You Don't Need to Watch Game of Thrones — You Already Live in Westeros
George R.R. Martin's dystopian kingdom bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a modern Washington.
Westeros is a land in peril. Wildlings are marching on the north, the White Walkers' undead horde is just behind them. Daenerys Targaryen's strength grows in the east as she weighs a dragon-backed assault on the realm. And the long winter is coming, promising mass death from famine and freezing.
But Westeros is also a land in denial. Instead of preparing for the existential threats bearing down on them, the kingdom's houses and lords are fixated only on an unending struggle for the Iron Throne. And while they squabble, the kingdom's foundation grows brittle from neglect. The Night's Watch — no longer supported by the major houses — is but the facsimile of a shield to guard the realm. The crown is near bankruptcy, kept solvent only through vast borrowing and bad bookkeeping. And during a harvest season that's a matter of life and death, fields lie fallow as plowshares are beaten back into swords and peasants conscripted as pikemen.
It's brilliant storytelling, but if Washington treats Game of Thrones as a work of pure fiction, it does so at its own peril.
Democrats and Republicans are living in their own King's Landing-style denial, obsessed with putting one of their own in the Oval Office — and oblivious, or at least paralyzed, to address a terrifying convergence of external threats and internal decay.
The analogy is imperfect: There were far too few knifings to call it the "Red Correspondents Dinner." But the fundamentals are in place: Politicking is permanent, policy-making is frozen.
And in each kingdom, that gridlock comes at a price. Westeros has the looming winter. We have looming warming. But after three decades of scientists screaming for action, Washington's biggest answer thus far has involved stretching a 1970 statute into piecemeal cuts to greenhouse gases.
Westeros has Daenerys. We have China (dragons, anyone?). And while the Eastern challenger isn't planning an invasion or anything like one, it is gearing up to be an economic competitor. And to refuse to respond with innovations of our own is to gamble the economic supremacy the American middle class has long taken for granted: the world's highest standard of living and a front-row seat for the newest and neatest technologies.
And the case for our own Westeros-style economic malaise hardly merits explanation. Liberals and conservatives, take your pick: a growing inequality, a falling labor-force participation rate, a permanent underclass, a decline in real wages, and a long-term debt picture that the Iron Bank of Braavos wouldn't touch.
There's no consensus on what constitute America's biggest crises (polling suggests about half of you scoffed when I mentioned climate change) and there's a deep divide over how to address them. But it has been four years since the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank became law, and since then, American policy has been largely on autopilot. And there is remarkable consistency about what comes next when Washington declares there's a crisis at hand and a legislative answer is needed: nothing.
Immigration? Nothing. Tax reform? Nothing. Collapsing infrastructure? Nothing. The housing policy that baked Wall Street's finance bubble? Nothing.
Tucson, Aurora, Newtown, Navy Yard? Nothing, nothing, nothing, and nothing.
What we've had instead is a permanent campaign. In the run-up to the 2012 election, senators from both parties promised that once the next four years of Oval Office tenure were settled, Congress would stop grappling and start governing. Two years later and in the twilight months of the congressional session, policy-making is more sparse than ever, midterm campaigning is in full swing, and 2016 is already an obsession.
Tempting as it is, however, to blame our own Lannisters and Tyrells, they're not alone in turning Washington into King's Landing. Witness the city's collective titillation over micro-gaffes and mini-spats. Offer up a "Palin Slams Sharpton Condemns Limbaugh Rips Obama Blasts Boehner" headline, and the readers come running. Explore the nuances of an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan, you're whistling in the dark. And while journalists found time to scrutinize every turn of Anthony Weiner's foibles, a failing Veterans Affairs Department stayed hidden in plain sight for decades — at least until it became good fodder for political attacks.
In both worlds, the dysfunction has elicited disgust. Mark Leibovich's This Town was a softer scolding than when Tyrion told the royal gallery that he wished for "enough poison" to end their "worthless lives," but they share an outrage over their capital's orgy of ambition and collective dereliction of duty.
But in Westeros, all is not lost. Without spoiling too much for those who aren't novel readers, there are seeds of a clandestine coalition looking to put a benevolent ruler back on the throne.
And there's hope for Washington as well. For all its well-earned scorn, the Capitol is not yet void of lawmakers willing to look past the next election, and the city still hosts an army of anonymous individuals sacrificing in support of their ideals.
But the city also houses a legion of those who've succombed to the sirens of wealth, power, and fame — thinkers turned pundits and idealists turned operatives.
And in Washington, the prevailing political culture is perhaps best captured by Petyr Baelish, who is far from Westeros's most evil resident but may be its most nakedly ambitious. To Baelish, life is a struggle for power, and anyone who believes otherwise is naive to the point of delusion.
"Chaos isn't a pit. Chaos is a ladder," Baelish says, lecturing a rival who laments Westeros's lack of statesmanship and dismissing any human instinct other than the will to rule. "Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is."
Gods help us if he's right.