The latest addition to the Ethics Alarms Rationalization List is #50 A, The Underwood Maneuver, or “That’s in the past.” It is a sub-rationalization of #50, The Apathy Defense, or “Nobody Cares,” and the 67th dishonest, illogical or otherwise ethics-busting excuse for wrongful conduct on the list.
This rationalization has the honor of being named for a President, though a fictional and sinister one: Frank Underwood, the devious, psychopathic, lying and murdering Chief Executive, played by Kevin Spacey, who leads the den of thieves and blackguards who populate the fictional Washington, D.C. in the Netflix drama, “House of Cards.” I owe the series my gratitude for reminding me of this classic rationalization, which is a favorite not only of President Underwood and his Lady Macbeth-like First Lady, but also—just coincidentally—of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Indeed, Hillary’s current campaign is built on it.
The Underwood Maneuver is versatile. Frank’s favorite use of it is when he is seeking assistance from one of the gazillion elected officials, appointees and other whom he has lied to or metaphorically stabbed in the back. “Why should I trust you now, when you betrayed me?” these poor souls are always asking. “Oh, but that was in the past!” says Frank, in his gentle South Carolina accent. “This is now. We need each other now. What’s done is done. Let’s move forward.”
What makes the Underwood Maneuver so devilishly effective is that, like many other rationalizations, there is a nugget of common sense in it that makes it seem reasonable. Why let an incident that cannot be undone limit our options today? Why be hampered by bitterness, anger, and hurt, when a new slate looms, and all can be made right? Like its parent, The Apathy Defense, #50 A also hints that dwelling on past wrongs is pointless, graceless and irrational. Everybody has forgotten about that, so why can’t you? Why can’t you move on?
The Underwood Maneuver falsely holds that time erases accountability. Like Frank, real life unethical politicians know that if responsibility for a scandal. lie or crime can be denied, delayed, ducked, distorted and ignored long enough, the news media and the public will become fatigued and frustrated, and ultimately give up on holding the wrongdoers accountable. Out of political life, we have a sack full of nostrums and wise saying that urge us to move on from bad experiences. Let bygones be bygones. Forgive and forget. Let the past stay in the past.
This of course, is wonderfully useful to the habitually unethical, because “moving on” gives them the benefit of undeserved forgiveness and trust, and an opportunity to repeat their unethical and harmful conduct, or worse. The Underwood Maneuver doesn’t just urge its victims to give up crippling grudges, which would indeed be positive advice. It also manipulates the victim of wrongful conduct into forgiving and forgetting without the essential contributions a truly reformed wrongdoer must make to the equation: admission of harm , acceptance of responsibility, remorse and regret, amends and compensation, and good reason to believe that the unethical conduct won’t be repeated. Frank Underwood never provides any of that, because #50 A, The Underwood Maneuver, or “That’s in the past” is designed to put gullible victims at ease so they will let down the guard that experience would otherwise provide to them.
By emphasizing that wrongdoing was in the past, this rationalization all but assures that it is also lurking in the near future.