Parallels in American Political Thought in the Star Wars Universe
A few notes are in order about the paper, “Parallels in American Political Thought in the Star Wars Universe.” First, this was written as a term paper for an American Political Thought class. The assignment was to find something of current interest to us, not necessarily something involving politics, and relate it to one or more of the political thinkers we studied in the course. After hearing several examples, I decided to pass on the more serious topics and write about Star Wars. The ultimate point is not that I think George Lucas set out to make a grand treatise on political philosophy, adapt it to film, and set it to music by John Williams. Rather, I hoped to show how Lucas’ political criticism has been so successful because, by accident or design, his otherworldly heroes championed quintessentially American political values.
Since the paper was written for a class, I focused primarily on examples relevant to the core of the course. Though I hope I overcame those limits somewhat, this likely accounts for any apparent deficiencies. Both the professor and the major text for the course focused on three “languages” of American political thought and the conservative/radical factional divide that I argue had parallels in the film. The course also touched on the structural, constitutional thinking of Thomas Paine, the Federalists and anti-Federalists, and others, which I also touched on in the paper. I chose to write about how the ethos of Star Wars paralleled the political thinking of America, including the way that American political thinkers regularly mixed elements of disparate philosophies. There were certainly other thinkers that could have been included and an abundance of other examples in the huge catalog of Star Wars material.
I am an avowed fan of Steven Pinker’s style manual, The Sense of Style, in which he argues that, for a good writer, the purpose of knowing the rules is often to know exactly when it is important to break them. In this paper, I chose to break the formal academic style involving a single introductory paragraph with the formal thesis statement as either the opening or closing of that paragraph. I did this because it simply reads better with the opening paragraph dedicated to a brief introduction to why the seemingly trivial topic is actually very important. The formal thesis statement, if one is needed, can be found in the second paragraph. I also ignored the typical academese style, or lack of it, which insists on telling the readers what you will tell them, telling them, then telling them what you told them. As Pinker notes, this is great advice for a speech, but not so great advice for writing targeted at intelligent adults. Even so, the flaws in the writing are my own – don’t blame Pinker!
Finally, I chose to include some references to non-canon works. Even if Disney does not consider them definitive on points of Star Wars fiction, they are still valid as examples of and commentary on the ethos of the Star Wars universe. Their authors’ outsider status does not refute their claim to an understanding of the essence of the Star Wars galaxisanschauung. To claim that the writers of non-canonical Star Wars works, including works of fan fiction, do not reflect the political thought of the Star Wars universe is equivalent to saying that Democracy in America is not a cornerstone of American political thought because de Tocqueville was French, not American.
May 15, 2018
Parallels in American Political Thought
Star Wars Universe
“The release of a new Star Wars movie is a national celebration,” according to legal scholar Cass Sunstein of Harvard Law School. (Sunstein 2016) The Guardian’s Steven Thrasher referred to the latest installment in the series as, “a grand saga like the story of the United States itself.” (Thrasher 2015) The Star Wars franchise has borrowed heavily from events familiar to any student of American history, ranging from a political revolution driven by a tax on trade, to the fascist inspired imagery of the Galactic Empire (Ciscell 2013) to a major character’s development from smuggler to war “hero and…political idealist.” (Rosenberg 2015) The creator of the franchise, writing the first installment around the time of Watergate, modeled one of the villains after President Richard Nixon (Beckwith 2017) and later compared the same villain to Vice-President Dick Cheney. (Dowd 2009) The anti-totalitarian imagery and philosophy are clearly evident, well documented, and even challenged as obscuring the real good and bad guys. There is good reason that, “From the 1980s on, the Congressional Record is littered with references to Skywalkers and Yodas, Death Stars and Darth Vaders.” (Beckwith) Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ethos of the protagonists and the demagoguery of the antagonists bears heavy similarity to the great strains of American political thought.
