Alberto Mingardi  

Why is House of Cards more popular than Yes Minister?

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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 fa├žade. 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.


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CATEGORIES: Economics and Culture




COMMENTS (9 to date)
Daniel Klein writes:

Although I've seen little of "Yes, Minister" and none of "House of Cards," I have a feeling that you have really put your finger on something.

Michael Clarke writes:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hollowmen

Australian version of Yes Minister, from about 5 years ago. Quite Australian-ish humour, but contains same underlying themes.

_NL writes:

Just in the last week I saw series 2 and 3 of the UK House of Cards. A few years ago I watched the full run of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister. Both feel dated in a lot of ways, but have a lot of merit - especially if you grade on a curve. The Netflix series is great, but it's surprising some of the storylines that are clearly inspired by the old UK version.

You might argue that The Thick of It, which I think is still on hulu, is to some extent a reimagining of Yes Minster. The HBO series Veep is related to the Thick of It, so one could argue that in some very loose sense, Veep is a modern version of Yes Minister.

But I agree with your point that it's generally considered better to go with overwrought, dramatic, and important presidents. Better a brutal murderer than a clueless buffoon, appears to be the thinking.

Dan Hill writes:

This is a bit like those sports magazine articles headlined "the top ten sporting moments of 2014" which are really the top ten American sporting moments (I guarantee the 2015 version won't include Australia winning the Cricket World Cup).

Your headline ought to read "Why is House of Cards more popular than Yes, Minister IN THE UNITED STATES."

At least in countries with a Westminster system of government, like my native Australia, Yes, Minister was massively popular. I haven't seen the US version of House of Cards, but I found the original UK version much less entertaining and insightful than Yes, Minister (which I rewatched a couple of years ago on PBS and still found to be brilliant).

There's one fundamental problem with Yes, Minister for US audiences - the idea of the Permanent Secretary. Yes, there is a bureaucracy in DC with its own interests, but no equivalent of Sir Humphrey Appleby, when the top 10,000 positions or so change with every administration.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

One series reflects reactions to motivations.

The other seeks to demonstrate motivations engendering reactions.

One can be amusing - the other demonstrative and reinforcing of impressions.

Julien writes:

There is one more series I'd recommend on the inner working of politics (and its media symbiote): Borgen (means "government" in danish).
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1526318/

Fralupo writes:

They aren't really comparable, since "Yes, Minister" is set thirty(!) years ago in a different political system, dealing with another country's class distinctions, and different economy.

As an example: how, exactly, would you sell a story to an American audience where NAFTA (the ECC) is about to ban the hot dog (English sausage), and the main character needs an entire episode to figure out he's going to fight that decision?

"Veep" gets close, but not much, I think.

mico writes:

The US doesn't have a civil service in the British sense. In practice it does but it is a lot more amorphous and probably less inclined to the status quo - it's 1000 hollering lobbyists trying to jam themselves both ways into a revolving door, rather than an aristocratic gate keeper trying to make sure the floors stay clean.

Mercer writes:

It would be hard to have an American equivalent to Humphrey. Cards also has a lot more sex and violence.

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