Our "Game of Thrones" fantasy: Democracy is almost nonexistent in Westeros—and we like it that way

Smallfolk need not apply—our faith in a Republic is so low that in fiction, we almost always rule by iron and blood

Published May 1, 2016 11:30PM (EDT)

Alexander Siddig and Indira Varma in "Game of Thrones"   (HBO)
Alexander Siddig and Indira Varma in "Game of Thrones" (HBO)

The 6th season of "Game of Thrones" is off to a strong start; ratings are high, and fans are enjoying the show’s unfolding narrative of graphic intrigue, infighting, and incest.

No-one knows how the game will end, but one thing is for certain. Amidst all the bloodshed, backstabbing, and bare breasts, what fans don’t expect, wouldn’t want, and won’t get is the winner to assume executive power through representing the will of the people by winning the majority of their votes in a free and fair election, and then determining policy through an ongoing process of negotiation with a separately elected legislative branch in a power-sharing arrangement demarcated by a constitution. You know, like they’re supposed to.

The secret to the pop culture omnipresence of "Game of Thrones" lies in how it has succeeded in getting us to root for the rival great houses of Westeros – Stark, Tully, Tyrell, Lannister, Baratheon, Martell – like they are sports teams. We identify (some of us more than others) with the individual characters playing out the song of ice and fire. We celebrate their triumphs, and mourn (or convulse with horror) at their demise.

But really, why should we – citizens of a 21st Century federal republic – care about any of them? Unless you, gentle reader, are a highborn scion of the landed aristocracy, the inheritor of wealth and privilege, the proud bearer of a patrician sigil, do you imagine they would care about you? America was founded on the principle that “that all men are created equal” in a state where government derives its legitimacy “from the consent of the governed.” Westeros lacks even a Magna Carta. However much you might empathize with the pluckiness of Arya Stark, sympathize with the travails of her sister Sansa, or lament the loss of their brother Robb, their world has no place in ours. The Declaration of Independence specifically repudiated monarchy, and the Constitution was intended to negate any possibility of power passing to a Caligula, a Richard III, or a Joffrey Baratheon.

We cherish our democracy, but this fundamental right is defined by its almost total absence in literary high fantasy, which has achieved its apotheosis in "Game of Thrones." The mercantile Free Cities of Essos each fall somewhere on the spectrum of oligarchy/plutocracy/timocracy/thalassocracy. The Night’s Watch elect their Lord Commander, but democracy otherwise is marginalized to the anarchic fringes of Westeros; the Free Folk from north of the Wall (who call those south of it, who bow and scrape to lords and ladies, “kneelers”), the rogue Brotherhood Without Banners (“We are brothers here, holy brothers, sworn to the realm, to our god, and to each other”), and the barbarous clans who live in the foothills of the Mountains of the Moon. The communal politics practiced by the latter arouses nothing but disdain amongst the high-born elite, even fan-favorite Tyrion Lannister. Although he finds them useful, his frustration in having to win over an entire people, as opposed to cutting deals with a peer, is typical of the attitude of his class:

That was the trouble with the clans; they had an absurd notion that every man’s voice should be heard in council, so they argued about everything, endlessly. Even their women were allowed to speak.

When Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, seized Astapor and Yunkai in Essos her immediate priority was emancipating the slave populations of those cities. But that’s where the revolution ended. Having eliminated one elite, she simply imposed her own alternative. The former slaves are now not citizens but subjects, free only to petition, not participate, in government. Whatever maternal affection she feels for the peoples now under her authority is ultimately outweighed by her material interest in using them as a stepping-stone to the restoration of her dynasty on the Iron Throne of Westeros. In fantasy, the rule is always, “the [usurper] king is dead, long live the [legitimate] king,” never “the king is dead, long live the republic.”

So why are we emotionally invested in the claims of Daenerys Targaryen, Robb Stark, Stannis Baratheon, Renly Baratheon, Tommen “Baratheon,” or for that matter Rickon Stark versus those of any other contender? In the words of The Hound, himself an amoral sociopath, they are all, or will become, killers, and their world “is built by killers.”

