Growing up in a small town in a forgettable part of the country, he wanted to achieve something great since he was a little boy. He overflowed with ambition and talent, excelling in his studies and earning attendance to an elite private school for college. He ran for public office at a young age, overcoming the odds to win, and lapping up praise for his smooth-talking public speaking skills and enduring ability to reach across the aisle to get things done. He campaigns on a rational pragmatism, condemning progressives as good-intentioned big government idealists, believing what Americans really need is a government that helps them help themselves. And after a failed bid at a more influential position, which went to a more politically connected Democratic insider, we finally find him making the jump for the highest office in the land: the Presidency of the United States.
He was Francis “Frank” Underwood, the cunning and ambitious antihero of the political drama show House of Cards.
But you wouldn’t be wrong to find uncanny similarities between Frank and Peter “Pete” Buttigieg, the cunning and ambitious current antihero of the 2020 Democratic primaries.
Calculated. Soft-spoken. Magnanimous. Like Frank’s political persona in House of Cards, Pete is a big fish from a small pond, hungry to take his place at the top of the waterfall:
“That’s how you devour a whale. One bite at a time.”
And that quote from the acclaimed political drama perfectly describes Pete Buttigieg’s entire political career.
According to revelations from a longtime classmate, Mayor Pete harbored blunt and calculated ambitions for the Presidency since his elementary school days. Growing up in the industrial has-been of South Bend, Indiana, Pete idolized John F. Kennedy, the martyred President-of-old who somehow won the hearts and minds of America with bold, big ideas and unifyingly contagious charisma.
Pete was valedictorian of his lowly middle school class, and wrote longingly about the Kennedy family throughout his developing years in suburban South Bend. His early political savvy and smarts saw him catapult all the way to elite Harvard University, where he scoffed at the leftist loonies of the day in favor of a more practical, politically solvent centrism. While his progressive classmates would chase their dreams, Pete would craft his own reality.
Similarly, Frank Underwood is described as a witty and intelligent figure since boyhood. Frank grew up poor in a rural trashdump called Gaffney in South Carolina. Frank escapes his humble roots by attending The Sentinel, an elite military school. There, Frank formed his political convictions, plotting with his future wife Claire for their path to power in government.
Pete undertook a stint at a private analytics firm before charting his own path to power. He returned to South Bend as its Mayor, armed with a Harvard education and an ambition to work with anyone and everyone to get things done. It wasn’t extravagant work, but it was a resume-builder. When he finally decided to gun for a higher office however, Pete campaigned on his ability to work with others. He ran for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship and lost to the more experienced and politically connected Tom Perez.
Similarly, Frank ran for and won a seat in the South Carolina State Senate at the young age of 25. He later won a seat in the House of Representatives, winning against the odds with his unique brand of calculated pragmatism. Frank worked his way up to Democratic Whip, building a resume of getting things done and getting people to get those things done for him. When he got the chance to snag the Secretary of State position, he was passed over in favor of a more politically connected rival.
To be fair, Pete is not everything Frank Underwood is. The House of Cards star routinely killed people, broke the law, and acted with a cunning, corrupt touch that Trump wishes he had a grasp of.
What Pete is of Frank’s, however, is a naked ambition for glory cloaked in the ideological wrappings of neoliberalism, “pragmatism”, and elitist lecturing masquerading as rural rabblerousing.
Like Frank, Pete overemphasizes his background from a small town. Frank Underwood grew up in a rural Gaffney much like Pete grew up in working class South Bend. However, both of them ended up attending elite schools. Both were exposed to an entire upper echelon of society, a taste of which gives them a sense of entitlement that often results from those positions of privilege.
As a result, Pete speaks as if he wants to be the common man’s savior, yet he hardly speaks the common man’s language. Pete’s poetic prose befit of a TedTalk rather than a beer stop. Like a Frank Underwood-style Tidewater soliloquy, Pete sows fanciful stories of empty factories and desolate streets that only his brand of practical policy concoctions can cure, ignoring how active he is in promoting those problems; he crusades for free trade agreements that empty factories and anti-homelessness policies that empty the streets.
What’s worse, Pete and Frank are inseparable when it comes to actual policy. Frank Underwood institutes a trial run in Washington DC of his damningly cruel government policy plan called “America Works”. Based on the assumption that “you are entitled to nothing” and people bettering themselves through work, Frank slashes welfare spending, raids seniors’ social security, and directs all that money to FEMA to fund a paid job for every unemployed person in Washington “who wants one”. The plan spectacularly fails, as a hurricane is set to make landfall and FEMA must either pay these new workers or prevent a natural disaster in the making.
Similarly, Pete campaigns on a meritocratic pipe dream where Americans earn what they get from government, while Americans he perceives as not contributing, do not. His flagship policy is Medicare “for all who want it”, assuming Americans who don’t have insurance should choose between between free or expensive healthcare. Pete’s proposal believes people like choices, no matter how fragile those choices are, and so choosing between a private plan or a Medicare plan rightfully keeps big insurance companies alive to extort people for basic health needs, while steering the seemingly undeserving masses away from the taxpayer-paid, less funded Medicare option they so dearly need.
Pete’s education policy is framed the same way, assuming people of a certain income bracket deserve a free college, while the rest of the country would be just gaming the system if they got one.
Pete’s healthcare plan at least is doomed to fail, as insurance companies will remain to exploit people under their “chosen” plans. Additionally, by needlessly competing with them without the proper attention to work efficiently, Medicare will become a money pit where tax dollars go to die.
Add in the fact that Pete has a particular distain for progressives making “pie in the sky” claims about promising free things, and Frank Underwood’s “bleeding hearts” hatred would cheer in agreement.
House of Cards showed us an exaggerated interpretation of the dark side of politics. Yet reality eventually caught up with it. Pete Buttigieg is hardly the evil or the egomaniac Frank Underwood was. But when Pete arrives in front of the camera to condemns progressives as problems, inflate his elitist resume with small town throwbacks, and announce big ideas in the form of big cuts and big compromises,
we can all say we’ve seen that one before.
After all, in the words of Frank Underwood:
“Pay attention to the fine print. It’s far more important than the selling price.”