Star Wars and Government
The Heart of the Space-Based Franchise Lies in Civics
Without some form of government, we are stuck in Thomas Hobbes’ hellish state of nature, ‘the war of all against all.’ No one wants that. Humans live in tribes, and tribes need a structure, a way to make decisions. Your family has a governing style – your parents can tell you what to do (dictatorship) or ask your opinion (benevolent monarchy) or the family takes a vote (participatory democracy); your sports teams and classrooms have governing models, too.
But which form of government, or civic decision-making, is the right one? Socialism? Communism? Oligarchy? Libertarian democracy? Theocracy? Children’s literature has the answer – many answers, actually. From the happy king- and queen-dom of Cinderella to the failed island collective of Lord of the Flies to the self-rule of the Little House on the Prairie books, we see a wide range of alternatives. “Children’s literature makes and educates future citizens,” write Christopher Kelen and Bjorn Sundmark in their excellent anthology of essays, “The Nation in Children’s Literature.” They continue, “the emergence of modern nation-states towards the end of the eighteenth century and the rise of children’s literature in the same period is not coincidental.” Yow!! Such scholars identify – and rightly so, I think – children’s literature as a key component of culture connecting child and nation. Stories about young protagonists portray communities, and those communities all have a specific character.
In the following essay and interview, Alexander Maxwell looks at one of the most influential of young-reader / young-viewer epics and comes away with clever observations about governments in space. His premise is that, beneath the light-sabre fights and spaceships, memorable characters and thrilling adventure, the “Star Wars” movies are all about government: specifically, clashing forms of government, and what they bring to their citizens.
You don’t need to believe him. In a 2005 Chicago Tribune interview, here is what George Lucas said:
[The original Star Wars] was really about the Vietnam War, and that was the period where Nixon was trying to run for a [second] term, which got me to thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships?
Nor is Alexander Maxwell the only scholar with opinions on this topic. In his insightful essay, Why the Politics of the ‘Star Wars’ Universe Makes No Sense, Scott Detrow writes:
The Jedi knights may have been a destabilizing force who contributed to the downfall of the Old Republic. They play a very weird and undemocratic role and they’re secretive and they’re religious and they don’t seem to be subject to anybody else’s rules other than their own.”
In his paper, “The Road to Hell: Star Wars as Criticism of Paternalism as Empire,” William Nolen puts forth the idea that in Star Wars Episode II: the Attack of the Clones (2002), Anakin and Padme lay out the beginnings of a theocracy – a combination of state and religious power. Eventually, of course. Anakin turns to tyranny, his childhood traumas “presumably pushing him to value order over liberty.”
We can also widen the lens and include other literary properties aimed at young readers. “Twilight,” for example, includes a sort of throwback to a Roman Empire model, for example (although the good guys are organized like a United Nation of vampires). The evil government that creeps into the middle and later “Harry Potter” books represents Parliamentary bureaucracy gone out of control, with Sirius Black and the Weasleys opposing it, using an informal military command structure.
As students, you need to begin to notice these governing structures which underlie your favorite stories, films, songs and fantasy games. You have consumed hundreds of hours of these narratives, and you will profit by discerning this aspect among them. As teachers, we need to use the rich subtexts of these popular to initiate students into the world of critical thinking.
Interview with Scholar Alexander Maxwell
1. In his article, “Why the Politics of Star Wars Make No Sense,” Brett Neely concludes that, in terms of government, “The Galactic Senate portrayed in Episodes I-III is a mess.” There don’t seem to be political parties, he points out, or a second chamber, and one key planet, Naboo, apparently elects its queen, Padmé Amidala (royalty is never elected, in the real world).
I’m not familiar with Neely’s article. I wouldn’t want to argue that the politics of Star Wars make perfect sense, and indeed I noted some problems in my article. However, the particular objections raised in this question don’t seem such big problems to me. The lack of a second chamber means nothing: historically, there have been several unicameral parliaments. Insofar as the Galactic Republic contains many planets that enjoy wide-reaching local autonomy, furthermore, we might compare the Galactic Senate to the General Assembly of the United Nations. Delegates to the UN General Assembly represent their respective countries, not political parties. Is it really so strange that the Galactic Republic would resemble the UN general Assembly? I agree that the elected queen of the Naboo is a bit silly; Lucas probably just wanted his female lead to have a fairy-tale style title. Nevertheless, even elected monarchs are not wholly unknown. The Holy Roman Emperor and the Prince of Novgorod were both elected, even if only by elite electors. Parliaments in many different countries have also filled vacant royal thrones through elections.
