If there’s one criticism that’s stuck to the hit Netflix series House of Cards, it’s that its depiction of Washington nihilism and psychopathy goes beyond reality. The cast of characters in the dark political drama, now in its second season, exude a toxic mix of venality and egotism that is startling even by D.C. standards. The show’s absence of noble reformers and righteous idealists such as a President Jeb Bartlet won it the moniker "the anti-West Wing." But many of Washington’s real-life starry-eyed reformers don’t hold it against the show for leaving them out of lead roles: They love the series.
"I binge-watched it the weekend of President’s Day," said Greg Jacob, a former marine and policy director of Service Women’s Action Network, a group that advocates on behalf of victims of sexual assault in the military.
Jacob, like other reformers in the worlds of campaign finance, the military and education, had a reason to watch the show: Baked into its plot are issues he cares deeply about. (Reader warning: Major spoilers ahead). Among numerous subplots in the show is an effort to reform the military justice system by Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), the wife of protagonist and Vice President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey). Like real-life battles to create civilian oversight in the military justice system, the reform effort faced stiff pushback from military and congressional leaders at the outset.
One scene depicts Claire and the First Lady meeting with representatives of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss the problem of sexual assault in the military, only to be rebuffed with assurances that the current system is working.
"That’s the same response we used to get from the DOD," said Jacob. "They took this very defensive tone. ‘Why are you bringing this up? We have this under control.’" But even though in fictional Washington Jacob’s side loses, and loses badly, he couldn’t help but be enthralled by the story arc. "It was riveting," he said.
Jacob wasn’t the only one experiencing deja vu. In a press release this week, New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter trumpeted the fact that the scene with the First and Second Ladies alludes to her work on military sexual assault reform. In the fictional meeting with the Joint Chiefs, Claire points to a problematic military brochure advising victims that "it may be advisable to submit than to resist." In real life, Slaughter, a Democrat from New York, sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel complaining about the Air Force brochure (pictured here) that advised victims to submit to sexual assault. The service pulled the brochure last June; the Pentagon also agreed to conduct a review of all sexual assult materials that the military distributes.
Ultimately, the the fictional legislation is gutted in order to pave the way for the vice president’s ruthless rise to the presidency. It was a defeat perhaps more unsavory than the real-life setback faced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) when her amendment to remove the prosecution of rape from the military chain of command was dropped from the defense authorization act in December. (Gillibrand is trying to advance a stand-alone bill in its stead).
But military sexual assault wasn’t the only subplot that enraptured passionate reformers. The show’s slow-brewing campaign finance scandal provided grist for observers of the Supreme Court’s landmark 2010 Citizens United decision, which gave birth to the political fundraising vehicles known as Super PACs.
"I actually marathoned all the episodes last weekend," said David Earley, a campaign finance expert at NYU’s School of Law.
To the delight of campaign finance experts, House of Cards taps into the timely issue of foreigners exploiting Super PACs to influence U.S. elections. In the series, foreign contributions from China are laundered through a casino that uses gambling money to conceal the origins of the donations. That money, estimated in the show to be around $25 million, goes to an influential Super PAC that ends up working against Frank and his Democratic allies.
"Putting aside the often absurd yet entertaining plot of the show generally, the campaign finance events portrayed in the show could actually happen in real life," said Earley. It’s unlikely that there’s ever been a TV drama that deals with Super PACs in this much detail — a fact not lost on viewers familiar with the esoteric issue.
"The scheme utilized in the show would be nearly impossible without Citizens United," Earley said. The 2010 Supreme Court case led to a later D.C. Circuit decision, which removed contribution limits for what would become super PACs. As a result, a foreign national could anonymously funnel the $25 million into a federal election through the use of shell corporations and Super PACs, Earley says. The scheme was always illegal, but it became easier to execute after Citizens United.
That’s not to say the show had every detail of the scheme exactly right. One case: during an Oval Office meeting, a character says that money has been funneled to Super PACs since 2005. "This is technically wrong," said Earley. "Super PACs only arose after Citizens United and SpeechNow [the D.C. Circuit case] were decided in 2010 — there was no such thing as a super PAC in 2005."
By and large, reformers who spoke to The Cable were willing to overlook the technical flaws of the show given the overall ambition of the script. It seems that by highlighting the filth of Washington, House of Cards found allies in those most interested in cleaning it up, which makes sense in a way. If awareness is the first step of reform, House of Cards represents a blaring siren of malfeasance.