This does reflect history; the rule of law can stake only a very recent, and very tenuous, claim to being the political norm. From history comes literature. In the fairy tales we grow up with – "Cinderella," "Snow White," "Shrek" – the smallfolk achieve their apotheosis by marrying into royal families, not seizing and redistributing power from them. Even modern, feminist interpretations – "Frozen," "Brave," "Maleficent" – don’t alter the underlying basis of political power being monopolized by elite bloodlines. At the end, everyone on the inside of the charmed circle lives happily ever after, with not a single dangling chad to lose sleep over.

This template was reinforced by the adult sagas of the Classical and Medieval eras. There is no democracy in the "Iliad," the "Aeneid," "Beowulf," the "Nibelungenlied," the "Song of Roland," or anywhere in the Camelot of King Arthur (not even in its Monty Python equivalent, which is defined by the violence inherent in the system).

Modern fantasy reflects the legacy of this tradition, which was reimagined for a 20th Century audience by J.R.R. Tolkien. Every subsequent sword and sorcery epic was crafted in his shadow, and this is significant because, even setting aside its Eurocentric geopolitical context, "The Lord of the Rings" is a deeply conservative work (for which Tolkien has been taken to task by a later generation of sci-fi and fantasy writers, such as China Miéville, David Brin and Michael Moorcock). Complementing his ingrained Romantic anti-modernism (which is most evident in his hostility towards technology), Tolkien was deeply pessimistic about democracy, which he considered just another road to serfdom. He defined true equality as a spiritual principle that had been corrupted by the attempt to mechanize and formalize it through the ballot box, “with the result we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride,” through which “we get and are getting slavery.” The only self-governing people in Middle Earth are the humble hobbits (the original small folk). Tolkien referred to the Shire as being “half republic half aristocracy,” which, as Patrick Curry describes it, “functions by a sort of municipal (not representative) democracy,” and even that is marked by “quasi-feudal paternalism and deference.” If the Shire was an idealized Olde England, the hobbits represented the physical manifestation of Tolkien’s belief in social hierarchy and the status quo: “Touching your cap to the Squire may be damn bad for the Squire but it’s damn good for you.”

This institutionalization of privilege became even more prevalent when it was amalgamated with a plot dedicated to the apotheosis of a prophesized “chosen one.” The crowning of Aragorn as king of Gondor heralds the dawn of a new golden age at the conclusion to "The Return of the King" (the title of the book spoils both its ending and its theoretical framework). This was taken to its logical, messianic conclusion in the Narnia tales of Tolkien’s fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis, and continued to play out not just in later fantasy epics (to cite just some examples, the sagas of Stephan Donaldson, David Eddings, and J.K. Rowling) but in the emerging genre of science fiction. Democracy plays no part in the grand arena of Frank Herbert’s "Dune," which, as feudalism in space, is the sci-fi equivalent to "Game of Thrones," complete with great houses as rivals for the grand prize. “Atreides power must never be marginalized by the chaos of democracy,” intones Alia Atreides, sister of Paul Atreides and regent of the Atreides Empire, for reasons as self-evident as they are self-serving.

Ever since :Metropolis," much contemporary science fiction projects a bleak future for representative government; the universes of James Cameron ("Aliens," "Avatar") and Ridley Scott ("Alien," "Blade Runner") are dominated by corporate as opposed to democratic powerbrokers. Most space operas don’t even bother fleshing out any political context to the flashy action. The original "Star Wars" drops us right into the middle of a civil war, in progress. Beyond the opening crawl, the only exposition we get is Grand Moff Tarkin informing his subordinates, “The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us,” having been dissolved by the Emperor; “The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away forever.” All we need to know beyond that point is, Empire Bad: Rebels Good. What exactly the Rebel Alliance alternative government would be after its defeat of the Empire was left up to the imagination, because the original trilogy ended with everyone partying to the strains of “Yub-Nub” at precisely that point. The most recent film incarnation, set decades later, didn’t fill in any of the blanks; the Galactic Senate was accorded about five seconds of screen time before being wiped out.

