Star Wars, democracy and elites

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By Paul Jackson, Professor of African Politics
Department of International Development, University of Birmingham

The Star Wars franchise is one of the most successful sets of films in the history of cinema. It deals with a range of complex issues including a hero’s journey, good versus evil, tolerance versus oppression, however one of the most fundamental elements of the work of Star Wars is the tension between states, empires and people. The original trilogy concerned itself with the hero’s story, with politics placed in the background, presenting the rebel alliance versus the empire as a good versus evil battle. The second trilogy – the prequel – is far more politically nuanced, charting the decay and destruction of democracy and the manipulation of malevolent politicians, particularly the evil Senator (later Emperor) Palpatine.

Using the excuse of a trade war and free movement of goods and people, Palpatine forces the Republic to effectively vote for its own demise in the tragic figure of Padmé, Queen of Naboo, who is a pacifist and is trying to stop the brutality of the Trade Federation, which is invading her planet. Padmé shows her impatience, in a life or death situation, in proposing a vote of no confidence in the Senate which allows Palpatine to start his rise to power. Thus, eventually getting the Senate to grant him executive power during a crisis, which was at least partly engineered by him. This absence of democratic control allows the creation of his Empire and the end of democracy, prompting Padme Amidala to note; “So this is how liberty dies . . . with thunderous applause.”

The two more recent Star Wars films, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi continue to develop some of these themes, suggesting that citizens have not learnt the lessons of the previous films, as the mysterious, neo-Nazi First Order begins to grip power under the noses of the new republic. The remnants of the Empire group together to oppose democratic rule suggesting that the overall struggle for democracy does not end when the tyrant falls, but when citizens remain engaged and vigilant. This mirrors real life situations in our world including Egypt and parts of Iraq, but also raises the important question of vested interests in the previous regime and how to incorporate them.

This underlying narrative has much to say about the nature of democracy and power. Firstly, power corrupts. Across all of the films a core storyline is that individuals may start out with good intentions but are tempted to cross to the Dark Side, even though they may do so for good intentions. In Phantom Menace, Anakin Skywalker proposes; “We need a system where the politicians sit down and discuss the problem, agree what’s in the interest of all the people, and then do it.” And if they didn’t, “they should be made to.”

Secondly, the franchise is deeply concerned with the separation of powers, specifically the dangers of placing powers in the hands of one person. Star Wars is above all a mediation of the dangers of totalitarianism. Echoing the example of Adolf Hitler, Palpatine is handed executive powers by the senate in the face of terrorist attacks and a purported crisis. As the executive he then creates his own army and wages the Clone Wars, during which he destroys the remnants of the old order and the Jedi.

Whilst Star Wars is a warning against dictatorship, it is hardly a rousing support for democracy. Indeed whenever democratic institutions are shown, they are sclerotic and ineffective. Resistance to bad dictators relies on small bands of rebels led by aristocrats and an elite Force-wielding Jedi, not mass protest. The Jedi themselves do not seem to be subject to democratic control, even though they subject themselves to the Republic. Their loyalty is to a higher power in The Force.

Therefore, what the franchise seems to be saying, is that we can’t trust our politicians, the public are largely left out of the equation, institutions don’t matter and the real solution is to replace the bad people in power with the good guys, because democracy is dysfunctional. A bleak view of the nature of democracy, perhaps, but one that raises the importance of the role of the public in holding their representatives to account. Even without the Force.

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