Everyone loves a good populist struggle. Actually, let’s amend that: Everyone who has chosen to ally themselves with a populist struggle loves a good one. If you’re staring down a populist uprising on the receiving end, you’re doubtless much less sanguine about the whole enterprise. Sometimes, however, it’s difficult to know what kind of political movement you’re facing. After all, the term can be twisted and tweaked a million ways, in order to call any number of actions “populist,” political or otherwise. Consumers don’t like New Coke? Let’s call it a “populist rage” against the brand! Words and definitions change over time, but sometimes a word holds such appeal that its meaning is watered down, or gets redefined into its own opposite. (Paging “literally,” party of one.)
But the 2016 presidential election is very much about a clash of populisms—which is also the dominant political dynamic on Game Of Thrones. The masses-vs.-elite narratives on Thrones illuminate the current waves of mass American anger. There are other shows about political behavior and other historical examples of the same, but for contemporary pop-culture insight into the fierce factionalism that has riven both parties, you’d be hard-pressed to beat the Seven Kingdoms for comparable examples.
Let’s quickly define what we’re talking about by “populism,” before Jaqen H’ghar knocks us upside the head for not being precise in our language. Common usage of the term often implies that it just means something supported by lots of people. For our purposes, populist movements have two main factors. First, populism is an explicitly political point of view that sees society as more or less separated into two groups, the “pure people and the corrupt elite,” to quote political scientist Cas Mudde. There are the hardworking everyday folks, this thinking goes, and then there are the nefarious leaders at the top, holding them down. And second, these movements are an expression of voice by a population that feels unheard by existing power structures. Whether you agree or not, supporters of any populist movement genuinely believe they’re getting a raw deal, and that the people in charge of listening to their cries are ignoring them. Somehow, the system is broken, and populism entails distrust of the institutions and people currently tasked with fixing it. In the words of Mr. Robot: “Fuck society.”
Game Of Thrones’ most pressing narratives—with the exclusion of the world-threatening White Walkers bearing down on Westeros—deal with large, government-shaking populist movements, for good and ill. The capital of King’s Landing is currently dealing with just such a movement, and a religiously inspired one, no less. (It’s always easier to get a bloodthirsty crusade going when you’ve got God on your side, after all.) The sparrows are the very definition of a populist uprising, a mass of discontented people angry at the violence visited upon common folk by the squabbling Houses, and committed to not only making their voices heard, but creating reforms.
True, the High Sparrow and his fellow believers may have been granted authority under the existing crown to reform as the Faith Militant, but consider the motivation. Cersei Lannister and the other nobles were already hearing rumblings of rebellion, and while appointing the High Sparrow to the position of High Septon may have been a short-sighted move to inflict damage against Cersei’s rivals in House Tyrell, it was also a sop—an attempt to placate a growing movement by making them a part of the very institution they were rising up against. Republican Party, meet the Tea Party.
The sparrows are thus the representation of a successful populist movement—so successful, in fact, that they now seem capable of bringing down the same government that tried to assuage them. This is exactly the point the High Septon/Sparrow made to Jaime Lannister in episode two of this season: They’re all a bunch of peasants and “nobodies,” but collectively, they can take down a king, if they so choose. For those in power, this is the nightmare scenario.
Another kind of populism is rattling the rafters across the Narrow Sea, as masses of soldiers and slaves alike have joined under the banner of Daenerys Targaryen, moving from city to city, freeing slaves, toppling masters, and then moving on. In its dedication to social uplift for the most oppressed members of society, Daenerys’ movement represents a kind of populism idée fixe, a single-minded dedication to radical aims that won’t be swayed by argument. At least, it was until very recently. With Daenerys’ absence, Tyrion, Varys, Grey Worm, and Missandei learn that ruling is different from toppling rulers. It’s easier to run against something, both practically and ideologically, than to run something. Pragmatism is chipping away at idealism in Meereen, and Daenerys’ populism—premised on the belief that she speaks for “the people”—gets thornier when those people express discontent with the direction of the change.
Part of the reason for the mess in Meereen is Tyrion’s attempt to move out of the populist style. Populism is characteristically couched in simple, direct language, aimed at ordinary people, a manner of political rhetoric that prides itself on its straightforward, no-bullshit nature. But it’s not just the language that’s blunt. The solutions and ideas offered are also typically simple and direct. “No more slavery!” is as frank as it gets, while messy, incremental progress like Tyrion’s seven-years-a-slave proposal looks suspiciously like capitulation to the slavers whom Daenerys’ people signed on to fight. That’s one of the big problems with populism: It sets itself up as the transformative, antagonistic enemy of existing social structures, so if it actually manages to make inroads, the very fact of its success resembles betrayal to those who have internalized its us-vs.-them worldview.
Two campaigns still in the running for the presidential nomination on both the Republican and Democratic sides evince shades of populism, albeit in varying ways. First, there is the demagoguery of Donald Trump, whose form of populism resembles Peronism, named after the authoritarian regime of former Argentinean president Juan Perón. (Perhaps you’ve heard of his wife, Eva? If not, don’t cry for her.) Trump’s economic message is fatuously populist, pitting the masses of working folks against the elites in Washington, D.C. It’s aggressively corporatist, centered around his claim that a savvy businessman like himself can succeed where politicians, in the pocket of big businesses, fail. And like Perón, Trump is regularly compared to fascist dictators, considers himself the embodiment of his nation, and accuses anyone who disagrees with him of being a liar, crazy, unpatriotic, or some combination of the three.