2. What governmental role do the Jedi Knights play? You refer to them as a police force, yet they seem to have wide-ranging, independent role, a sort of secret, semi-religious, enforcer society. Does their role change over the course of the films?
I suspect the Jedi knights are interesting because in the Star Wars universe mastering the power of the Force grants supernatural abilities. Jedi knights move objects with their mind, see into the future, communicate telepathically (at the end of Episode V) and even commune with the dead. In the real world, there is no caste of warriors with supernatural abilities, so we cannot expect to find a perfect real-life equivalent to the Jedi Knights.
Knowledge of the Force does indeed have a religious dimension. In Episode IV an imperial officer even describes it as “that ancient religion.” The Jedi also resemble a religious order in that Jedi are supposed to be celibate, like monks. They do not, however, seem like a secret society: they wear distinctive clothing, and can easily be recognized on sight. We also learn in Episode I that they can be sent as ambassadors, which seems a pretty public role to me.
Disney … seems more interested in the “hero’s journey” aspect of the Star Wars franchise.
In terms of their governmental role, however, their most important quality is that they have placed themselves at the disposal of the Galactic Republic. They are not trying to rule on their own account, they respect the Senate’s authority and take orders from the Supreme Chancellor. So, I think it’s basically right to think of them as a police force. The Jedi are not numerous to be called an army, even if they make effective officers for clone soldiers. They are respected and influential players in Galactic politics, at least in the first three episodes, but military leaders are often important in political life.
Their role obviously changes when the Galactic Republic collapses and the Jedi go into hiding. It’s sort of interesting that the surviving Jedi do not join the Rebellion against the Empire. Had Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi wanted to join the Rebel Alliance, one imagines that they would have become respected and influential leaders. Indeed, their withdrawal from politics only makes sense as a plot device.
3. The climactic dogfight is often compared to WWII dogfights – do other historical scenarios figure in?
The climactic battle scene at the end of Episode IV closely resembles the climactic battle at the end of the 1955 film Dambusters. If you search YouTube with the keywords “Dambusters Star Wars,” you can find a shot-by-shot comparison. Lucas even borrowed some of his dialogue from Dambusters. So, that sequence is not so much based on a historical scenario, but on a movie.
It’s sometimes hard to tell whether something in a film is based on historical events, or on a cinematic depiction of historical events. Given the importance of the Nazis as Hollywood villains, the Nazi imagery in Star Wars could perhaps be interpreted not as referencing the German dictatorship, but as referencing Hollywood World War Two films. Either way, however, the moral meaning of the symbolism is clear. It means: “these are the bad guys.”
4. Your article looks at the first six films. Do the politics, or the governments, of the current, non-Lucas “Star Wars,” change?
It seems to me that Disney doesn’t have a very clear vision of the political context in which their stories unfold. They seem more interested in the “hero’s journey” aspect of the Star Wars franchise. The “First Order” is modelled on Nazi Germany even more strongly than the Galactic Empire, and is thus clearly marked as the bad guys. That said, we don’t get a lot of information about how the First Order works, or who supports it, or why. There’s some interesting tension between Kylo Ren, the Sith apprentice to Supreme Leader Snoke, and the New Order’s military caste. Since Finn is not a clone, furthermore, the First Order apparently recruits its soldiers differently than the Empire did. But that’s about all we know. There’s even less information about the Resistance. So we know that there’s a new political context, but the films don’t give us much to analyze.
5. In a 2005 Chicago Tribune interview, George Lucas said that he drew inspiration from the Vietnam War, “the period where Nixon was trying to run for a [second] term, which got me to thinking historically … how do democracies get turned into dictatorships?” Do you see echoes of Vietnam in “Star Wars”?
I personally don’t see echoes the Vietnam War. Perhaps it’s because I am too young to remember the Vietnam War, or perhaps because I have, as a historian, taken more interest in other places and times. I’m an expert in Central Europe: the “democracy to dictatorship” narrative makes me think of Weimar Germany. A scholar of the classics might instead think about the fall of the Roman Republic. If I were an expert in the Vietnam War era, perhaps I would see the films differently.
That said, I’m surprised to learn Lucas had the Vietnam War era in mind, not least because I don’t see the Vietnam War as a moment of transition from democracy to dictatorship. When I first saw the film, I actually assumed Lucas was commenting about then-president George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, specifically because I took the line “so this is how liberty dies – with thunderous applause” as a reference to the 2001 Patriot Act.
