Why Frank Underwood Is a Democrat

By now, most "House of Cards" junkies have gotten their fix and consumed all 13 episodes of season two of the buzzy Netflix show. Waiting for season three gives us time to step back and consider what we might learn from what is certainly the best political drama you can stream over the Internet.

If you haven't seen the show, here's a capsule summary: "House of Cards" offers a deliciously cynical view of the world's most important sausage factory. Sure, some of the plot twists are unrealistic, but it does capture the self-interest, pandering and double-dealing that are consistent with the economic theory known as public choice — a theory that views politicians as being much like the rest of us — a mix of self-interest and higher-minded motives.

At the center of the show is Frank Underwood, played with such panache by Kevin Spacey. On the surface, Underwood is a classic Washington insider — a wheeler-dealer, a master of the cloakroom, always looking for a leverage point with a colleague that will allow him to get what he wants. What he wants more than anything else is power.

That's on the surface. We in the audience know better. Deep down there is something rotten in the state of Frank Underwood. He isn't just self-interested and ambitious. His ambition is boundless. Saying he has no principles is unfair to people without principles. Underwood is willing to do anything to serve himself and accumulate power, and in the first two seasons we've seen Frank do horrific things as he tries to climb the greasy pole. In short, Underwood isn't just an unattractive person. He's a psychopath. So why did the creators of the show make him a Democrat?

"House of Cards" is based on the British show of the same name. The creator of the American version, Beau Willimon, has followed many of the plot twists of the British version turn for turn. But in the British version, the main character is a conservative. Why did Willimon make Spacey's character a Democrat who leans liberal, when he leans at all?

In an interview with TV Guide, Willimon described Underwood as "two scoops of LBJ with a dash of Richard III and a pinch of Hannibal Lecter." Lyndon Baines Johnson was one of the great congressional arm-twisters of the 20th century and one of the most ruthless and ambitious politicians of all time. Underwood's office has a famous set of pictures of the real-life LBJ working a colleague over with a mixture of charm and bullying, very much in the way Underwood behaves on the show. So there's an element of cinéma vérité here.

But the real reason they made Underwood a Democrat, I think, is a little stranger and a little darker. And it comes with a lesson for Republicans. I think Willimon made Underwood a Democrat because he wanted us to like him.

Russ Roberts is the John and Jean De Nault research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the host of the weekly podcast, EconTalk.