What HBO's Veep Gets Right About Politics

Politicians aren't special.


Every television series based in the White House inevitably has to grapple with one fundamental question: what motivates politicians?

And it's HBO's hit comedy Veep, now entering its sixth season, that's actually figured it out.

Almost two decades ago, The West Wing presented one answer in the form of President Jed Bartlet, whom creator Aaron Sorkin imagined as a straight-talking statesman and public servant who transcends partisan politics and puts the common good of the American people above all else.

If The West Wing is idealistic White House fan fiction, Netflix's breakout series, House of Cards, is its dark reflection.

House of Cards imagines a Washington, D.C. in which corruption and blackmail are the murky waters in which politicians swim. In this world, only the predators survive, and Frank Underwood and his wife and co-conspirator Claire devour anything in their paths.

But it's Veep, that actually gets American politics right. It doesn't fantasize that politicians are flawed but heroic figures, nor the inverse that they are inherently sinister monsters. Veep proposes something more radical: Politicians aren't special.

Political theorists call this simple insight, that self-interest is the driving force of politics, public choice theory—a theory Nobel Prize-Winning economist James Buchanan called "politics without romance."

Watch the video above for the full explanation. Approximately 4:30. Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Graphics by Meredith Bragg.