is a PhD Candidate in political science at the Australian National
University (ANU). Prior to resuming studies in 2012, he worked
in the Australian Public Service.The article was originally
published by The
National Interest magazine.
is much to love about Game of Thrones. Part epic, part tragedy,
part comedy, part romance, part zombie apocalypse -- it spans
almost the full range of genres. Its sets are breathtaking,
its architecture and landscapes inspiring. It has sword fights
and flesh, music and dance, exotic cultures and languages, and
stories of love, loss and betrayal, none more tragically beautiful
than the story of Jon Snow and Ygritte the Wildling.
its titillating tales of sexual transgression, stellar sword
fights and wildly disproportionate number of redheads, we should
not forget that Game of Thrones is first and foremost a depiction
of politics. For all its magic and mysticism, moreover, it offers
a remarkably realistic depiction of politics, with valuable
lessons for understanding and evaluating politics in the real
realism has much to do with the unapologetic way its characters
and their respective deeds and fates have been drawn. The gory
fate of its most noble and virtuous characters -- Ned Stark,
in particular -- forces us to rethink common conceptions of
nobility and virtue. At the same time, we are encouraged to
admire or at least respect even the most unsavoury of characters
despite our deepest reservations about their motives. The formidable
Tywin Lannister is a case in point. The result is a degree of
complexity and ambiguity that belies simple moral formulas of
good and evil, hero and villain.
ambivalence we feel towards characters such as Lord Tywin and
Ned Stark is a consequence of Game of Thrones’ most appealing
feature. Unlike most depictions of politics in popular culture,
which tend to offer a moral critique of politics (look no further
than Batman, who is always there to save Gotham City from itself,
ensuring that moral principle triumphs over self-interested
politics), Game of Thrones turns this familiar dynamic on its
head. It offers a defense of politics, broadly speaking, as
that messy art of compromise, judgment and prudence.
specifically, Game of Thrones offers a defense of politics against
a range of familiar anti-political ways of thinking and acting,
including moralism, brute tyrannical force and emancipatory
ideology. Helpfully, we find each of these anti-political alternatives
embodied in specific characters. As a general rule, the further
each character strays from politics in their respective anti-political
directions, the worse their fate tends to be.
what does it actually mean to think and act politically?
Westeros and the real world alike, disagreement and conflict
are interminable features of human coexistence. While many methods
can be used to address the problem of ongoing disagreement and
conflict, not every method can be described equally as political.
Tyrion Lannister makes this point in Season Five when he reminds
a brash Daenerys Targaryen that “killing and politics
aren’t always the same thing.”
rule, as opposed to brute tyrannical force or war, recognizes
the ongoing need to shore up legitimacy. Importantly, legitimacy
is not something that can be imposed from above through sheer
force or terror; it must be recognized on an ongoing basis.
The link between power and legitimacy should be clear enough.
If power is not recognized as legitimate, we find ourselves
with the familiar conditions of resistance and revolt. If a
ruler makes no effort at all to shore up his legitimacy, he
may not find himself ruling for very long. This is why Machiavelli
advises his hypothetical prince not to become the object of
scorn or hatred.
a political ruler does not secure legitimacy by eliminating
all those who would oppose or disagree with them, either through
purge or cultural revolution. As Aristotle famously remarked,
“there is a point at which a polis, by advancing in unity,
will cease to be a polis . . . The truth is that the polis is
an aggregate of many members.” The political leader accepts
the range of opinions and worldviews as given yet pliable, and
so gets to work explaining, persuading, and inspiring support
and loyalty. Yet because the world and its people will always
to some degree remain resistant, even recalcitrant, to any particular
worldview or vision, politics also requires compromise, conciliation,
tolerance, and a degree of prudence and self-restraint. It requires
a level of responsiveness to the interests, desires and traditions
of individuals and groups, though especially large and powerful
groups. And it involves the ability to negotiate, form alliances
and build consensus across differences. This is why the nineteenth-century
German sociologist, Max Weber, likened politics to “slow,
strong drilling through hard boards.”
because there exists no rule book that tells us when to compromise
and when to push back, or when or whose interests we should
conciliate, and because human life is contingent and ever changing,
politics will always involve that somewhat cryptic and unquantifiable
quality that we call judgment. Moreover, if Game of Thrones
makes clear one thing, it is that no moral code can ever fully
substitute for political judgment. Politics requires making
choices in a finite world, and the best option will almost always
be the least worst option -- the lesser evil. Politics in this
sense requires an ability to grapple with moral ambiguity, and
weigh conflicting relative goods.
are certain steps a political leader can take to help avoid
erroneous judgments. Foresight, or the ability to make accurate
predictions about the behaviour of others or the likelihood
of a campaign’s success, will help a great deal. Yet because,
to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, politics involves not only known
unknowns, but also unknown unknowns, and because people have
the capacity for all sorts of treachery and deceit, the prudent
political leader must always prepare for the worst to happen.
