House of Cards

We’ve started watching House of Cards.  We’re about eight episodes into the first season.  Everyone always says that if you like negotiation, this is the show for you.  I like negotiation, but so far I’m not impressed.

SPOILER ALERT!  I’m going to discuss things from the first eight episodes!

First off, there’s nothing too complicated or interesting about Frank Underwood’s negotiating style.  He has two modes: poetic ruthlessness (“Do what we want or we’ll cleave you from the herd!”) and cheerful delay (“Let’s wait on that … Let’s keep an open mind … Let’s have a long talk tomorrow …”).  Most of the show so far is Frank using these two tactics to set a goal, achieve a goal, set another goal, achieve another goal.

This wouldn’t bother me so much, except that in real negotiation you typically have to pivot based on how your counterpart responds.  Frank rolls through relatively unopposed.  How does he install Durant as the new Secretary of State?  Why, by convincing a reporter to suggest (totally unsubstantiated) that Durant is the nominee for Secretary of State.  Apparently it’s that straightforward.

In fact, Frank and Claire appear to be the only deliberate and tactical (verging on omnipotent) people in the show.  Everyone else is stupid, gullible, quick-tempered, and/or fatally flawed in some easy way to exploit.  Recall the scene when Frank provokes Marty Spinella, the union lobbyist, into punching Frank and thus giving Frank the leverage he needed (i.e., the threat of charging Spinella with a felony for attacking a congressman) to force Spinella into stopping the strike.  Or when Frank gives the sermon about not giving into hate, thus convincing the grief-stricken church-going parents that they shouldn’t sue.  Would it really be that easy?

Negotiation is not a set of tricks that deliver certain results.  You can prepare for negotiation (and you should), you can develop and practice skills and techniques (and you should), but you can’t expect to move people and institutions around like chess pieces.  People and institutions, not to mention context and circumstances, are way too unstable and overdetermined; they aren’t reducible to self-interest as reliably as these shows want us to think, and even if they were, the problem of manipulating people in an information-rich and static-filled environment is considerable.  That’s why negotiation is essentially an analytical and strategic exercise, a balance of probabilities that takes into account shifts in information and context.

I’m giving this show two more episodes and then I’m out.  My hope is that the coalition dynamics save the day.  So far there’s the usual vote-counting and favor-currying and tit-for-tat, nothing too exotic so far but perhaps things will get better once Peter’s campaign is underway.  One of the more interesting aspects of the show, after all, is how Frank attempts to maneuver the viewer into a confidante/ally position.  It’s a kind of negotiation, I suppose, and I’m interested to see whether and how he builds that particular coalition.

I know this show has a devoted fan base, so I’m open to conversation.  🙂

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