The only thing Elizabeth Warren loves more than fighting corporate corruption and elevating the middle class is … waging an actual scorched-earth campaign to claim her birthright with the help of dragons, eunuchs and nomadic horse-riding warriors?
That seems to be the takeaway from the Massachusetts Democratic senator’s column on “Game of Thrones,” published in New York Magazine’s Cut last weekend. The post, essentially a stump speech masquerading as a thinkpiece, goes something like this: Warren wants Daenerys Targaryen to win because Daenerys plans to “break the system as it is known,” and Warren wants Cersei Lannister to lose because Cersei hopes to rule not “with the people” but “in spite of them.” Also, Cersei is betting on a big bank.
It’s easy enough to see why Warren wrote about George R.R. Martin’s book series turned television phenomenon. Voters so far have not responded to most of her detailed policy proposals with the same enthusiastic attention that tethers them to their screens on Sunday nights. What’s perplexing is Warren’s choice of hero.
Daenerys? Really? Okay, yes, Warren argues that her interest in “Thrones” is “about the women,” so that counts a few favorites out. But there’s always Sansa Stark, who amid everyone else’s grand ambitions and army-raising wants to make sure her people have something to eat. There’s the oath-keeping Brienne of Tarth, or even Arya, whose interventions into injustice at least are more, uh, targeted.
Warren obviously intended to draw parallels between her and the Mother of Dragons. The problem is, pay close enough attention and any comparison plays into criticisms of her from both sides of the spectrum.
First, there’s the left. The only candidate who is plausibly more progressive than Elizabeth Warren is Bernie Sanders. His purist supporters scoff at Warren because, bold as her ideas are, she doesn’t want to destroy: She wants to reform. Warren insists she is a capitalist who seeks to save the system from itself. Sanders says he’s a socialist, and while their platforms don’t actually seem too far off from each other, the different branding has proved powerful.
Daenerys, also called Dany, does say she wants to destroy the system as it is known, or, in her words, “break the wheel.” But watchers are supposed to wonder how much she means it. She’s eager to end slavery in the faraway lands of Essos, but she seems significantly less interested in ending the monarchy in Westeros. When Tyrion Lannister asks Dany what the world she hopes to build will look like, gesturing at a democratic future, she cuts the conversation short: “We will discuss the succession after I wear the crown.”
Then there are Warren’s critics from her right, which is effectively the center. Their issue isn’t that she is not doing enough; it’s that she is doing too much — or at least that she isn’t doing it carefully.
Warren’s all-out assault on monopolies means, in the case of technology companies, imposing rigid restrictions on all large firms that would force them to split apart. The goal is to bolster competition, but skeptics are concerned it is punishment for punishment’s sake, and that specific remedies for specific problems would work better to benefit consumers.
Daenerys didn’t have to torch a whole field of Lannister soldiers to prove her supremacy. She had the Dothraki for that, and the dragons could have been a last resort rather than a first. She also didn’t have to barbecue the Tarlys when they had already been brought to surrender.
The same goes for Warren’s free college and debt forgiveness plan. Her more moderate critics argue that the wholesale elimination of public tuition could hurt working people more than it helps by dumping money on graduates who are already likely to be higher earners instead of funneling it into programs designed to aid the poor.
Dany meant more than well when she resolved to liberate Slaver’s Bay, but her rashness and refusal to calibrate her strategy to the cities’ political and economic realities resulted in upheaval, and may have left some worse off than they were before.
Wandering into the morass of Westerosi politics will always be hazardous. The real reason it’s so hard to choose a champion from the “Game of Thrones” cast is that few of the characters who have a shot at victory are objectively good. That’s part of the point. These fictional figures rarely live out campaign-trail values for the same reason real-world ones don’t once the campaigning is over and the governing begins: Their world is complicated.
The most appealing thing about Warren might in fact be that she does appear to recognize complication, and that recognition might be exactly why she’s vulnerable to such full-throated distaste from both flanks. Maybe voters will view Elizabeth Warren as a fatally flawed Daenerys Targaryen, even if the Democratic contender has no dragons (at least so far) and is less likely to go totally, utterly mad by her story’s end. Or maybe, silly essays aside, they will view her as someone searching for solutions that are at once big enough to meet the moment and compact enough to fit into our political reality. And maybe, where they think she is wrong, they will lend a hand — if not a Hand — to help her get it right.