fbpx

Game of Thrones Reminds Us That Virtue Is Not Enough

These days it takes a medieval fantasy to help us remember why liberal democracy is worth cherishing. The politics of Game of Thrones is premised on the negation of the salient characteristics of liberal democracy, such as limited government, separation of powers, and the consent of the governed. It may not be surprising that the absence of these institutions is terrible for the common folk, as demonstrated by the last week’s mass slaughter at King’s Landing, the capital of the fictional world of Westeros. But it is also difficult, if not impossible, for rulers and would-be rulers to flourish in a world of centralized power.

The prospect of absolute power drives contenders mad. Consider Daenerys, who for most of the series has been portrayed a potential liberator, and in the leadup to the series finale burns down the city over which she would reign. Power causes others to destroy what should be most dear to them, as when Stannis Baratheon—another contender for the throne—sacrifices his daughter in the vain hope of gaining favorable weather to win an essential battle.

Life is not appreciably better for those who secure the throne. It is now a commonplace that power corrupts but Game of Thrones also consistently reveals the frailties of those who cannot wisely wield authority. This turns out to be almost everyone. Neither the hereditary principle nor victory as a warrior predicts success as a sovereign. The eponymous “game” in fact starts when Robert Baratheon is deposed because he uses the throne to drink, hunt, and sleep around rather than watch over his kingdom. As one of the shrewdest characters—Tywin Lannister—notes, Robert’s nature condemned him to an inability to recognize the difference between winning and ruling.

Throughout the series, the plans of both the monarchs and the most powerful aspirants to the Iron Throne inevitably go awry. Some of these misfires flow from the failure of the hereditary principle. It is no accident that the most successful, if ultimately doomed, plotter in the entire series is Petyr Baelish, who rose from relative insignificance because of a real talent for intrigue. But these failures also stem from the chaotic nature of a world without strong institutions. In a society without the rule of law and where everything is up for grabs, it is hard to plan anything.

Moreover, the many voices inherent in a democracy provides information about the world that rulers of a centralized structure cannot easily replicate. One of the seldom-discussed themes of the series is the importance attributed to advisors. Tywin Lannister  in fact defines wisdom in rulers as listening to advisors. Their centrality is symbolized by the office of Hand—the chief advisor to monarch and head of his council. The other would-be rulers have their equivalent, except for Baelish, who relies on himself.

But while it is surely true that choosing to heed advisors generally makes for a better ruler, it is nevertheless a lot less reliable a guard against bad government than being required to listen to the voices of the people. Rulers can and do ignore their advisors, with often disastrous effects—as when Stannis Baratheon sends away his chief advisor, Ser Davos Seaworth, so he can sacrifice his daughter. And the advisors can pursue their own interests rather than the interests of their leader—to say nothing of the interests of the kingdom. Indeed, the advice about listening to advisors comes from the most cynical character in Game of Thrones, who clearly offered this piece of advice to his young grandson so he can rule as the power behind the throne. Moreover, good advice can also be distorted by excessive affection for the leader: Tyrion Lannister was the smartest guy in the world until he fell in love with his leader Daenerys. Democracy is very imperfect but harnesses a much more diffuse form of wisdom.

The absence of an independent judiciary—another central feature of liberal democracy—also contributes to the political dysfunction of Westeros. Cases can be decided by combat, which are shown to have nothing to do with real justice. And tribunals themselves are made up of interested parties with no focus on the truth, as when Tywin Lannister condemns his own son to death for political expediency despite recognizing that the charges against him were false. Without any credible judiciary, disputes are routinely settled through vengeance and blood feuds, creating a cycle of violence.

Separating religion from the actual wielding of state power is another tenet of liberal democracy. When the leader of the established religion in King’s Landing enforces his will through coercive power he begins a train of events that leads to the deaths of thousands and the destruction of his own temple. The Priestess of the Lord of Light also tries to manipulate state power with similar results. She only redeems herself when she retreats to a more subtle and noncoercive role of encouraging courage and perseverance—an example that implies that religion is best when it works by persuasion.

