Dystopian vision: Kevin Spacey arrives at a special screening of House of Cards Series 2 in LA, February 2014. (Photo: Getty)
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The House of Cards school of political ambition is flawed

Simplistic self-interest is not just bad PR, it is often bad strategy

Is cynicism overrated? My question is strategic rather than moral. Even if your ambition is worldly success alone – with no regard for your own happiness, let alone anyone else’s – would that end be best served by mastering an exclusively self-interested approach? Leaving aside the wider issue of conscience and sleepless nights, does cynicism work in even the narrowest practical terms?

I ask the question having just finished watching the second series of House of Cards, the US television series starring Kevin Spacey as an amoral Washington politician. Frank Underwood and his wife – with very occasional exceptions – are both perfectly self-interested. Theirs is an alliance rather than a conventional marriage. Their goal is power. Their means are whatever it takes. Everything else is collateral. Their only virtue is private honesty: they do not pretend to themselves that they are pursuing anything other than advancement. And it works. The Underwoods fool no one about their motives and yet still win the political game, gradually exploiting the weaknesses of everyone who stands in their way.

It sounds silly to argue with the premise of a work of fiction, especially as the plot is too outrageous to pass as a serious reflection of political reality. At a deeper level, however, House of Cards panders to a seductively simple world-view; indeed, it glamorises it. Whereas Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing fantasised about a liberal philosopher-king in the White House and a court of idealistic intellectuals at his service, House of Cards portrays the world in the opposite light. As there is never a shortage of cynics eager to pick holes in optimistic drama, it is only fair to challenge the assumptions of the self-interested.

In the real world, nakedly ambitious people rarely achieve their ambitions. I remember one clever, cynical and precociously driven undergraduate at university being routinely referred to as “a future cabinet minister”. If he was so clever, however, why was his ambition the first thing – often the only thing – that everyone noticed? Just as it is a failure of charm to be thought of as charming, it is unworldly to be thought of as impatiently ambitious. My university peer did eventually stand for parliament but was not elected.

He would have been better served reading more Shakespeare and less Machiavelli. Taken together, the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V offer a sustained exploration of differing approaches to ambition. In Shakespeare’s account, the feckless and hedonistic early life of Prince Hal (the future Henry V) was central to his eventual political triumph. Better to surprise everyone with a late conversion to discipline and ambition than to be seen as a coldly calculating strategist all along.

Hal admits, however, that a part of him was always just playing Jack the Lad:

 

So, when this loose behaviour I throw off,

And pay the debt I never promised,

By how much better than my word I am,

By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;

And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,

My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,

Shall show more goodly, and attract

more eyes,

Than that which hath no foil to set it off.

While Hal could be accused of merely higher self-interest, I’ve seen similar journeys undertaken more spontaneously. In professional sport, two of the most effective captains I encountered, Andrew Strauss and Michael Vaughan, had both previously been fun-loving young players. Their progress was a natural journey, not a premeditated assault on high office. Each enjoyed his early career, happily anonymous in the ranks. I wouldn’t accuse either of cynically withholding his hand. Their late switch to seeking office came partly as a surprise to them as well as other people. They realised by increments, as they worked their way through the field, how far they could go and how well they might do.

My argument runs deeper than advocating elegant mock-diffidence. Simplistic self-interest is not just bad PR, it is often bad strategy. It suffers from a fatal flaw: it is predictable. It is usually easy enough to work out where someone’s self-interest lies. A constant attachment to getting ahead is a strategic limitation.

The best leaders I have encountered demonstrated a gift for surprise. They did not approach decisions as straightforward calculations; rather, you sensed the interaction of many different motives, ranging from self-protection to altruism. Crucially, I suspect that even they did not fully understand how they weighed and balanced their needs and aspirations. Their motives were opaque not only to others but even to themselves. That uncertainty about what they were thinking inspired a mixture of fear and hope.

Which brings us to an explanation, I think, of why the cynical position is so overrated. It offers, in a depressing way, a thrillingly simplistic account of humanity. Whatever the question, the answer is the same: self-interest. If we can gather all the relevant information – and discover people’s weak spots and susceptibilities – an optimal strategy will inevitably emerge. Frank Underwood will be able to tell us what to do next.

The alternative view – that human motivation is usually complicated and often unfathomable – demands a permanent acceptance of uncertainty and the possibility of hope. There is no overarching rule for getting on, because human motivation cannot be reduced to a formula.

The world portrayed as a cynical dystopia has a bracing clarity. Yet it is a narrative con, every bit as much as sentimentality is. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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Appreciate the full horror of Nigel Farage's pro-Trump speech

The former Ukip leader has appeared at a Donald Trump rally. It went exactly as you would expect.

It is with a heavy heart that I must announce Nigel Farage is at it again.

The on-again, off-again Ukip leader and current Member of the European Parliament has appeared at a Donald Trump rally to lend his support to the presidential candidate.

It was, predictably, distressing.

Farage started by telling his American audience why they, like he, should be positive.

"I come to you from the United Kingdom"

Okay, good start. Undeniably true.

"– with a message of hope –

Again, probably quite true.

Image: Clearly hopeful (Wikipedia Screenshot)

– and optimism.”

Ah.

Image: Nigel Farage in front of a poster showing immigrants who are definitely not European (Getty)

He continues: “If the little people, if the real people–”

Wait, what?

Why is Trump nodding sagely at this?

The little people?

Image: It's a plane with the name Trump on it (Wikimedia Commons)

THE LITTLE PEOPLE?

Image: It's the word Trump on the side of a skyscraper I can't cope with this (Pixel)

THE ONLY LITTLE PERSON CLOSE TO TRUMP IS RIDING A MASSIVE STUFFED LION

Image: I don't even know what to tell you. It's Trump and his wife and a child riding a stuffed lion. 

IN A PENTHOUSE

A PENTHOUSE WHICH LOOKS LIKE LIBERACE WAS LET LOOSE WITH THE GILT ON DAY FIVE OF A PARTICULARLY BAD BENDER

Image: So much gold. Just gold, everywhere.

HIS WIFE HAS SO MANY BAGS SHE HAS TO EMPLOY A BAG MAN TO CARRY THEM

Image: I did not even know there were so many styles of Louis Vuitton, and my dentists has a lot of old copies of Vogue.

Anyway. Back to Farage, who is telling the little people that they can win "against the forces of global corporatism".

 

Image: Aaaaarggghhhh (Wikipedia Screenshot)

Ugh. Okay. What next? Oh god, he's telling them they can have a Brexit moment.

“... you can beat Washington...”

“... if enough decent people...”

“...are prepared to stand up against the establishment”

Image: A screenshot from Donald Trump's Wikipedia page.

I think I need a lie down.

Watch the full clip here:

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland