Game of Thrones and the US Midterms

by Leanne Ogasawara

In the great reality show that is American Politics, this election did not disappoint. It had hope, followed by heartbreak (Beto, Gillum). And there was fear –in the form of an “invading caravan,” with whispers of Russian hackers. It had titanic drama, whipped up to a torrid frenzy by the media, in love with the sound of their own voice. 

And tragically, it was darkened by unspeakable evil in Pittsburg. 

In the bittersweet but predictable final episode, a scrappy blue army retook the House; while fate seemed to set up an insurmountable wall in the Senate, resulting in a few more red bricks cemented into place. And before we even had time to exhale a single sigh of relief and stagger to bed with the appropriate mixture of whiskey and champagne, the pundits begin punditing –to the sound of another mass shooting (this time in my home town): Let the Games BEGIN!! House Pelosi meets House McConnell; while House Trump recognizes its own limits and the value of constructive compromise to get things done.

Yeah, not so much.

Are the Founding Fathers, spinning wildly in their graves as they regret eschewing a parliamentary form of government, wondering whether this Republic is about to deal itself a knockout blow? Or are they watching, horrified? Horrified –but entertained– by this latest twist in our very own homegrown Game of Thrones?

Some say we have the president we deserve. Well, I say we have the TV show we deserve.

I know I am coming at this late in the Game. But I am now in the middle of Season Four.

The things we do for marriage.

Being more of a Durrells in Corfu kind of TV viewer, the violence and the nihilism of the Game of Thrones completely took me off guard.

So did the treatment of women. And yes, I realize that there are “many strong female characters” but since the beginning of time, there have been strong females from aristocratic families who have held power– while the rest are treated like throwaway objects. Of course, all the lower classes (men and women) are treated dismally, but the show really does go out of its way to sell women for everything they can get from them. Nerdy porn? Game of Geeks? There was a Saturday Night Live skit that has a horny 12 year old boy acting as consultant for the show continually demanding more nudity: “We really need another brothel scene here.”

What does this say about us that so many people take this show seriously? And what can we learn, if anything?

This is the story of the aristocratic class (In today’s terms the 1% plus the 9.9 % ers), whose nihilism is simply astounding. Nothing means anything –and this is literally a fight to the death. But for what? While no side seems to stand for anything whatsoever, the lords and ladies jostle for power based on their perceived right to have and to rule. That means blood (both their own blue blood, as well as the blood of all their rivals they manage to spill). When they do turn their eyes to the conditions of the poor, it seems to work fairly well for them–like when what’s her name raises an army of former slaves or when the charitable Tyrells provide the poor with food, resources, and a show of care in order to garner much-needed PR for the royal family. But “the people” don’t much interest them, it seems. There are far better ways to secure power.

This is the first lesson. The number one way rulers seek to retain power (once they have it and assuming they keep the teeming masses at bay) is to form alliances. Last month, I came across a review of Alan Abramowitz’s new book, The Great Alignment: Race, Party Transformation, and the Rise of Donald Trump. The review, by Andrew Hacker, appeared in the September 27 issue of the New York Review of Books and is called “Hopeful Math.” In case you are wondering, it is not very hopeful. There was, however, one specific finding that caught my attention–both in terms of the elections and in terms of this TV show.  This was Abramowitz’s idea that Republicans feel more intensely on issues. The word “issues” is key. “They can explain their reasons for voting in a sentence,” he says. Hacker summarizes it like this:

On a scale that gauged the intensity of political views, Abramowitz found that Republicans scored 82 percent higher than Democrats. A higher proportion of GOP voters know precisely where they stand on issues like abortion, guns, and immigration. Democrats often need whole paragraphs to spell out their positions on, say, foreign trade, fossil fuels, or income inequality. I asked subscribers to several Republican websites to tell me what drew them to the party. In short order, I received over a thousand replies, from terse to expansive. There were ritual allusions to limited government and self- reliance. But by far the most recurrent were firearms and abortion. There’s also a third reason, one that barely a handful of my respondents admitted to. Here’s one who did: “They are the only party looking out for white America.”

I think this is crucial for two reasons. The first is simply this: having specific issues at stake will get people out to vote more than a general state of upset (or worse spending all your time analyzing just how bad the other side is). I am really thinking of the non-voters right now–not the people who regularly vote. Not you and not me. But the vast number of people not voting (but if they did, they would likely vote democratic). A friend of this blog emailed this morning to ask about the elections in California and mentioned how much she loves the Propositions we have here–because, “they remind people to vote for issues.”

