Fraser Forum

Authority and legitimacy in Westeros, Essos and Washington, D.C.

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In the presidential election cycle in the U.S., it turns out that the ultimate choice of the Democratic Party is Hillary Clinton and the ultimate choice of the Republican Party is Donald Trump. (The ultimate choice of the Libertarian party is Gary Johnson, which bears mentioning, even though it’s a question for another day what significance his candidacy will have.)

That the race has resulted in the selection of major party candidates whose negatives in polling are staggeringly high makes one wonder about the nature of legitimacy and its role in any selection process. Unsurprisingly, I find relevance in a recent episode of the HBO series Game of Thrones.

Most of the fictional kingdoms in the show establish political legitimacy via hereditary monarchy, although there’s always a little room for assassination and conquest. But over in the Iron Isles, they seem to have other options. They have a ritual known as “Kingsmoot” where someone who thinks he or she has a better claim to the throne can make the case publicly, and it’s general acclaim in the Kingsmoot that bestows legitimacy. It’s not pure democracy; it doesn’t seem as though all of the people are invited. But a claimant must persuade a clear majority of the assembled nobles. The heir of the previous ruler isn’t automatically entitled to rule, although one assumes it would be a good starting point.

In the show, Theon, the oldest male heir to the previous king returns home shortly after the king has died, and everyone assumes this is because he wants to stake a claim to the throne. This is actually not true; he doesn’t feel capable of ruling and was returning home for other reasons. However, his sister Yara is interested in staking a claim to the throne. She has proven qualities as a warrior, but many at the Kingsmoot are uneasy about the idea of a female ruler. Theon publicly announces his support for her, and the crowd starts to come around to the idea, until another claimant comes forward, at which point things take an unexpected turn.

It turns out the previous king was murdered by his brother Euron—and it’s Euron who comes forward to challenge Yara for the throne. He publicly announces that it was he who killed his brother; indeed he justifies this in terms of what is best for their kingdom. And his argument that it was best for the kingdom persuades enough of the Kingsmoot to acclaim him as king. To an outsider, this seems strange—you put yourself in a position to ascend to the throne by killing the king, and use the murder as a selling point for the virtues of your kingship. But to them, it makes perfect sense. Since Euron persuades the Kingsmoot, he not only becomes king, he has legitimacy.

Legitimacy is as important as the formal process of selection. The king’s commands are useless if no one follows them. What actually accomplishes things is people doing what the king says. Euron’s first act is to order everyone to commence building ships—which they do. Euron himself cannot build a fleet of ships. What matters is that everyone accepts the legitimacy of his rule and therefore will follow his commands.

By way of contrast, Danaerys has become queen of Meereen, but doesn’t truly rule there. What semblance of authority she has is enforced by her (non-Meereenese) soldiers, who are frequently disobeyed or assassinated. Dany is the queen, but lacks the legitimacy that would enable her to get things done.

One can observe this phenomenon in non-political settings as well—a coach whose athletes won’t follow drills, a schoolteacher whose students will not listen or follow directions, a boss whose subordinates do things their own way. The people who hold these positions of authority may well have formal authority, but to be effective requires a legitimacy which goes beyond that.

In American presidential politics, there seems to be a huge institutional inertia such that whoever wins the formal process does acquire enough legitimacy to be able to rule effectively. This may have both good and bad aspects to it. On the plus side, the selection process is adversarial, so the idea that “when it’s over, we’ll accept the victor’s authority (subject to constitutional restraints)” probably promotes peace and stability. The downside is that even if the winner has incoherent policies, they’re presumptively authoritative, and often allow for the bending of those constitutional restraints.

A president who loses too much won’t likely end up thrown off a tower as in the Iron Isles, but suffers a completely oppositional congress, or is ousted after one term, or possibly finds himself or herself impeached. It will be interesting to see what kind of legitimacy a President Clinton or a President Trump (or a President Johnson!) ends up getting.


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