The political worldview of Star Wars parallels the three languages of republicanism, liberalism, and Biblical thinking common to American political thought; shares the American tension between conservative and radical factions; and raises questions on the structure of government familiar to anyone conversant with Revolutionary writings and the Constitutional ratification debate. Like many American political thinkers, the characters are often influenced by a combination of the three languages. The single character Obi-Wan Kenobi is a member of a religiously predestined natural aristocracy, champions the republican regard for the common good, and subscribes to a liberal anti-foundationalism. The real appeal of Star Wars and the reason it seems always to comment on the specific current American political situation is that it “manages to unearth the deeper values we all share.” (O’Connor 2016)
The Star Wars saga, as presented in the films, runs from the last years of the Old Republic, through the rise of the Galactic Empire and its eventual defeat by the rebel Alliance to Restore the Republic, to end – for now – with the Imperialist backlash against the New Republic. The Old Republic was a confederation of more than twenty thousand planets ruled by a unicameral Senate that exercised executive power through the office of the Chancellor elected from its ranks. The Republic lacked a standing military, having a local security force, limited enforcement arms in its Judicial Forces, and the independent religious-military Jedi Order pledged to its defense. With these limited resources, the Republic was very nearly a “[covenant], without the sword…of no strength to secure a man at all,” (Hobbes 1651, pg. 115) so the Senate relied heavily on the local planetary governments for enforcement. “The members of the [Republican government were] more dependent on the members of the [planetary] governments, than the latter [were] on the former,” [apologies to James Madison.] (Madison, Federalist No. 46) The Jedi Order was “an ancient, monastic peacekeeping organization” dedicated to the light side of The Force ruled by a High Council with thirteen members. (Wookiepedia: Jedi High Council) Though the Order was pledged to the Senate, the Council members were unelected and largely unaccountable, “a kind of out-of-control Supreme Court, not even requiring Senate approval (with or without filibuster), and heavily armed at that.” (Cowen 2005)
The entire saga is set “long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” (Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope 1977) so Biblical thinking per se is simply not possible. But, throughout the series, a dominant theme is the conflict between the Jedi and the Sith, which provides important parallels to the covenant theology thinking in American politics. The metaphysical backdrop to the Star Wars saga is a universal power, The Force, that permeates all living things. The Jedi are aligned with the Light Side of the Force – defensive, calm, and wise. (Wookiepedia: Light side of the force) The Sith are aligned with the Dark Side – raw power, passion, anger, hatred, aggression, and fear. (Wookiepedia: Dark side of the force)
The first Star Wars movie was released under that name in 1977 with a subtitle, “Episode IV: A New Hope”. It opens with an Imperial battle cruiser capturing a much smaller Rebel ship carrying a member of the Senate. In the first half hour of the film, the arch villain Darth Vader orders the destruction of an entire planet, Alderaan, and its 2 billion inhabitants, to demonstrate his new super weapon, the Death Star. He also informs the Senator, Princess Leia, that the Emperor has dissolved the Imperial Senate, eliminating the last nominal check on his power leftover from the Old Republic. (Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope 1977) In the first episode of the series, released as a “prequel” to the original twenty-two years later, the Old Republic has become weighed down by bureaucracy and corruption. A dispute over taxation of trade routes has led to a trade embargo by the separatist Confederacy of Independent Systems, while the Senate engages in an endless debate. Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, who is secretly the Sith Lord Darth Sidious, sends two Jedi to negotiate a settlement to the conflict. (Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace 1999) A stronger central government is proposed as a means to end the corruption, rein in bureaucracy, and end the Separatist movement. Along the way, the Chancellor gains control of the Galactic Banking System, also under the guise of battling corruption. (Wookiepedia: The Banking Clan)
Secretly, Palpatine has engineered the entire situation to allow him to seize ultimate power, overthrow the Republic, and establish the Galactic Empire. In the third episode, Revenge of the Sith, released at the height of the Iraq War and two months before the first reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT ACT, Palpatine speaks to the Senate as he makes himself Emperor, “the galaxy has traded war for peace and anarchy for stability. Billions of beings now look forward to a secure future…We move forward as one people: the Imperial citizens of the first Galactic Empire. We will prevail. Ten thousand years of peace begins today.” (Wookiepedia: Declaration of a New Order) When the Senate unanimously approves his speech, ratifying him as Emperor, Senator Padme Amidala responds in an aside, “So this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause.” (Star Wars: Episode III 2005)
The political language of Star Wars parallels the three languages of American politics. At its most basic, the saga is the struggle of republicanism against autocracy and the liberal struggle of free individuals against an all-powerful state. The entire series is framed in a definition of right and wrong based on the theology of the Jedi specifically and the Force generally. Even the Emperor makes use of the three languages to justify his quest for power, as do his apologists fictional and otherwise. The series abounds with examples of the characteristics of Republican, Liberal, and Covenant Theological thinking. As in the American experience, there is overlap among the three even in individual characters and there are counterexamples as well.