The negative effects of this kind of messianism are apparent in footage of Trump’s campaign rallies, where the frenzy of groupthink has repeatedly resulted in violence. Trump himself has endorsed violence at his rallies, urging his fans to “knock the crap out of” anyone protesting at the events and offering to pay their legal fees. (An offer he has since refuted, in one of his regular denials that he said things he said.) His supporters comes from all parts of the demographic spectrum, but they tend to be male, less educated, and from areas with greater racial animus. And they’re almost universally in agreement they have not been given a voice in representative democracy.
In contrast, the campaign of Bernie Sanders is more peaceable, but it’s no less Manichean in its perspective. For Sanders adherents, there is also an us-vs.-them split in society, but it’s a class-based division, based on the “We are the 99 percent” slogan of Occupy Wall Street. Many politicians regularly employ the rhetoric of populism—Sarah Palin loved to laud the values of “Main Street” as against those of “Wall Street”—but Sanders walks the talk, with economic programs that are practically New Deal-era progressive in their efforts at redistribution. It’s a movement based on supporters’ belief that the economic and political structures of the country are allied against them, borne from a sharp inequality that rewards the rich and punishes the rest of us.
A combative stance isn’t unique to populist campaigns, of course. Almost any political candidate can inspire devoted followers who are all too eager to throw shade on the competition—Hillary Clinton devotees, for example, have no lack of flame-warriors ready to scorn the arguments for a Sanders presidency—but there’s no populist basis to her campaign, which favors Obama-style pluralism, rather than the our-way-or-bust mentality of the #BernItDown absolutists. (And not every supporter of a populist movement is equally committed; there are plenty of Sanders voters ready to cast a vote for whoever ends up the Democratic candidate.)
As far back as September of last year, when the presidential field was still crowded, George Packer in The New Yorker was already noting the “flip sides of the same coin” nature of Trump’s and Sanders’ populist campaigns. The equivalent movements on Game Of Thrones are further along in their development—they allow audiences to see not just a reflection of their own discontent but also the way in which populist fervor can play out, for good and ill.
From Grey Worm’s point of view, Tyrion’s concessions to the slavers look like a deal with the devil. Imagine thinking you supported someone who wanted to take on the elites in the name of your freedom and equality, only to watch them turn around and say, “Well, maybe not just yet.” Better yet, don’t imagine it: Watch it expressed in the arguments of anti-Clinton progressives, condemning her for being too closely allied with the elites they hope to lay low. Or, conversely, imagine coming around to the other point of view, and arguing that Hillary’s policies may be less showy and immediate, but they’re going to work better and will be no less radical in the end. The Democratic Party sells the notion that these differences are minor—that the Sanders and Clinton camps agree on most policy issues—but that spin obscures the ferocious emotional opposition between the diehards and the pragmatists.
For all the pearl-clutching it induces among establishment Republicans, Trump’s nomination is the result of a successful populist style he’s adopted, which, as I’ve noted before, is to be expected from a political party that has committed its identity to demonizing the very institutions it wants to occupy. Trump hasn’t had to make the kind of ideological concessions yet that would give his followers much pause, in large part because political triangulation has never been a big part of his life. He’s not a politician by trade, and that gives him a form of ideological purity that’s almost unheard of, at least for a major-party candidate. (The Ross Perots of the world, meanwhile, stamp their feet and mutter, “Really?”)
But it’s that gap between idealism and pragmatism that drives populism in politics—and not just in democracies, as Thrones demonstrates. As Margaret Canovan notes, democratic politics has two faces: one redemptive, the other pragmatic. Democracy is a redemptive vision of changing the world, but it’s also simply a reasonable way of mitigating conflict though rules and regulations. It features the “power of the people” and anti-institutional popular sovereignty, but it’s also nothing but a means of organizing a government, a bureaucratic structure tasked with managing concerns. Game Of Thrones reveals this difference goes well beyond modern institutions. These conflicting views are in tension, even in a kingdom; and when they’re far enough apart, it opens a space for populism to come in and try to bring them closer together once more.
The sparrows didn’t evolve out of mere religion. As the show makes clear (and George R.R. Martin’s books even clearer), they were borne from the wreckage of conflicts that inflicted too much pain on a populace whose support for its rulers presumes those leaders will minimize the violence visited upon them. Similarly, the past 40 years in the United States have produced a clear transfer of wealth from the majority of citizens to the wealthiest. It’s the result of rolling back progressive tax structures, redefining corporate responsibility to prioritize profit and nothing else, and a lengthy culture war convincing those with less that the culprit isn’t those with more, but those with even less who want to come take away what little you have left.
The results of populist insurrections are being played out on HBO as we speak, and just in time for these real-life movements to hit their make-or-break windows. The Trump campaign is a success far beyond anyone’s expectations, except maybe the man himself. (Who knows what goes on beneath that push-broom hairdo?) What will really be noteworthy is seeing whether he chooses the path of compromise with the Republican Party, making nice to get access to their vast wealth and operational holdings. The Sanders campaign, by contrast, might make the opposite move: It could embrace its populist fire and carry out a scorched-Earth policy, refusing any quarter with the compromise of a Clinton middle ground. And this perpetual push-pull tension, between redemptive promise and sensible practice, is at the heart of modern politics. Given what other atrocities happen on Game Of Thrones, it’s tough to admit, but the show might have a better handle on the political maneuvering of populist leaders—and their followers—than the prognosticating pundits of the real world. Just ask those comparing Trump to New Coke.