Game of Thrones and the underbelly of policy advice


September 5, 2017

Warning: spoilers ahead, from Season 1 through Season 7.

There is a world of difference between the Westminster system and the monarchical traditions of Westeros. Yet the dilemmas facing advisers in Game of Thrones (GoT) or on Earth are largely the same. They feel the pressure of providing frank and fearless advice and the necessity of collecting evidence to support claims. The risk of giving poor advice and being forced to fall on one’s sword remains—although in our case it is metaphorical rather than a gruesome literal outcome.

Murder and malice thankfully don’t guide political decision making in the same way today but, nevertheless, we see many parallels between key characters in GoT and political and policy figures in our own politics. The threat of dragons is akin to nuclear war in its day. The ice zombie Night Walkers are a metaphor for climate change. While the intricacies of statecraft and warcraft may vary, the lessons learned are often alike.

The story of the seven kingdoms begins by reinforcing the impossibility of cooperative federalism – how can Robert Baratheon maintain control over warring houses as he seeks to pursue pleasure and the good life for himself, and stability for his subjects? The distribution of marriage alliances between the big houses feels a bit like negotiations over vertical fiscal imbalance in a parallel universe!

GoT is riddled with advisers. They range from independent figures like Varys and Littlefinger to intimate family connections such as Jamie and Tywin Lannister, Catelyn Stark, or Olenna Tyrell. We might think of Ivanka and Jared under Trump.

What these vastly different characters have in common is the need to negotiate deadly relationships with their rulers. Cersei is an authoritarian, malicious dictator, whereas Jon Snow exercises his moral compass and seeks to lead by example. Sansa Stark learnt her lessons from the most cruel and devious teachers in Cersei and Littlefinger, but seeks to rule for good. Throughout the seven seasons many have failed to successfully meet the challenge of serving these ambitious sovereigns. Ned Stark, Littlefinger and both Tyrion and Jamie Lannister have learnt that the game of advice can be a dangerous and costly business. One minute you have the ruler’s ear, the next you’ve lost your head.

So how does political counsel in Westeros compare to such advice in our universe? Which roles do the Game of Thrones characters play in the language of our politics today?

Politics & PR

Tyrion has evolved through a range of adviser roles during the series. During the sadistic reign of his nephew Joffrey he was in fact the power behind the throne. As omnipotent King’s Hand he brought a principled approach and an awareness of public administrative issues as the foundation of political and popular support. This otherwise wouldn’t have been possible under Joffrey’s malicious rule.

Now his loyalties have turned to House Targaryen as his family ties have eroded under the weight of his moral compass. His eyes have been opened to new perspectives, new data (the White Walkers) and new causes. Serving Daenerys, Tyrion is akin to a chief of staff. He desperately seeks to balance the worst excesses of the Mother of Dragons. If she’s seen to be as brutal as all the rulers before her she will be tarred with the same brush of arbitrary, authoritarian rule. The greatest risk is that she appears simply to be a prettier version of her mad father.

Yet even as the medieval chief of staff Tyrion doesn’t have a monopoly on advice. He has become an adviser amongst many, just one cog in the wheels of a larger office. Missandei, Jon Snow and Jorah Mormont now also speak loudly. And so Daenerys eventually ignores Tyrion’s risk-averse strategy to desist from deploying her dragons, as her will to power grows.

His advice is steeped in modern public relations. Sometimes doing nothing is the hardest thing to do” he implores. Channelling the nuclear metaphor, one might imagine Truman’s angst in August 1945. As the Wall crumbled at the end of Season 7, we can ponder which advice would have set a more successful chain of events in motion.

Administrators speaking ‘truth’ to power

Varys, meanwhile, crosses the political-administrative divide. He is preoccupied with the health, education and feeding of the populace. Nevertheless he too exercises partisan judgement, deploying his little birds to obtain medieval market polling and focus group insights. He may claim no aspirations to personal power, but is intricately involved in the machinations behind the throne.

Littlefinger, or Lord Petyr Baelish, metamorphoses effortlessly from political backstabber to trusted adviser and back again. He is willing to burn down the whole empire in order to achieve personal gain. His motivating adage— “chaos is a ladder”—captures the inspiration driving many authoritarian political aspirants. Could we attribute a similar media strategy to challengers to the leadership of the major parties in Australia in recent years?

In contrast the Onion Knight, Ser Davos Seaworth, forcefully speaks truth to power and epitomises the classic articulation of the senior public servant. He directly confronts Stannis Baratheon, who is simultaneously under the thrall of Melisandre—whose advice is steeped in personal power accumulation and the realisation of dark prophecy. The public does not figure in their obsessive personal project and Davos’ counsel, in the end, falls on deaf ears. Davos staves off the corrosive influence of the Red Woman for a time, but in his absence Stannis succumbs and sacrifices his own daughter. Now Davos finds a more receptive ear to his advice in service to the King in the North, Jon Snow.

Evidence & external stakeholders

Finally, the maesters provide a mixed bag of sometimes lethal, sometimes ineffectual advice drawn from science, medicine and theology. Scheming Qyburn and bumbling Pycelle contrast with the trusted wisdom of Lewin and Aemon. One could imagine them as chief scientists, religious counsel or partisan academic advisors.

So are advisers just expendable pawns or do they matter in their own right? It is here that GoT has some telling insights.

Advice is two-way: too often we focus on the contribution of a single actor at one time without paying attention to dynamic interactive relationships. The regime does depend on the person at the top, but it is massively underwritten by the great underbelly of advice that comprises the partisan and administrative institutions that support any given government. These institutions are dependent on the integrity of each and every member of the system. To ignore your advisers is as problematic as allowing them too much power.

The Trump administration provides a fitting lesson in this regard. A recently shared photo depicts Trump and Pence with their senior advisory team at the inauguration — every non-elected official has since left the rulers’ sides. No matter your politics in this polarised age, we can all agree that such churn can only hinder good policy.

Then there is the question of ambition. Advisers such as Sir Davos, Tyrion and Varys are motivated by promotion of the common good. There are others, however, who are willing to burn down the whole empire in order to achieve personal gain. Yet blind service to poor leadership taints advisers too. This year’s Sean Spicer memes come to mind, and press secretary Ron Ziegler under Nixon is an earlier candidate.

If nothing else, Game of Thrones encourages us to pay attention to the institutions of advice that inform our political and administrative systems.  The fate of the nation—or the Kingdoms—is a finely balanced act. Let us hope our advice rings honest and true.

Catherine Althaus is associate professor in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne and is associate dean (academic) at ANZSOG. David Threlfall is a research officer to the vice chancellor at the University of Melbourne.

Read more: Which Game of Thrones leader are you?

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