To use Machiavelli’s apt metaphor (not to be confused
with the house sigils of Westeros), one must be both “a
fox to discover the traps and a lion to terrify the wolves.”
every one of these points, Ned Stark fails dismally. There is
no better example of this than his actions during the events
surrounding King Robert’s death and succession in Season
One. His only concern is for what is right and in accord with
the law of rightful succession, according to which Stannis Baratheon,
King Robert’s younger brother, is the rightful heir. Ned
is warned of a likely Lannister plot to gain control of the
kingdom, by both Renly Baratheon and Littlefinger. What emerges
from these engagements is a stunning juxtaposition of men thinking
and acting politically and a man caught in the restrictive and
self-destructive grip of his moralistic convictions.
Renly and Littlefinger demonstrate foresight, accurately predicting
the events about to unfold. This is partly because they understand
the deep drive for power in some, and the drastic measures they
will take to obtain it. Ned, on the other hand, demonstrates
no foresight whatsoever. He is no fox, has little regard for
traps and does nothing to prepare for the worst. Renly and Littlefinger
use their judgment and exercise political agency by being responsive
to the contingencies unfolding around them. Littlefinger’s
first word after learning of Ned’s intention to hand power
to Stannis is “Unless . . . ” He is abruptly cut
off by Ned who asserts doggedly, “There is no unless.”
In his encounters with both men, Ned is visibly frustrated by
the very idea of having to grapple with moral ambiguity and
consider contingencies and hypotheticals outside of his blinkered
and myopic vision of a smooth transition of power to the rightful
heir. Ned has barely a political bone in his body, and he ends
up paying for that with his life.
the other end of the spectrum lies Joffrey, your run-of-the-mill
tyrant who rules through brute arbitrary force. Joffrey would
have done well to have read his Machiavelli. His first act as
king is to cut off the head of the Warden of the North (Ned),
and we soon begin to see the full uncompromising brutality of
his reign. Good men are made to fight to the death for entertainment.
The economy suffers and peoplebegin to starve. Babies are taken
and slaughtered in front of their mothers. Pure tyrannical force,
it seems, has won the day.
quickly, though, we begin to see the limits of tyranny as a
form of rule. Like clockwork, the people of King’s Landing
begin to rebel. Joffrey is pelted with manure and insulted as
he walks through the city streets. Some of his guards are killed.
His response echoes the famous last words of the Mad King: “kill
them, kill them all!” He is oblivious to the fact that
his words reflect the very attitude that caused the problem
he finds himself in. Insofar as it tends to produce the familiar
conditions of revolt, tyranny is an inherently unstable form
of rule, prone to spontaneous combustion.
what about Daenerys? Up until the end of Season Three, there
is not much about her approach to rule that is political. On
the contrary, she is an unrepentant ideologue, ruthless and
uncompromising in her quest to free slaves and destroy not only
their owners but the culture and traditions that sustained slavery.
She responds to signs of resistance by holding fast to the truths
she knows. You’re either a friend of the revolution or
you’re an enemy.But
along the way, Daenerys has a number of transformative learning
experiences which have the effect of tempering her initial ideological
zeal. She meets a former slave who wishes to return to his former
master, and learns that a former master she crucified fought
to have slavery abolished. Slowly, Daenerys’s simple friend/enemy
dualism begins to break down, and she learns to be more political.
She learns to tolerate the cultural traditions of the ancient
cities she liberated, and conciliate the interests of those
she formerly regarded as enemies. She ends up marrying a former
master as a symbolic gesture to the people of Meereen, and then
bends to the wishes of the people by reopening the fighting
are yet to learn the fate of Daenerys and her newly acquired
taste for politics. She has been joined by two of the best political
minds in all of the Seven Kingdoms -- Lord Tyrion and Varys
-- who are doing their best to keep the peace across the Narrow
Sea and to mitigate some of the damage that Daenerys has done
in that region. Yet, despite their collective political wisdom,
Tyrion and Varys are clearly struggling. The Wise Masters of
Yunkai have just laid siege to Meereen. It is therefore worth
concluding with a word of caution.
in Westeros and the real world alike, the fate of characters
and their aspirations tends to be commensurate with their capacity
to think and act politically, rulers should always be judged
with reference to the context they find themselves in. As the
saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. And
those measures may not always be political.
Tyrells are the ultimate career politicians. They demonstrate
foresight, prudence, self-restraint and good judgment. They
watch out for traps. They negotiate, compromise, bargain and
build alliances. And they know how to say exactly the right
thing at exactly the right time. Yet they lack an X factor,
which becomes increasingly apparent in their inability to respond
to the various crises unfolding around them. At least at the
time of writing this, they are powerless against the High Sparrow
and his band of religious fanatics who have taken control of
King’s Landing (even though they are right to point out
that it was Cersei’s lack of good judgment and foresight
which put them there in the first place). And one has the sense
that their impotence would be even more pronounced in dealing
with the looming White Walker threat.
may turn out that Daenerys’s ideological zeal, combined
with her three weapons of mass destruction (dragons), are precisely
what Westeros needs: someone to cut through the Gordian Knot.
However -- and this is a big however -- presuming Daenerys does
end up saving the day and vanquishing the White Walkers, she
will need to rely on far more than her dragons if she is to
keep the peace and remain in power after the war is won.