Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Political lessons from Game of Thrones

This is a repost from my Facebook feed.

One of the reasons I love Game of Thrones -- both books and shows -- is because it provides such great examples of how politics often works. I’ve brought that up often to my friends this election season.

There are two separate areas where any candidate can stand or fall. The first thing is that politicians create policy. Ultimately what we should want most from our politicians is that they will enact good policy. During an election season, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we’re not just talking about a sports competition, where we hate the other team because they’re our rivals, and their wins and losses make us happy and sad just because they’re part of the tribe.

We want to elect good politicians because we want them to do stuff that matters on a large scale. Build infrastructure. Improve the economy. Keep the populace safe. Make sure the justice system is fair. Etc.


But the other angle of politics is being good at winning the “game” of getting elected. That’s an entirely separate skill. You can have the greatest policy ideas in the world but never win an election, because the things you have to do to win are very unlike the things you have to do to craft policy. Politics involves things like fundraising, and making friends with the right people, and creating good campaign ads, and pushing people’s emotional buttons, and undermining your opponent in ways both subtle and blatant.

In Game of Thrones, there are characters who are good at one thing, but not the other. I won’t give any blatant spoilers, for those of you who haven’t yet watched or read the series and still plan to. But the people who have, should know what I’m talking about.

Take Ned Stark. Ned is a good guy, a competent hand of the king, and cares a lot about what’s best for the country. But he’s bad at politics. And that matters a lot. If he’d won, if he’d been a little more careful about making allies of the right people, and working less openly against his enemies, the story might have taken a very different turn early in the series. Ned would probably have made a great ruler, but he didn’t get the opportunity. It’s not for nothing that the “stupid Ned Stark” meme became a thing (google it or follow the link if you don’t care about spoilers).

At the other end of the spectrum, we have Cersei Lannister. She’s pretty bad. Doesn’t care much about peasants, or the kingdom, or the scary rumors about white walkers. Mainly she cares about what serves herself and her family best, and she doesn’t care who she steps on, as long as she wins. But she does win often, and that’s my point; she’s an exceptional politician, and that makes her uniquely dangerous to the kingdom. More dangerous than Joffrey, who is more overtly evil than Cersei, but he’s also an egomaniacal dimwit who is only effective because he relies on others to get and keep his power. ...For a while, anyway.

But there’s this whole other middle category of people, who are pretty good people and also fairly politically savvy. Tyrion Lannister is the foremost example. He’s definitely not AS nice as Ned, his intentions are maybe not as pure, and he’s got a lot of vices. But on the whole, Tyrion would be better and nicer as a ruler than at least 80% of the other major characters. And at the same time, he’s aware of the game and cares about winning.

Other characters in that category: Varys the eunuch is extremely good at politics, although he doesn’t hold positions of power directly, while also clearly caring a lot about doing what’s best for the realm. Littlefinger is a real scumbag, but he’s not as purely evil as Cersei, and one of the shrewdest characters in the series. Sansa starts out as kind of pure and naive like Ned, but thanks to some character development, she’s learned more and more what it takes to get her way. Jon Snow seemed to be following his father as a well intentioned loser, but he seems to have gotten his shit together lately.

Anyway, my point is that sometimes a Tyrion Lannister or a Varys is the best possible character to root for. They may not be the best and nicest person around, but they are nice enough, and also much more likely to actually win in the end. And winning means you get to enact the good policies that you believe in, even if they’re not the perfect policies.

Because the real life work of politics inevitably requires a lot of social navigation, people who are good at politics often risk seeming manipulative and sleazy. Social climbers are unpalatable. Fundraising for ads seems like something con artists would do. But fair or not, that’s often just part of the job, and having those skills matters if you want to get a chance to govern.

And sometimes, other politicians appear to be totally “honest” and “tell it like it is” only because they have gotten so exceptionally good at fooling people that you don’t even notice that they’re even sleazier than everyone else.

I think it's fair to say that everyone who's made it to a position as high as president or governor or Congressman has this skill set. Some are better than others, and some are also better than others at looking like they don't do the things they do.

In the end, you shouldn’t judge your candidates by a gut feeling or by the conventional wisdom about their reputation. You should look at the policies they’ve actually proposed, and look at their history of getting those policies accomplished, and figure out who’s likely in the long run to accomplish most of the good things that you want done.

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