Warning: Light spoilers through episode six of season three on House of Cards
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
That’s a phrase from history books that we take as a truism about the dangers of kings and monarchies.
But is that true?
I’ve been thinking about the concept of power as I make my way through the third season of House of Cards, with its exploration into the depth of corruption and power dynamics.
So far it’s lead me to a paradoxical conclusion, and it’s the opposite of the cautionary tale we read in history books.
Absolute power leads to powerlessness, and powerlessness leads to absolute power.
Just take a look at the arc of Frank Underwood’s power.
It would seem that he was getting the most done when he was still in the shadows as House majority whip, a position he deemed beneath him. He viewed himself as the figure “smiling just at the edge of the frame.”
But from that position, he was able to manipulate and control everyone around him. Even President Obama jokingly expressed admiration for Frank Underwood in this role, saying in 2013, “This guy’s getting a lot of stuff done” and “I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient.”
Things started to spiral out of his control the more he gained seemingly more powerful roles.
It’s coming to a head this season, when Frank has been reduced to a sobbing mess begging for money out of his White House office.
It seems like there’s roadblocks and obstacles at every turn. Coalitions are falling apart, partners turn on him and stab him in the back, Congress and the courts want to resist everything he does.
These powerful forces seem to beat each other into a stalemate. For instance, consider this dialogue from season five —
Hector Mendoza: We’re drafting a law that says that this use of funds is illegal.
Frank Underwood: And who’s going to enforce that law?
Bob Birch: We were ready to impeach one president; we’ll do the same with you, if necessary.
Frank Underwood: And put Donald Blythe in this office? You know he’s not up for the job. Congress would get killed for malpractice. As crooked as you may think I am, you know I can handle the pressure, and you know that Donald can’t. So pass your law, I’ll veto it, and when you overrule me in the Senate, we’ll let the third branch decide.
It’s mutually assured destruction of power. If everyone wields their power, no one does.
Of course, no one is better at mutually assured destruction than Russia. Frank’s Russian rival tries to humiliate him by French kissing his wife in front of his guests, after forcing everyone to take shots together.
Is this really the most powerful man in the world?
It’s the little things, too. Frank is (finally) having an honest moment standing in front of his first house. Of course, it gets interrupted by security telling him they need to leave to catch his plane.
Plus, through episode six I’ve yet to see Frank work out or take one of his late-night runs. Maybe it’s just me, but he’s looking a little chunkier these days. Maybe that’s another sign for all the ways he’s letting his life slip out of his control.
But it’s not just him.
When we first meet Russian leader Petrov, he seems like a bully who does whatever he wants on the world stage. Surely, if anyone has absolute power in today’s world, it’s him.
But then we find out he may actually have even less power. He feels trapped and forced into enforcing laws he thinks are stupid. Losing the tiniest grip on power could result in revolution. He’s less of a tyrant, and more of a scared bureaucrat.
So who does have actual power in this landscape?
Consider Claire’s comeback trail after a series of stumbles. She demanded that Frank make her ambassador, even after her position failed to get a majority. But then no one took her seriously.
She only found her stride when she used her vulnerability as a power move. First it was with the Russian diplomat, who she finally gained the upper hand on while she was applying make-up in the ladies room. Her mic drop moment came when she was peeing in front of him in an open stall.
But her most powerful statement came when she was at her lowest, after she had failed miserably to rescue Michael Corrigan. She was literally lying down on the job. She was exhausted, traumatized, and her inability to get her goal accomplished had dire global implications.
Instead of quietly covering up her failure, she decided to admit her defeat to the world. And it had the opposite effect.
“A lot of people are calling you a hero,” Frank says to Claire after seeing the A1 headline “First lady defiant, stands up to Petrov.”
It’s interesting to note that the headline says “first lady,” not the title “ambassador.”
Then there are the Tibetan monks, who spend a month working on their sand mandala in the White House as part of a “cultural exchange.” Frank seems incredulous when Meechum tells him they’ll be there for a month.
“A month?” he repeats. That timeline seems like an eternity to him, especially for something that seems so trivial.
Meanwhile, Clare and Frank get the presidential portrait taken for posterity — a process that both of them despise — and they fail to notice the temporary masterpiece being created in front of them.
Even though he had a full month’s notice, Frank misses the completion of the mandala. It’s destroyed before he can see the finished product.
Maybe it’s a metaphor for the impermanence of everything.
Maybe it shows the folly of trying to hold onto control, like sand sifting through your fingers.
Maybe it shows that absolute power becomes absolutely useless.
What’re you lookin’ at?!