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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

By Ed Smith

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.

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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)

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