6. Can you cite two or three other literary worlds where the political order is an important element of the narrative?
Governments feature prominently in several imaginary worlds. Decisions taken by political leaders can dramatically affect people’s lives. It’s unsurprising that political leaders appear in fictional worlds.
In the cartoon Rick and Morty, for instance, the main characters interact not only with the U.S. president (season 1, episode 5; season 3 episode 10), but also with alien politicians such as Prince Nebulon of the Zigerions (season 1, episode 4), Ma-Sha, the ruler of Gazorpazorp (season 1, episode 7), the unnamed “presidentress of the Megagargantuans” (season 3, episode 10), and so forth. I think Rick and Morty expresses a very radical libertarianism, even if the show doesn’t articulate its views all that forcefully.
In the Harry Potter saga, to give another example, the Ministry of Magic plays an important role. Over the course of the books, we meet several government officials, including two Ministers of Magic. The final novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, depicts a coup d’etat and its effects on the criminal justice system. J. K. Rowling, who once worked as a researcher for Amnesty International, has a deep understanding of political violence. The Harry Potter series has a pretty sophisticated take on the moral questions such violence raises.
“Rick and Morty”expresses a very radical libertarianism …
7. Why should young viewers care about all this? What does it matter how a fictional movie portrays forms of government? Either we like the movie or we don’t.
I believe that we all have an absolute right to be interested in whatever we wish to be interested in, which I think implies the right to not be interested in whatever we choose to not be interested in. I think people have some obligation to be aware of global issues that affect society at large – it’s not right to be indifferent to war, genocide, the climate crisis, and so on. But I strongly defend the right to not care about the political subtext of the Star Wars movies. If you just like the light-sabre fights, it’s fine with me. If you would rather talk about basketball, or rap music, or whatever, that’s also your business.
That said, it can be fun to analyze the political subtext of films and television shows with your friends. Young viewers may have not realized that it’s possible to discuss the Star Wars films in terms of their political subtext. Perhaps after reading my essay, some Star Wars fans will have a new way to enjoy the movies.
8. What are three ideas you would like young readers (and Star Wars viewers) to take away from your essay?
Insofar as I had some ideas about the Star Wars films themselves, my essay will have to speak for itself. However, I hope the essay also shows how powerful it can be to discuss real-world issues through fictional universes. So, idea #1: Memorable fictional worlds can make it easier to discuss complex topics in the real world. Film narratives shape how people view and interpret their own lives, or the society in which they live.
Science fiction and fantasy can be particularly good for pondering political issues, because science fiction is one extra step removed from the real world. Films about, say, the Roman Empire raise questions of believability: when Ridley Scott made the Gladiator films, was his picture of the Roman Empire accurate? One Roman expert consulted for the film was apparently so unhappy with the film that he or she asked to be removed from the final credits. Such issues don’t arise in science fiction worlds like the Star Wars universe: the director’s vision stands or falls on its own. So idea #2 is that science fiction provides a particularly good way to think about political issues without being distracted by questions of accuracy.
At the same time, however, it’s important to remember the limits of this sort of analysis. Films can make it easier to raise or discuss important issues, but the resolution of a film is not evidence for how issues ought to be resolved in the real world. The Star Wars universe is fictional, and might not be internally consistent; film directors cannot imagine the full complexity of an actual social problem. What fictional characters do to solve problems in a cinematic universe might not work in the real world. Lucas never aspired to hyper-realism, but even films aiming for accuracy suffer inevitable imperfections. So, my final idea #3 is that while thinking about films may help us discuss important issues, they don’t provide reliable guidance for resolving those issues. If you are looking for help understanding a political issue, it’s generally better to consult a historian than a film critic.
The Galactic Empire as an Empire:
Political Legitimacy in the Star Wars films
An “Empire” features prominently in the Star Wars films. A central political event in the story is the collapse of the Galactic Republic and the founding of the First Galactic Empire. The portrayal of the Galactic Empire of the Star Wars universe reveals how the filmmakers understand an “empire” as a political structure. So what do the films argue? This article considers only the original trilogy and the prequels, Episodes I-VI; it ignores the Clone Wars television series and the so-called expanded universe.