But even more important is the way that issue-driven views can allow for transactional alliances. Our political system is broken. We are in a state of perpetual civil war in the form of intense bipartisan obstructionism. This is not going to go away. If we had a parliamentary system, forming alliances would be crucial to retaining power. In America, it is the opposite. Except, look at the Republican party. It is the most surprising –and successful– alliance of unexpected groups of people. Catholics and Evangelicals for Donald Trump? These are joined by tax-cut advocates, gun-right hardliners and social conservatives. And they are very much the same people who voted for Romney. The alliances are issue-based and transactional. And this motley alliance has been growing stronger over the past decade. It is a loyal and more reliable voting block, says Hacker.

Outrage alone is powerful but how to reach the non-voting public? Can you imagine a national democratic party formed of the alliance between progressives, ecologists, and labor that come together to work on specific issues in a transactional way? A new hero would be nice (Beto?). But are there also not specific issues that can bring non-voters back from the United States of Apathy? (See article on Sherrod Brown’s Ohio win below). That is the first lesson I learned from Game of Thrones: that coalitions are everything.

So, what about lesson two?

If you watch the show (and I do not recommend it), you know what I am going to tell you, right?

Winter is coming.

They say it again and again. And again and again.

There will arrive a climate disaster in which many people will die. Life as they know it will change completely –and they need to prepare for it. Despite saying it over and over, the people that count (the elite) do absolutely nothing. Sure, they admit its true. They are “believers” in today’s terms. Winter is coming and people will die. But they will not change anything fundamental in order to prepare. They just continue vying for power. In an interview about climate change and his novels, George RR Martin had this to say:

The people in Westeros are fighting their individual battles over power and status and wealth. And those are so distracting them that they’re ignoring the threat of “winter is coming,” which has the potential to destroy all of them and to destroy their world. And there is a great parallel there to, I think, what I see this planet doing here, where we’re fighting our own battles. We’re fighting over issues, important issues, mind you — foreign policy, domestic policy, civil rights, social responsibility, social justice. All of these things are important. But while we’re tearing ourselves apart over this and expending so much energy, there exists this threat of climate change, which, to my mind, is conclusively proved by most of the data and 99.9 percent of the scientific community. And it really has the potential to destroy our world.

So, winter is coming. And we are going to have to learn to work together. America voted on Tuesday, but the climate lost. Emil Atkins writes in the New Republic:

Voters failed to pass a historic ballot initiative in Washington state to create the first-ever carbon tax in the United States. They rejected a ballot measure to increase renewable energy in Arizona, and to limit fracking in Colorado. Some of Congress’ most outspoken climate deniers held onto their seats. Several candidates who ran on explicitly pro-climate agendas lost.

As the world’s great polluter we owe it to everyone to put the environment first and foremost. Forming coalitions and working together is the name of the game. But sadly, our system of government is not set up to do that. And we find ourselves in a state of perpetual conflict. How can we use our wealth to get things done? I, for one, have no reason to expect an end to what has become endless bickering, constant grandstanding and short-termism. Even when the democrats controlled the presidency and both chambers–still not a lot was accomplished because of massive special interests. What can be done? I do not see a way out.

Maybe all we really have is state power to offset the endless obstructionism and investigations going on the national level. In California, it has come to seem more and more like taxation without representation. What does our tax money even buy? In China, for a decade government was composed of a disproportionately large number of engineers and scientists. In Germany, the chancellor is a former physicist and Germany–like France– has a strong cadre of professional politicians. In Japan as well, people complain that lifelong bureaucrats don’t bring vitality. It’s true –but what are our millionaire businessmen and lawyers bringing us in the US? California has done impressive things on the environment, and we can go our own way. We should go our own way. Make our own laws and create our own vision of the kind of place we want to live in. There is going to come a day when we wake up and realize how much we could have accomplished if we had only we had kept our eye on the ball. Problems cannot be completely solved locally, but as things stand now, I think it is on the city and state level that we can mobilize locally and at least start to get things done. After all, we all ultimately live in the same house, House Terra. Don’t we owe it to our children’s children to stop the games?


To read: The Atlantic: The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy and The New Republic: America Voted. The Climate Lost.

“As a 2017 BuzzFeed profile put it, the senator has “combined a fierce populism and unapologetic progressive ideals to repeatedly win local and state elections — even as Ohio has trended increasingly conservative.” He’s won in cities and rural communities, old manufacturing hubs and college towns, diverse districts and mostly white districts.” Want to Beat Trump in 2020? Look at Sherrod Brown’s Win in Ohio

Personality Test: Which Game of Thrones Character are you? (I got Arya Stark) / Where should you live? (I got the North and Scotland).