Elements of republican political thought include an emphasis on the common good, moral foundationalism, a natural aristocracy, an emphasis on republican virtue, and an organic vision of the state. (Abbott 2010 pg. 2& 3) (Lecture notes) Several of these elements are readily apparent in the films. In The Phantom Menace, Chancellor Palpatine appeals to republican civility and the greater good, “There is no civility, only politics. The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good.” (Star Wars: Episode I) In terms of foundationalism, the genocidal, totalitarian Empire is a stark example of a morally absolute evil. In the words of the character Thrawn from the Star Wars novel of the same name, “There are things in the universe that are simply and purely evil. A warrior does not seek to understand them, or to compromise with them. He seeks only to obliterate them.” (Zahn 2017) The Galactic Senate is an elected aristocracy, with a few thousand members representing more than 24,000 planetary systems, a ratio of citizens to representatives that dwarfs even today’s House of Representatives. (Wookiepedia: Galactic Senate) The planet Naboo plays a significant role in the first three episodes and provides another example of a natural aristocracy, in its elective monarchy. The people of Naboo often elected “young women, believing they possessed a form of pure, childlike wisdom that the adults lacked.” (Wookiepedia: Monarch of Naboo)
Liberal thought emphasizes private good and individual rights, egalitarianism, an instrumental vision of the state, and an anti-foundationalist moral view. (Abbott pg. 3-4) (Lecture notes) The Separatist movement was a response to a trade tax that brings to mind both the Sugar Act and the Tariff of Abominations. Trying to recruit new allies, Separatist leader Count Dooku told them, “Let me remind you of our absolute commitment to capitalism…to the lower taxes, the reduced tariffs, and the eventual abolition of all trade barriers…what we are proposing is complete free trade.” (Brooks, Salvatore and Stover 2005) In his Declaration of a New Order, Palpatine appeals to an instrumental vision of the state, though one not otherwise appealing to a liberal view, “to ensure our security and continuing stability, the Republic will be reorganized into the first Galactic Empire, for a safe and secure society.” (Declaration of a New Order) In Revenge of the Sith, the Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi gives voice to perhaps the ultimate anti-foundationalist creed, “Only the Sith deal in absolutes.” (Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith 2005)
In American thought, Protestant thinking included a focus on predestination, a natural aristocracy of the saints, social contract in practice, Roger Williams’ doctrine of four swords, and Winthrop’s concept of America as a “city upon a hill.” (Abbott pg. 2) (Lecture notes) Throughout the Star Wars films, there is a preoccupation with predestination reflected in prophecies. The rise of Darth Vader, the singular villain of over half the movies, started with his recruitment by Jedi who believed he fulfilled the Prophecy of the Chosen One. As in many other areas of the Star Wars universe, the antagonists as well as the protagonists borrow from the religious strain of thought. In The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader tries to recruit the hero, Luke Skywalker, telling him, “Your destiny lies with me, Skywalker. Obi-Wan knew this to be true.” (Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back) The natural aristocracy aspect of the Star Wars universe has a religious parallel, in addition to the secular ones already described, and predestination again comes into play. The Jedi themselves, and the other “Force sensitives” more generally, were a natural aristocracy comparable to the Puritan saints – chosen before birth to receive a special blessing and a powerful role.