The main story of the Star Wars films takes place in a detailed political context. The film’s heroes and villains, several of whom are politicians, may have personal motives, but also pursue political goals. Yet Star Wars is neither history nor political science but space opera, and the films do not exhaustively consider the advantages or disadvantages of all possible state structures. Indeed, it’s not entirely clear how galactic society functions. We learn of the capital of Coruscant that “the entire planet is one big city,” for example, but how it is supplied with food? The films do not allow us to study the agricultural policy of the Galactic Republic or the Galactic Empire. The films, in short, provide only limited information about the imaginary political institutions they depict.
Yet even if imaginary political structures can only be analyzed in so much detail, the films articulate a coherent political ideology. The ideology of the films reflects the Californian background of George Lucas in the context of the Hollywood film industry. The portrayal of the Galactic Empire thus provides a critique of “empire” as a political structure.
The ideology of the films reflects the Californian background of George Lucas in the context of the Hollywood film industry.
The films present the fall of the Galactic Republic and the rise of the Galactic Empire as a catastrophe. The heroes of the first three episodes all fight for the Republic; in the remaining episodes the heroes fight against the Empire. Indeed, the films are not subtle about their opposition to the Empire. The crawling text introducing Episode IV even speaks of the “evil Galactic Empire” and its “sinister agents.” The crawl in Episode V describes rebels against the Empire as “freedom fighters.” In Episode IV, Obi-Wan Kenobi refers to the “peace and justice in the Old Republic, before the dark times, before the Empire,” while Luke Skywalker explicitly says of the Empire “I hate it.”
The films also draw several visual parallels between the Empire and the Nazis, the ultimate Hollywood villains. The Empire, like Nazi Germany, calls its soldiers “storm troopers.” Imperial weapons evoke German weapons: the TIE fighter makes a screaming sound like a Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber; and the uniforms of imperial officers resemble Nazi uniforms. In short, the Empire and its agents are the “bad guys.”
Since the Galactic Empire is evil, the filmmakers generally view an “empire” as something bad. What, then, makes an empire such a terrible political structure? The Galactic Empire, like Nazi Germany, is a militaristic state whose soldiers commit atrocities. In Episode IV, we witness two imperial massacres on Tattoine: first a group of Jawas, and then Luke Skywalker’s family. In Episode V, the expansionist Empire annexes the hitherto independent Cloud City, breaking a deal made with its leader. The destruction of Alderaan, finally, counts as the galactic equivalent of genocide. Even after the planet-killing Death Star is destroyed, the unrepentant Empire immediately sets about constructing another. It is worth noting, however, that filmgoers see the Empire only through its military actions. The Empire, as seen in the films, has neither diplomats nor civil servants, only soldiers.
What sort of political system does the films advocate instead? The films provide a detailed picture of two political units: the planet Naboo, and the Galactic Republic of which Naboo is a member. Interestingly, both are depicted as imperfect societies. The Empire may represent evil, but its republican predecessor was no utopia.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Naboo is its ethnic diversity: the planet hosts two separate civilizations. The apparently dominant Naboo, after whom the planet as a whole takes its name, live on the land surface; the Gungans, seemingly less advanced technologically, live under water. The two can communicate with each other, but the Gungans speak a noticeably different language. For most of Episode I, Gungans express resentment toward the surface-dwelling Naboo and indifference toward their difficulties with the Trade Federation, though the Queen of the Naboo is able to bridge their differences through effective diplomacy. In a subsequent episodes, furthermore, the Gungan Jar Jar Binks serves as Naboo’s representative in the Galactic Senate. Naboo is thus an admirable place in part because it successfully manages its ethnic conflicts.
Politically, Naboo has a federal system of government, since the surface-dwelling Naboo and the Gungans have their own political systems. The Gungans are governed by a council of “bosses.” We do not learn how Gungan bosses acquire their authority. The surface-dwelling Naboo, though ruled by a “queen” referred to as “her royal highness,” evidently elect their leaders. At one point, a Naboo official defies the occupying Trade Federation Viceroy by proclaiming: “We’re a democracy. The people have decided.” Naboo queens also serve limited terms of office. Padmé Amidala, the Queen of Naboo in Episode I, has a new job as galactic senator in Episodes II and III. Checks and balances thus curb the power of Naboo’s political leaders.
The Galactic Republic, governed by a Senate led by an elected chancellor, resembles Naboo in its ethnic diversity. Scenes depicting senatorial debate show delegations from many different species. The Jedi Order, a sort of police force, also has several non-human members serving not only in the rank and file, but on its executive body, the Jedi Council.
