Why is House of Cards more popular than Yes Minister?
By Alberto Mingardi
The short answer to the question is: because it is a Netflix production with Kevin Spacey and the absolutely wonderful Robin Wright. But yet, let’s assume there’s more to that.
“House of Cards” and “Yes Minister” are two interesting contributions of British popular culture to our understanding of politics. “Yes, Minister” was launched in 1980, at the outset of the Thatcher years. Apparently, its author, Antony Jay, was inspired by Jim Buchanan and Public Choice, whom he got to know at London’s Institute of Economic Affairs.
“House of Cards” resulted from its author, Michael Dobbs, being fired by the Iron Lady (see, among others, this beautiful memory of Thatcher by Dobbs: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/margaret-thatcher/9990231/Michael-Dobbs-Its-only-now-that-I-understand-Margaret-Thatcher.html). Dobbs built upon his knowledge of British politics from the inside. To be sure, whereas Jay wrote a TV series and plays, Dobbs wrote novels that were made into TV shows first by BBC and later by Netflix.
I think dates are important here. “Yes Minister” depicts a political world composed of inept representatives of the people and smart civil servants who maneuver them, for the sake of preserving the status quo. “House of Cards” deals with tremendously ambitious politicians, their path littered with dead bodies to achieve their ambitions. One is a tale of political indecisiveness, one of political hyper-decisiveness. This difference between the two might have something to do with Mrs Thatcher’s political style (here’s, by the way, a most enjoyable Thatcher’s sketch with Sir Humphrey on “abolishing economists”).
But I would maintain it has also something to do with “House of Cards”‘ overwhelming success. Of course, “Yes Minister” was a British BBC production, in a world in which TV wasn’t yet truly “globalised” as it is now. It is a phenomenal show, but with quintessentially British humour.
But I think that it is not by chance that a new version, set in the American environment, isn’t in the plan of any network. “Yes Minister” teaches its audience that almighty politics is indeed powerless, if the bureaucracy exercises its veto power. It shows that great political formulas, so often used by campaigning candidates as well as standing prime ministers, are basically a façade. Governing is an art of mediating between different interests. Those in authority, who claim to exercise it so ruthlessly, are indeed forced every day to mediate and negotiate with an army of functionaries who may have a different agenda than the one of the supposedly all powerful leaders.
On the contrary, yes, “House of Cards” teaches its audience that politicians are ruthless and self-interested–and yet, they aim for great things. Frank Underwood complains about the bureaucratic mindset, but wins it over. He is a master of political strategy, and uses it for his advantage while climbing up to the White House. But once he arrives there, he wants to make a mark on history.
“The end justifies the means.” We have less of a problem in making peace with the fact that politicians may pursue their ambitions without acknowledging any limit, than in understanding that leaders aren’t but smaller cogs in a greater machinery. Better to be ruled by bastards who seek greatness than by powerless puppets.
I think this might have something to do with the fact we like to believe that government is still a human artifact under our control, and not a machinery that has a life of its own.