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Few couples begin their day quite like Congressman Francis Underwood and his nonprofit executive/lobbyist wife, Claire: sipping a cup of black coffee over a cool cost-benefit analysis of who should commit adultery with whom. The power couple at the center of the Emmy-winning Netflix series House of Cards (whose second season premieres February 14) use any means at their disposal to claw their way to the top.

Francis and Claire (a seductive Kevin Spacey and a steely Robin Wright) struck a bargain early on in their relationship, we discover. They would pursue power, defeating by force and fraud anyone who got in their way. They would be absolutely honest with one another. And they would stop at nothing to help the other reach a goal—throwing a fundraiser, talking someone into voting for a bill, or strong-arming a former friend into supporting new legislation.

As the first season opens, it has worked: Francis is the House majority whip and has the ear of the President's top adviser. Claire's environmental nonprofit is influencing corporations and politicians alike.

At first glance, House of Cards seems like the purest Machiavelli. Anyone who wants to succeed, the series seems to say, must free himself from any strict philosophical, let alone biblical, standards of right and wrong. There's just too much distance between how we ought to live and what it takes to live in reality. Instead, all we can do is build our political houses on lower, firmer ground: not on principles or convictions, but on figuring out who gets what, when, in a way that satisfies both the rulers and the ruled. Keep voters happy, keep your own power—no matter the inconvenient morals and people who fall by the wayside.

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January/February 2014

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