The Volokh Conspiracy

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Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones and the Perils of "Personalist" Political Regimes

"Game of Thrones" highlights the dangers of pinning our hopes on supposedly admirable political leaders wielding vast, concentrated power. Sadly, modern Americans are almost as susceptible to that error as the misguided characters on the show.


Daenerys Targaryen (played by Emilia Clarke). (HBO). (HBO)

NOTE: This post contains spoilers for Season 8 of the popular TV show Game of Thrones.

Last night's episode of Game of Thrones focused in large part on the debate over whether "Dragon Queen" Daenerys Targaryen is likely to make a good ruler for the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Is she a liberator or an incipient tyrant? In a recent article for Vox, Zack Beauchamp argues that Daenerys exemplifies the dangers of "personalist" political leadership:

Game of Thrones seems to be setting up Daenerys for a version of a common real-world problem, one in which successful revolutionaries turn out to be awful leaders…

Daenerys is back in her native Westeros, leading a faction in a civil war rather than an invasion of a foreign country. She's a revolutionary, working to overthrow the Lannister dynasty and install a new government — one that is hostile to "tyrants," as she says this episode — in its place.

The problem, though, is that this kind of revolution can often replace old tyrannies with new ones. The classic examples here are 20th century communist revolutionaries like Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, and Fidel Castro — leaders who seized power in the name of the people, but ended up building structures that oppress them.

Research by scholars Jeff Colgan and Jessica Weeks suggests that these equally oppressive outcomes are not not accidents. Revolutionary leaders are often aggressive, and work to consolidate power in their own hands after the revolution. They tend to build what political scientists call "personalist" dictatorships — political systems where ultimate power is concentrated in their hands and their hands alone — and then use that power to repress political opponents and wage war abroad.

"The same characteristics that allowed revolutionaries to succeed in their domestic struggle," Colgan and Weeks write, "also make such leaders more likely to initiate international conflict once they have obtained office."

Daenerys fits this pattern to a tee. A woman whose iron will and ruthlessness allowed her to rise to power on Essos, and to eventually win most of Westeros to her cause, she's clearly an effective revolutionary. But that same will to power makes her unwilling to share it, and that same ruthlessness makes her willing to go to extreme lengths to punish her enemies. Any innocents who get hurt along the way are just collateral damage.

The analogy to Lenin, Mao, and Castro has serious flaws. The carnage caused by their regimes was largely the result not of "personalism," but of their commitment to communism. It was the attempt to implement that ideology that led to large-scale repression and mass murder. Had Mao, for example, been motivated solely by the desire to keep himself in power, he would never have undertaken the Great Leap Forward, the biggest mass murder in the entire history of the world.

By contrast with these communist rulers, Daenerys has little in the way of an ideological agenda, perhaps even too little. And while virtually all communist regimes were notorious for their extensive use of forced labor, Daenerys is notable for her efforts to free slaves.

That said, it is indeed true that Daenerys is flawed because she seeks absolute power. While she says she wants to  "break the wheel" of the struggle for power in Westeros, her plan for doing so consists of replacing the previous flawed occupants of the Iron Throne with herself—while maintaining the near-absolute authority of the monarchy.

This flaw in Daenerys' worldview is not unique to her. It seems to be shared by virtually all of the other characters in the show, even the most insightful. Those who question Daenerys' fitness to rule in the last episode still think in terms of who to put on the Iron Throne, without any consideration of whether new institutional arrangements might be preferable.

Daenerys' critics among those working with her to overthrow the malevolent Queen Cersei Lannister  favor Jon Snow's candidacy for the throne (now that he has been revealed to have a stronger hereditary claim than she does). They ignore Jon's extensive history of truly terrible political and military leadership. The truth is that he is no more fit to be a good ruler than Daenerys—probably much less so, in my view (though that might yet be upended by the events of the last two episodes.

In the actual Middle Ages, on which Game of Thrones is loosely based, institutions like parliaments and autonomous cities gradually emerged to challenge and constrain the power of kings. So far at least, very little of that is in evidence in Westeros.  Instead of relying on charismatic leaders,  the Westerosi would do better to impose much tighter institutional constraints on government power, including that of the monarch who sits on the Iron Throne.

It's easy to criticize the characters on Game of  Thrones for this blind spot. But all too many citizens of Western democracies share the same flaw, a point I tried to highlight in an earlier analysis of the politics of GOT:

The benighted people of Westeros are not the only ones who hope that their problems might go away if only we concentrate vast power in the hands of the right ruler. The same pathology has been exploited by dictators throughout history, both left and right.

It is also evident, in less extreme form, in many democratic societies. Donald Trump won election by promising that he could solve the nation's problems through his brilliant leadership if only we gave him enough power: "I alone can do it," he famously avowed at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Before him, Barack Obama promised that he could transcend the ordinary limitations of politics and bring "change we can believe in."

More generally, voters are prone to support charismatic leaders who promise to change the flawed status quo, without giving much thought to the possibility that the new policies may be as bad or worse than the old. They also rarely consider the likelihood that real improvements require institutional reform, not merely a new leader. The spinning wheel of Westeros has its counterpart in the wheel of American politics, where one set of dubious politicians replaces another, each promising that they are the only ones who can give us the "change" we crave.

The presidency is not—at least not yet—an absolute dictatorship akin to the Iron Throne. But the office nonetheless wields vast powers that cannot be safely trusted to any one person, and is surrounded with expectations that  no real-world politician is likely to meet. With relatively rare exceptions, the Democrats and Republicans are focused on the struggle over which charismatic leader gets to wield those vast powers. Few stop to consider the possibility that the best way to "break the wheel" is to cut back on the scope of presidential power, and perhaps that of the federal government more generally. In this  respect, we have more in common with the characters on Game of Thrones than we like to think.