What "Game of Thrones" Shows Us About Political Communication & Narrative

Thoughts on the willing audience and the narrative

Contributor’s Riff

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by Alton Drew | original AltonDrew.com | @altondrew

Social media losts its mind this past Sunday night as faithful fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones tuned in for the show’s final episode. A significant number of viewers were miffed that Bran Stark, (or “Bran the Broken”) a cripple with a gift of knowing the past and the future and who engaged in no battles as a warrior, would win the Iron Throne, not via combat or birthright, by via narrative created by a handful of elite landowners and military people.

I came away with two main takeaways including:

  • The willing audience?

  • What is the narrative?

The Willing Audience

The audience yearns for a good story. A narrative that will help them fall in line and find that comfort zone in which they can enjoy some certainty.  The person around which the narrative is spun need not be seen as someone who has done anything superhuman or fantastic.  All that is required is that the story be compelling so that the general or mass audience is assured that the person around which the story is spun deserves the pedestal they are placed on.

The most important audience is the immediate audience: the group of people closest to the decision-making. The decision-makers themselves must first be convinced by the storyteller that xyz person is deserving of a marketing push. In the case of Bran Stark, it was Tyrion Lannister who made the sale, offering a compelling tale to the heads of the remaining households that the boy who was crippled after being pushed out of a window and later gained powers of clairvoyance, maintained clarity of vision, and stayed above the fray. For those reasons, Bran should now be their leader as king.

We have seen this before in the case of Barack Obama. A slender, Black male State Senator from a Midwest state delivers a speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and a compelling narrative about the son of a White Kansas woman and a Black man from East Africa is launched.  Arguably, Obama had done nothing of heroic note leading up to the moment of his speech. Why was his story any more compelling than say an Iraq war veteran or a single mother who went to school at night, got a law degree, and started an advocacy program for poor people?

What matters is that the real audience, the audience of initial decision makers determines which story can be sold to the widest audience possible.

What is the Narrative?

I mentioned before that the narrative should create a comfort zone for the mass audience so that they proceed through life with less uncertainty.  The real goal of the narrative should be to muster up support for the leader that has already been chosen by an inner circle.  The choice still has to be sold to the masses, even though in the case of Game of Thrones the notion of democracy, that the masses would choose the new king, was laughed at.

So, how should the narrative sound or look? It should be one that the masses find they can relate to.  In the case of Bran Stark, they saw a boy who was broken physically, but was able to transcend his disability.  A “rise from the ashes” story would be significant to the people of King’s Landing given the destruction of the city and the slaughter of the residents that they endured.  The goal for the ruler or potential ruler, however, is not to create a world of certainty from which his subjects can operate.  That’s merely the cost of achieving the real goal: to transfer and maintain power in the hands of a ruler or potential ruler.

This point was lost on the show’s viewers and is definitely lost on the American electorate.  Political narratives are about power.  Nothing more, nothing less. The narrative should not provide for a “happy ending” wrapped in a red bow for the masses or the electorate. There is only one end game for an effective narrative: the acquisition and maintenance of power.

The New Narrative is Always Noisy

In the final episode, we saw governance returning to normal.  The ruling council discussed filling vacancies, ensuring clean water for the people, and paying off government debts. No matter who sat at on the ruling council, the business of public administration, public policy, and power remained the same.  Only the narrative regarding who held power and why had changed.  Everything else - from the game to the battles - was and always is merely noise.