College students and their mediated political world

Princeton professor and CNN columnist Julian Zelizer recently published an excellent piece on the popularity of Netflix’s original series “House of Cards”( He admits to being a fan of the acting and writing, but his thesis is that Washington, despite its dysfunction and scandals is “more than a power game.”

My students love “House of Cards” and many had seen the entire second season by the end of Valentine’s Day weekend. They often mention a particular scene and can quote, often with pretty good impressions, lines delivered by Kevin Spacey. I am impressed and saddened by their passion for this show and, I suppose, a bit jealous that they can binge-watch an entire 13-episode series over the course of a weekend. I am impressed that they watch anything to do with politics, even a fictional show. I am saddened, not just because they devote more time to watching “House of Cards” than to studying for my tests or writing my papers, but because their viewing patterns show how radically different many students in this generation are, as compared to previous generations, including my own.

I am an unapologetic “West Wing” fan. Aaron Sorkin makes everyone seen witty and eloquent and the story lines combine just enough fantasy and reality to make politics seem watchable. I am not one of the stodgy college professors who insists that students must only watch C-SPAN in order to understand politics. I get that fictional accounts of politics can be a good teaching tool. The problem is that my students have absolutely no interest in “West Wing” when I talk about the show or even when I show clips in class. There are discernible yawns and inevitably cell phones and tablets come out the moment I cue up the clip. 

At the beginning of every semester, I survey my students about a variety of things, including how they get information about politics. Suffice it to say that I rarely get a student who confesses to reading the newspaper, but I am realistic that most students don’t wait impatiently on their front porch, as I did as a college student, for the morning paper to be pitched from a speeding delivery car. 

This semester, the top four sources for political information were: “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report,” “House of Cards,” and “Scandal.” I really like Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert because both can get at the core of political stories and, even in their fictionalized approach to news, communicate enough about the context of what’s going on that I encourage students to watch. It is the other two television programs that concern me and what it tells me about how today’s college students will approach politics in the future. It also illustrates a generational shift in what my generation and their generation want out of politics.

In comparing my love of “West Wing” to my students’ admiration for “House of Cards” and “Scandal,” I think there are four major conclusions that point out the paradigmatic shift in how politics is viewed and how we can expect this generation of young people to approach politics in the coming decades.

1. Leadership–Josiah Bartlet v. Fitzgerald Grant and Garrett Walker. I always enjoyed “West Wing” because of how the president was portrayed. Jed Bartlet was unafraid of staring down political enemies, whether it was the leader of North Korea or southern conservative televangelists. He spoke eloquently off-the-cuff and in prepared remarks. Fitz Grant is driven less by his ideology or desire to do good than by his hormones. Garrett Walker is a minor character on “House of Cards” and only plays the foil to Francis Underwood’s unbridled ambition. When I talk in class about the political skill of Lyndon B. Johnson in getting civil rights and voting rights legislation passed, my students are less impressed by that than they are how Bill Clinton was able to survive the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

2. Mistakes–Leo McGarry v. Olivia Pope and Francis Underwood. Jed Barlet’s chief of staff, Leo McGarry, was old school. Mistakes made by White House staffers was punished and even when the president erred, McGarry was there to admonish the president and even run the risk of Bartlet’s well known temper. Pope and Underwood are fixers. No matter what the issue is facing themselves or others to whom they report, their primary task is to get through the incident by making others look worse. It is interesting that some of my political science students now say that they want to become “fixers” as a profession. As a former campaign consultant, I considered myself to be an advisor and, at times, and in charge of political spin, but never once did I think of myself as a fixer.

3. Women–C. J. Craig v. Melie Grant and Zoe Barnes. Press Secretary C. J. Craig often had the most difficult tasks in the Bartlet administration as she stood in front of the White House gaggle and fielded the most difficulty questions and comments. Far from perfect, Craig usually delivered and even when she erred, she was confident. She was assertive without being passive-aggressive or aggressive. Melie Grant and Zoe Barnes portray some of the worst stereotypes possible of women-the cold hearted bitch and the idealist who will sleep her way to the top. It is little wonder than my female students continue to express doubts that we will have a woman president in their lifetimes.

4. The lack of idealism–the plot and themes of “West Wing” v. those of “Scandal” and “House of Cards.”The story lines on “West Wing” often took on issues that even the most idealistic person would say is unlikely, like ensuring that 100% of Americans could read or that cancer could be cured. One of the reasons that I always enjoyed the show was that it offered the hope that Washington could transcend the morass of gridlock and even pretend to take on big issues. “Scandal” and “House of Cards” make no such pretense. Everything from reelecting a flawed president to trying to get the Chinese to reduce cyber attacks against the United States are framed as solely benefitting the show’s protagonist. In class, I talk about people I know who go into public service and speak glowingly of Democrats and Republicans who serve in their part-time political positions because they want to make their communities better. No matter how much I talk about this, my students’ cynical views of politics reflect their viewing habits.

I realize that I am a nostalgic old guy, especially to my students. As my students remind me, not so gently, “West Wing” is “so last century.” As I try to plow through “House of Cards” to see if the story lines improve, having already abandoned “Scandal,” I realize that I am the only one in the classroom getting emotional as we read Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech or watch John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. 

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