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.

National Journal
Patrick Reis
June 9, 2014, 1:10 a.m.

(Spoil­ers, prob­ably.)

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.

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