The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Massachusetts Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren is a big fan of Game of Thrones character Daenerys Targaryen. So am I! It's one of the few things Warren and I have in common (other than support for marijuana legalization, a love of golden retrievers, and both having been law professors). Still, I have several bones to pick with this recent article Warren wrote in praise of the Dragon Queen. Dany is a lot more problematic than Warren suggests—sometimes in ways that reveal flaws in Warren's own worldview.
Before reading further, you should know the rest of this post contains spoilers for Game of Thrones. Yes, SPOILERS. Those who dare complain about the spoilers despite being duly warned will suffer a dire fate similar to that of the Dragon Queen's enemies: Dracarys!
Back to Warren and Daenerys:
Warren writes that Daenerys "doesn't want to be a slave owner or a dictator—and she definitely doesn't want to become her murderous father." One of these things is not like the others. It's to her credit that Daenerys opposes slavery, and has in fact freed many thousands of slaves during her time raising any army on the continent Essos. She isn't called the Breaker of Chains for nothing. She also has a genuine desire to avoid repeating the horrific errors of her father, "Mad King" Aerys.
But Daenerys pretty clearly does want to be a "dictator."As she herself notes in the most recent episode of the final season of Game of Thrones, the "one goal" of her life has been to retake the Iron Throne of Westeros. She doesn't seem to have any objection to the vast scope of the monarch's powers (it's an absolute monarchy), nor does she believe that the legitimacy of her claim to the throne is dependent on the will of the people. To the contrary, she's more than willing to use heavyhanded coercion to force resisters to "bend the knee." She also rules as a despot during her time governing the territories she conquers in Essos (though somewhat less so in the books by George R.R. Martin than in the HBO show based on them).
Perhaps Daenerys cannot be blamed too much for this. Almost everyone in Westeros favors authoritarianism of one kind or another. The cities of Essos are ruled by narrow oligarchies. But Dany is not an exception to the dominant worldview of her society in this respect. Moreover, she clearly does have a strong love of power, even though she is often able to impose some restraint on the selfish impulses that stem from it.
Warren is right to point out that Dany says she wants to "break the wheel" rather than just continue the same old struggle for power that has devastated Westerosi society. But it's also true she seems to have no notion that doing so requires institutional change, not merely replacing a bad monarch with a good one (preferably herself). I discuss this flaw in her thinking (another she shares with nearly all the other characters on the show) here:
Unlike most of the other rulers we see in the series, Daenerys has at least some genuine interest in improving the lot of ordinary people…
Nonetheless, it is not clear whether Daenerys has any plan to prevent future oppression and injustice other than to replace the current set of evil rulers with a better one: herself. The idea of "breaking the wheel" implies systemic institutional reform, not just replacing the person who has the dubious honor of planting his or her rear end on the Iron Throne in King's Landing. If Daenerys has any such reforms in mind, it is hard to say what they are.
Daenerys most recently restated her desire to break the wheel in episode 4 of season 7, when she announced it to a group of captured enemy soldiers. Immediately afterwards, she proceeded to execute two of the prisoners, Lord Randyll Tarly and his son Dickon, because they refused to swear allegiance to her. Daenerys orders one of her dragons to burn them to death.
Lord Tarly is a far from sympathetic character, one who has committed significant injustices…. Nonetheless, this is an example of Daenerys ordering a brutal execution of prisoners without any due process, primarily because they refused to "bend the knee" to her…. Life and death are still decided by the word of the king or queen, with no institutional safeguard against the abuse of such arbitrary power.
Daenerys' indifference to the need for institutional constraints on government power is, to a great degree, shared by Elizabeth Warren herself. The latter advocates policies that would massively expand government power over the economy and society, and over online speech, while imposing few if any new institutional constraints.
Warren's shortcomings in this respect are much less excusable than Daenerys'. Unlike the Dragon Queen, Warren has the benefit of centuries of political and economic theory outlining the need to impose limits on government power and explaining how it can be done.
Warren praises Daenerys' recognition of the threat to humanity from the zombie-like White Walkers and willingness to prioritize it over her personal goal of taking the Iron Throne. The praise is partly justified. But in the most recent episode of GOT, Dany says she made this decision out of love for Jon Snow, the King of the North, who urges her to deal with the Night Walkers first. Making this sacrifice out of love for her new boyfriend is not quite the same thing as doing it out of a sense of duty to the people of Westeros (though, in fairness, the latter is probably not completely absent). One wonders whether Dany would have made the same decision if she was not attracted to Jon.
Finally, Warren is also right to note that Dany is a much better person, with more admirable motives, than Cersei Lannister, the current occupant of the Iron Throne. But that is damning with faint praise. It is a little like saying Warren herself deserves credit for being a better person than Donald Trump. She is. But Trump and Cersei are ridiculously low standards of comparison.
Despite her flaws, I still think that Dany is probably the least bad plausible contender for the Iron Throne (assuming the institution of the monarchy continues). Jon Snow, the understandable favorite of many fans, is—to my mind—disqualified by his egregious incompetence as a political and military leader. In that sense, Warren is right to cheer Daenerys' bid for the throne. But, ultimately, we would do better to place our faith in institutional constraints on government power rather than in seemingly heroic leaders—or in politicians who promise to solve all our problems if only we bend the knee.
UPDATE: Reason's Robby Soave has some related thoughts on Warren and Game of Thrones here.