The Galactic Senate also boasts democratic institutions. Though we do not learn how individual senators acquire their position, the Senate as a whole makes its decisions by voting. Episode I shows a chancellor losing a vote of no confidence, and in Episode II the Senate votes emergency powers to another chancellor during a military crisis. The Galactic Republic’s defenders also emphasize “democracy.” In Episode III, Obi-Wan Kenobi explicitly tells his former apprentice Darth Vader, “my allegiance is to the Republic, to democracy!” In Episode II, Chancellor Palpatine, disguising his true objectives, invokes the same watchwords in a Senate speech: “I love democracy, I love the Republic.”
Sith leaders have a low opinion of the Galactic Republic, and point out its flaws. In Episode I, Senator Palpatine complains that presumably unelected bureaucrats are the “true rulers of the Republic.” Count Dooku, speaking to a captive Obi-Wan Kenobi in Episode II, alludes to “corruption in the Senate.” Interestingly, non-Sith characters express similar opinions about the Republic’s imperfections. In Episode I, Queen Padmé Amidala finds Senate politics disillusioning. As she calls for a vote of no confidence in the current chancellor, she exclaims: “I was not elected to watch my people suffer and die while you discuss this invasion in a committee.” The opening crawl to Episode I, describing how “the Congress of the Republic endlessly debates,” confirms the Senate’s relative ineffectuality.
The films also depict various problems in Republican society. Episode I revolves around a dispute concerning taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems. In Episode II, two characters travel incognito on a “refugee transport,” suggesting a long-standing refugee problem. The Republic also apparently has a problem with drug dealers, one of whom attempts to sell Obi-Wan Kenobi “death sticks” in a sleazy bar.
Sith leaders, however, evidently crave power for its own sake: they are tyrants who do not want to share their authority. Palpatine, destroying Mace Windu in Episode III, celebrates his “unlimited power.” Darth Vader also repeatedly speaks about “the power of the dark side” with a certain longing in his voice. One notable instance when a Sith lord agrees to share power is the sort of exception that confirms the rule: in Episode V, Darth Vader offers Luke Skywalker the chance to “rule the Galaxy as father and son.” Evidently, he wants to establish a dynasty.
Sith leaders nevertheless justify their objectives in terms of the public interest. Anakin Skywalker, recently transformed into Darth Vader but not yet wearing his mask, justifies his embrace of the dark side to Padmé Amidala by proclaiming, firstly, “I have brought peace to the Republic,” and subsequently “I have brought peace, freedom, justice, and security to my new Empire.” Appealing to Luke Skywalker in Episode V, Vader says that “we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.” The Emperor justifies himself in similar terms. In a speech before the Galactic Senate, Palpatine explains that “in order to ensure the security and continuing stability, the Republic will be reorganized into the First Galactic Empire, for a safe and secure society.” It’s not a complicated pitch: the Emperor offers security, stability, safety, and more security. In Episode III, furthermore, we have reason to trust his sincerity, since he makes a similar case speaking in private to his new apprentice: “once more the Sith shall rule the galaxy and we shall have peace.” The Emperor also has some chance to deliver on his promises: the droid army that attacked Coruscant at the beginning of Episode III is disbanded as the Empire is founded.
The peace and security offered by the Empire nevertheless remains tyrannical. Its wickedness derives not only from the Emperor’s personal hunger for power, but also his lack of ethnic tolerance. The Star Wars films treat diversity as the normal state of affairs. Indeed, the ethnic diversity even of remote Tatooine is striking. The local sport of pod-racing is hosted by a two-headed sportscaster offering commentary in two languages, and few of the pod racers themselves are human. Endor, inhabited by the technologically primitive Ewoks, may be the only racially homogenous society shown in the films. Though the leading heroes are admittedly all human beings, Han Solo has in Chewbacca a close non-human partner and the young Anakin Skywalker counts a non-human among his childhood friends. The films show no longing for cultural homogeneity, they instead embrace the cosmopolitan ethos of liberal California. The Empire, by contrast, is staffed only by one species. The Empire’s soldiers even make the galactic equivalent of racist remarks. In Episode IV, an Imperial officer on the Death Star refers to the Wookie Chewbacca as “this thing.”
The Star Wars films, therefore, value ethnic diversity and democratic institutions over public order. Benjamin Franklin once wrote that “those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” George Lucas evidently agrees: the films place arguments for “public order” in the mouths of villains. The films do not portray ethnically-diverse republics as perfect: they have their share of conflict, crime and corruption. They are nevertheless better than empires, and the films depict them as worth fighting for.
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