Game of Thrones implicitly praises the institutions of liberal democracy by describing the horrors of their absence. It thus makes a substantial and I believe conscious contrast with the most famous fantasy of the preceding generations—The Lord of the Rings. That trilogy is completely unconcerned with institutions. The fight is simply between good and evil and the drama turns entirely on the fear that the good people might lose. Aragon, the king who returns at the end of the work, will in fact rule happily ever after with more absolute power than the stewards of the kingdom who ruled before him. He is a good man and at least as far as Tolkien presents it, that is the end of the difficulties of ruling. Amusingly, that seems to have been Elizabeth Warren’s first reaction to Game of Thrones, since walked back. She publicly praised the “liberator” Daenerys before she turned out to break bad at the end of the series. Further evidence—if we needed it—that Progressivism does not much care for checks and balances unless its exponents are out of power.

The finale of Game of Thrones underscores its institutional focus by introducing political reforms. The most important is that the lords of the realm will choose the monarch rather than have him selected by a hereditary principle, thus making it less likely that the monarch will be completely unfit to rule. Thus, the Seven Kingdoms becomes ruled by an elector rather than restoring hereditary monarchy. And they alter the arrangement by only including six kingdoms, because the North is sufficiently different that it will be allowed to rule itself, a recognition of the dangers of overcentralization. Jurisdictional competition comes to Westeros!

These are modest reforms. And the finale recognizes their modesty, when the assembled lords of the Seven Kingdoms laugh down Samwell Tarly’s proposal that the people themselves should have a say in choosing their rulers. But the history of most European nations—and the United Kingdom most of all—suggests that successful reforms are modest and incremental. Radical change creates a high risk of instability and death. Indeed, radical liberation is Daenerys’ watchword and her last speech in favor of her program before cheering soldiers conjures up the militarized totalitarianism of the twentieth century.

Liberal democracy ought to remain the ideal, but Burkean statesmanship is the way to make reforms. It may be the most important lesson of this medieval fantasy for our contemporary politics.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on May 21, 2019 at 10:23:47 am

The medieval (a mashup of early through late) aesthetic was deliberate, of course. Since most of the characters are barons of some sort, the resort to the sword and not to the hundred court or other baronial court is apt. But we do get one or two scenes of the baronial court in operation, suggesting that a nascent institutional judiciary was evolving. And remember that the real English judicial institutions, the King's Bench and the institution thereby of the common law, were made possible only after William the Bastard, first of his name, violently put Wes(sex)teros to the sword and ascended the Iron Throne.

GoT takes place entirely within an interregnum, where one would expect a suspension of operations by weak nascent political institutions. Had there been a Westerosi Cicero, he might well have observed that inter reges silent leges.

read full comment
Image of QET
QET
on May 21, 2019 at 10:41:33 am

So let me get this right. The best example the author can think of today of the dangers of overreach when a chief executive has no respect for governmental institutions and separation of powers is, wait for it ..., Elizabeth Warren. And this is presented as a lesson in the duplicity and moral bankruptcy of progressives.

read full comment
Image of Greg Priest
Greg Priest
on May 21, 2019 at 11:48:11 am

Oh please.

we can’t wait for an increasingly dysfunctional Congress to do its job. Where they won’t act, I will.

“We’re not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help they need. I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone"

Clinton-era White House chief of staff John Podesta, who is joining the White House as a senior adviser, has long pressed Obama to use his executive authority to get around congressional opposition. . . .“The upshot: Congressional gridlock does not mean the federal government stands still,” Podesta wrote. “This administration has a similar opportunity to use available executive authorities while also working with Congress where possible.”

Barack Obama deployed his executive privilege power for the first time since taking office in a showdown with a Republican-led congressional committee investigating a botched arms smuggling operation. . . .But, just minutes before the committee gathered to discuss the vote, Obama asserted executive privilege to withhold the documents.

Awaiting the inevitable "false equivalence" nonsense.

read full comment
Image of QET
QET
on May 21, 2019 at 12:48:41 pm

Ah, yes. The old “what about” strategy.

