Mister, we could use a Lannister these days.
The uber-Machiavellian Lannisters of Game of Thrones work the long con, arranging dynastic marriages and long-term alliances with downright prescience. And they’re not even the most devious plotters in the fantasy world of Westeros. The eunuch spymaster Varys and the merchant Illyrio Mopatis (spoiler!) are playing a game so long that even the most diligent (read: obsessed) fans of the books have yet to determine exactly what their end goals are.
These are plots of devious, subtle complexity. The Westerosi political set takes advantage of human weaknesses and failings, hopes and dreams. They lay the groundwork for decades-long plots. In short, they’re masterful.
Now, take a look at the midterm campaigns going on all around us.
Not quite as impressive, is it?
Everyone knows Game of Thrones is fantasy. But the sad truth is, its incredibly competent political maneuverings are just as fantastical as Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons.
Here in the real world, we get things like Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst attacking opponent Dan Patrick with a parody of the song “Let It Go” from the children’s movie “Frozen.” Or Ebola virus panic popping up in a state legislative race. Or Florida Gov. Rick Scott refusing, for seven minutes, to take the stage for a debate because there was an illicit electric fan under opponent Charlie Crist’s podium.
Don’t believe me? Then explain a campaign ad, called the worst in the election cycle by political consultant Frank Luntz, in which Terri Lynn Land, the Republican candidate for Michigan’s open U.S. Senate seat, refutes a claim by her opponent that she’s part of the GOP’s war on women by, largely, drinking coffee and staring into the camera. “Really?” she asks. (The point is that she can’t be part of a legislative war on women, because she’s, you know, a woman. Really.)
Luntz, by the way, is a Republican.
Or a “Say Yes To The Dress” parody ad, funded by the College National Republican Committee, depicting a dubbed-in slate of GOP gubernatorial candidates as chic modern wedding dresses, and their Democratic opponents as fussy gowns with costly add-ons. (Lest you dismiss this ad as the work of some college kids, this group spends millions each election cycle and has a K Street address. This isn’t a bunch of kids spitballing ideas in the A.V. room after class—it’s the group where guys like Karl Rove and Lee Atwater got their stripes.)
Our world, it seems, is not run by competent grown-ups. It’d be awfully nice to think that our elected officials are scheming masterminds—that they’ve got hidden agendas and secret plans. A secret plan would be a plan, and the ability to first develop, and then conceal, an agenda would indicate an impressive level of perspicacity.
It’d also be nice to imagine that the terrible way campaigns are conducted is new, possibly related to the way our campaign finances laws have changed to allow unlimited corporate spending. Or perhaps donors’ use of the nonprofit section of the U.S. Tax Code to remain anonymous, and the amount of outside dollars by super political action committees on local races.
If that were true, it’d be theoretically possible we could fix it, if we ever got serious about campaign finance reform. (Make no mistake, there are big-money outside groups spending vast sums to influence campaigns, with very strong agendas, in sneaky ways … but their goals aren’t so much hidden as blatantly, obviously transparent.)
Sadly, it’s not. Lowest common denominator campaigning and dumb pandering in this country dates back to at least the presidential election of 1800. Then-Vice President Thomas Jefferson’s followers called sitting President John Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Adams’ folks called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”
And it’s basically a fixture of human history. Way back in 64 B.C., Quintus Tullius Cicero wrote a little handbook for his brother, Marcus Cicero (that’s the Cicero), involved at the time in a pretty hot race for consul against the patrician Catiline. Quintus advised his brother to make extravagant promises, because breaking a promise offended fewer people than he’d offend by refusing to make the promise in the first place, to court supporters of wealth and influence, oh, and to exploit his political enemies’ sex scandals.
We fantasize about worlds like Westeros, or the duplicitous Washington, D.C. of House of Cards, because deep down we want our leaders to be complicated schemers. But the harsh truth is, that there is no man behind the curtain. Or, rather, the man behind the curtain—he’s us.
How scary is that?