Much of this is owed to sheer laziness on the part of genre writers, who apparently lack faith in their ability to hold an audience’s attention on any subject beyond the questing, wenching, and dragon slaying it presumably is looking for. This need not necessarily be the case. With his "Coriolanus" more than four centuries ago, Shakespeare proved a drama set in a functioning republic could be as immersive, character driven, and bloody as any dynastic family squabble. Over the course of his prequel trilogy, George Lucas sought to expand his narrative by incorporating an honest investigation into how and why a republic fails. In his commentary on Episode III he discusses coming of age during the Vietnam War to Watergate era, which left him with an abiding interest in “how democracies turn into dictatorships,” not via a coup or a putsch, “but how the democracy turns itself over to a tyrant.” Unfortunately, his efforts to add politico-historical heft wound up being widely lampooned and only succeeded in jar-jaring fans, who were happy to imagine it never happened.

The simple fact is, while everyone honors democracy in the abstract, no one enjoys having to make it actually work. Popular participation in participatory government is very limited; declining electoral turnout figures reflect this. No one appreciates the actual nuts and bolts of the legislative process; the caucuses and sub-caucuses, the committee and subcommittee meetings, etc. etc. And no one is satisfied with the tepid, compromised, watered-down legislation they get, if any.

So we dream of a simpler time, a better place, where real men (and/or women) step up and deliver what they promise. Some find this is in the past, but even that is no longer immune from reinterpretation (ask Andrew Jackson), hence the need for fantasy to fill the void. “Societies need heroes,” "Legend" author David Gemmell once said, “So we travel to places where the revisionists cannot dismantle the great.”

Those places don’t include our own nation’s capital any more. Gone are the days when the President could always be trusted to do what was right on TV. Popular culture interacts with the political process now through a new genre of hate watching Washington.

This hate is what makes the appeal of government by divine right so seductive. When the electorate is polarized and the political process is institutionally gridlocked, when the front runners for the presidential nominations of both major parties have record low approval ratings, when disgust with Congress is endemic, when the people lost their trust in government itself two generations ago and when America’s political identity, socioeconomic prospects, and manifest destiny itself are called into question, of course it is natural to fantasize about an alternative. Many Americans are openly brooding over extraconstitutional alternatives. In a YouGov poll released last year, 70 percent of respondents opined military officers “generally want what is best for the country,” compared to only 12 percent of members of Congress. When asked, “Is there any situation in which you could imagine yourself supporting the U.S. military taking over the powers of federal government,” 29 percent of those surveyed responded yes, to just 41 percent saying no. When that was broken down by party affiliation, a plurality of Republicans (43 percent yes to 32 percent no) actually were open to the possibility.

The innate human desire to surrender the burden of power to an anointed individual, a chosen one, has marked the downfall of democratic polities throughout history. Despite the powerful warning against surrendering sovereignty to a monarch in the earliest scripture, as Benjamin Franklin observed, “there is a natural inclination in mankind to kingly government.” From Octavian Caesar in Rome to Napoleon Bonaparte in France to Sheev Palpatine in the Galactic Republic, ambitious men were presented with supreme authority “to compensate for the fact that the elected representatives can’t agree on anything and are corrupt,” George Lucas explains. “And therefore, in order to clean up the mess, somebody is allowed to come in and fix things,” typically to thunderous applause. At some innate level, therefore, we want someone to take charge because “the great questions of the time are not decided by speeches and majority decisions,” as Otto von Bismarck put it, “but by iron and blood.”

There is plenty of both in the world of "Game of Thrones," justifying its ultimate value in giving us a graphic representation of precisely why we should reject everything it stands for and celebrate our democracy. For all the faults in our system of government, the longest congressional investigation in the history of the nation’s capital is still preferable to the briefest of sieges at its gates; the ugliest election is still a better method of securing the transfer of executive power than the most picturesque assassination (or coup-d’état).

So feel free to enjoy watching "Game of Thrones," discussing it, studying it; just don’t get too emotionally invested in it. Team Sansa or Team Daenerys? A plague on both your houses; valar morghulis, but the republic endures.

By Si Sheppard

Si Sheppard is an associate professor of political science at Long Island University, Brooklyn. He offers a pop culture and politics course that utilizes mass media as a means to explore power dynamics between states and within societies.

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