Let’s go back to the actual point I made. I don’t think it is possible for a fair-minded person of any political persuasion to believe that Elizabeth Warren is the best contemporary example of the dangers of contempt for separation of powers and government institutions. If you want to explain to me how I am wrong about that, I’d love to consider your argument.

read full comment
Image of Greg Priest
Greg Priest
on May 21, 2019 at 13:45:08 pm

You do know why he cited Warren in this context, right? (Hint: it has nothing to do with whether she is the "best" example of anything).

read full comment
Image of QET
QET
on May 21, 2019 at 14:01:51 pm

Yes, I know exactly why he chose to refer to Warren. It was an easy, and intellectually lazy, way of taking a sideswipe at progressives.

I often disagree with the things that I read on this site. But I usually find them thoughtful, interesting, and worth reading. They are not usually characterized by intellectual laziness.

read full comment
Image of Greg priest
Greg priest
on May 21, 2019 at 14:16:20 pm

In the context of a whimsical piece about a work of popular fantasy fiction, I don't think intellectual heft is called for. Sometimes the low-hanging fruit is the perfect fruit to pick.

read full comment
Image of QET
QET
on May 21, 2019 at 14:21:27 pm

The reason it’s particularly troubling is that the choice of Warren rather than Trump as an example of contempt for government institutions and separation of powers is that it is symptomatic of a broader failure among conservative legal academics to reckon with the systemic damage being perpetrated by the current occupant of the White House.

It seems that people are so giddy about all the Federalist Society members being appointed to the federal judiciary that they are failing to seriously engage with other aspects of this administration that ought to deeply trouble them.

read full comment
Image of Greg priest
Greg priest
on May 22, 2019 at 11:45:20 am

[…] about spoilers or want to get some further analysis. John O. McGinnis has an excellent piece up at Law & Liberty today about how Game of Thrones can be taken as a cautionary tale about what the corruption not just of […]

read full comment
Image of Game of Thrones and the judgment of history – Acton Institute PowerBlog
Game of Thrones and the judgment of history – Acton Institute PowerBlog
on May 23, 2019 at 10:34:22 am

Thank God, this utterly stupid TV show is no gone.

Who cares?
We may read anything we want into silly ass Hollywood productions. I suppose in a manner not distinct from Sen Warren reading "native" heritage into her family's oral history.

So much balderdash!

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on May 23, 2019 at 21:00:06 pm

[…] publicado en Law & Liberty el 21 de mayo de 2019. Traducido por Jessica Paduán para el Instituto Fe y Libertad con el […]

read full comment
Image of La serie Game of Thrones nos recuerda que la virtud no es suficiente – Instituto Fe y Libertad
La serie Game of Thrones nos recuerda que la virtud no es suficiente – Instituto Fe y Libertad
on May 23, 2019 at 22:13:24 pm

Never saw Game of Thrones. But the idea that Trump is a King or a Pope or a Dictator is so much nonsense that anyone making such a claim will never get my vote.

read full comment
Image of russ
russ
on May 24, 2019 at 15:38:56 pm

I haven't seen Game of Thrones because I have neither the interest nor the time. But it's more than that. My conscience does not allow me to view this sort of ungodly drivel, and I wonder why Christians find this acceptable and appropriate entertainment. I often use the Plugged In website to help me discern what movies my kids can watch, and they have this to say about Game of Thrones:

"And women are, very often, treated as naked, sexually subservient chattel (belying the fact that as the series winds to a close, it's clear the show's most powerful characters are, in fact, women).

"Even mainstream critics have long lambasted the show for its often vile treatment of women, regularly chiding it for its 'sexposition'—that is, the habit of having characters recite loads of important-but-otherwise-boring dialogue in the beds of a brothel. And, frankly, most hard-R movies don't get as close to flat-out pornography as this series does.

"So it would seem that we already know who rules this land: Violence and sex reign as king and queen, while graphic language and a hyper-cynical worldview squabble for scraps around the table."

Are our consciences so calloused that we no longer think twice about allowing these messages into our homes?

read full comment
Image of Kim Lackey
Kim Lackey

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.