars. Frank tells Petrov, “We’re not men of excess, though, are we?” And, Petrov questions that by saying, “Aren’t we?” Unquestionably, they are men of excess who need more power to try and overpower each other. Thus, the anthropomorphized state in itself requires this power to survive.

Where does one place Michael Corrigan in this framework? He is very much inseparable from this idea of a power tussle between the two nations. But the way we need to understand power should be multidimensional and not monolithic to comprehend how Corrigan is a power possession for Russia. About power possession, argues that designating “something…as a ‘power resource‘ is to imply something about its usefulness in getting others to change their behavior.” Precisely that is how Russia intends to use Corrigan against the United States. The US is well aware that Corrigan is a powerful resource to Russia, so instead, it reassigns its own troops in the Jordan Valley through an executive order. It is an immediate security threat to Russia since American troops will be extremely close to the Russian Caucasus. Considering this, Russia (read Petrov) agrees to release Corrigan and re-negotiate the Jordan Valley proposal.

However, Russia is not entirely at a disadvantage since it still possesses the most indispensable bargaining chip—Michael Corrigan. That is why Petrov later indicates that “If there is no statement [of apology from Corrigan], there is no deal on any front.” But this personified United States wants the deal to maximize its power because (a)it is in his nature, it is intrinsic; and (b)he cannot be sure of the other’s intentions . Thus, this realist strand, wholly based upon power maximization, reinforces the realist school. The reinforcement of the concept of external (international) anarchy is also apparent here. Nevertheless, in our case, it also breaks away from the traditional idea of power, and the argument gains a new legitimacy to view power in a multidimensional sense.

Conclusion—Popular Culture: A testing ground for IR theories

In conclusion, we can see how theoretical binaries, in actuality, can be fluid and intersectional. Through two contrasting approaches, liberalism and realism, one can have two readings of the same event. Furthermore, in some senses, popular culture analysis can help ‘test’ our theories and intuitions. Additionally, and more significantly, it can also help us identify the gaps that might exist in our theoretical assumptions and aid us in restructuring them to adequately grasp the real.

Nachiket is a second-year undergraduate at Ashoka University studying Political Science and International Relations.
Nachiket Midha | LinkedIn

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