The Democratic Party Leadership in House of Cards

House of Cards

House of Cards seems to be one of those shows tailor-made for me. But there’s one thing  it really gets wrong about the political party to which the main character belongs.

In the series, the President is a middle-aged white guy. The Vice President is an older white guy. The main character is a Democratic Majority Whip played by Kevin Spacey. His superiors in the beginning of the series: the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader, are played by Michael Siberry and Larry Pine, two white guys. And this isn’t how the Democratic party works today.

I did make an incorrect prediction last year that the Republican running mate wouldn’t be a white guy, and suggested that then-Governor of Puerto Rico Luis Fortuño was a likelier pick than Paul Ryan. But the Democratic Party’s strength in majority-minority districts has translated to diversity in the House leadership. In the real world, an old white guy is Vice-President, but the President is black. Democrats don’t hold the House, but their leadership since 2006 has been diverse. Nancy Pelosi was the Speaker of the House, and remains the Minority Leader. Steny Hoyer is the Minority Whip. And Jim Clyburn is the Deputy Minority Whip. In contrast to Pelosi (b.1940), Hoyer (b.1939) and Cylburn (b.1940) the leadership in House of Cards is younger, with the actors played by men born in 1956 (Siberry), 1945 (Pine) and 1959 (Spacey).

There isn’t much reason for all these minor roles to be filled by generic white guys. In a later storyline, Spacey’s Frank Underwood does manipulate things so that a leader of the Congressional Black Caucus becomes one of the top-ranking members of the House of Representatives. That adds some diversity to the leadership, although in real life Jim Clyburn had become Majority Whip back in 2007. As a side note, Clyburn is also the only remaining Democratic member of South Carolina’s congressional delegation, following the 2010 elections. There are currrently very few white Democratic members of the former confederacy in the House of Representatives (a majority of Southern Democrats in the US House come from majority-minority districts), which further makes Frank Underwood an anachronism.

In House of Cards, the President does have a Hispanic woman as his chief of staff (although the character is played by an Indian American actress) which suggests she got her position solely by merit, rather than a need for the appearance of diversity. There’s something Republican about this, as George W Bush professed to never care one way or the other about the milestone in appointing two African Americans to serve as Secretary of State. It does make the show more diverse, as the Chief of Staff is a member of the cast, unlike the rest of the White House or congressional leadership.

It wouldn’t have taken much for the leadership in the show to resemble the leadership of the actual Democratic party. The Speaker of the House could have been a woman. The President could have been Hispanic. Although, I can appreciate possible concerns with that casting. No one really thinks that a generic white male is a commentary on a specific individual. But an African-American President might become a stand-in for President Obama. A female Speaker of the House might be viewed as an analogue for Nancy Pelosi, and there’s a plot point that would have a different context if the Majority Leader were not a generic white guy. But this doesn’t seem to be enough reason for a fictional series to provide less diversity than real life.

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About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. Currently, I’m writing a few comic books about my grandparents’ experiences in Soviet Estonia for Grayhaven comics. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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