The doctrine of four swords as described by Roger Williams has several parallels. Williams wrote about “four sorts of swords mentioned in the New Testament,” the swords of persecution, war and destruction, God’s word or the Church, and civil government. (Williams 1644) In the third episode, Chancellor Palpatine appoints Anakin Skywalker to the Jedi Council. The Council acquiesces but refuses to give Skywalker the rank of Jedi Master, claiming essentially that it is not the province of the civil sword. During the rule of the Empire, the last remnants of the Jedi were hunted down, other “Force sensitives” were exterminated, and the Church of the Force was persecuted. This is all made possible, of course, when the Emperor personally controls all the swords.
The Jedi Order’s role and trappings borrow in some ways from Winthrop’s idea of the “city upon a hill.” The Church of the Force see the return of the Jedi as vital, because they view the Jedi as a “light” to the galaxy. The Jedi themselves view their Temples and “Force trees” as a type of beacon. The trees are “all that remain of the tree that grew at the heart of the Jedi Temple on Coruscant, the capital of the Republic. The Force is with them.” (McMillan 2017)
The tension between conservatism and radicalism is seen throughout the franchise. The conservative realist apologists for slavery would find themselves right at home with the defenders of slavery in the films. In one scene, Padme Amidala is uncomfortable with what she sees as a violation of the Republic’s anti-slavery laws and is told, by a slave, “”The Republic doesn’t exist out here. We must survive on our own.” (Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace) In one of the novels, set during the Empire, one character is uncomfortable with the Empire using slaves and gets this response, “Terms are not always as they seem, Commander. They are called slaves, but they may in fact be indentured servants. They may be prisoners working off their sentence. They may have sold themselves into slavery as a means of repaying debts to others on their world. I have seen all those situations at times.” (Wookiepedia: Slavery)
The conflict between conservatism and radicalism is seen in the political postures of antagonists and protagonists. The first episode can be read as a radical criticism of a slow-moving bureaucracy’s response to corruption, or the eventual rise of the Empire can be seen as vindication of the deliberative conservatism of the Senate. In one humorous exchange in The Empire Strikes Back as the protagonists are under fire, Han Solo sums up the radical position, “We have no time to discuss this in committee.” The occasionally diplomatic Princess Leia responds angrily, “I am not a committee.” (Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back)
Some of the government structures, and their associated problems, seem to be inspired at least indirectly by Revolutionary writings and the ratification debates of the U.S. Constitution. The bureaucratic stagnation and endless debates in the moribund Senate bring to mind Thomas Paine’s Common Sense criticism of complex governments where no one has ultimate accountability. (Paine 1776) The rise of the Empire was a direct result of divided sovereignty and the distance from the capital to the edge of the Republic. The planets of the Outer Rim responded to a new trade tax with embargoes and eventually secession. The inability of the central government to successfully “operate gently” and its eventual replacement by the Empire “executed on the principles of fear and force in the extremes,” might have been penned by a Federalist Farmer from the Outer Rim. (Lee 1787) The Jedi Order, with its powerful role in a Republic with no standing military, shares many of the flaws Yates noted in the new federal judiciary. They are “totally independent. both of the people and the legislature, both with respect to their offices and salaries. No errors they may commit can be corrected by any power above them, if any such power there be, nor can they be removed from office for making ever so many erroneous adjudications.” (Yates 1788)
There are certainly counterarguments. The Star Wars franchise is a body of fiction and any similarities to American political thought may be mere coincidence or cherry picking. Still, it is a body of primarily American fiction which grew out of the original author’s attempt to esoterically criticize Nixon’s imperial Presidency and the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. There are also gaps, though perhaps not as many as it appears. The Star Wars universe is a body of fiction, so if there is not an immediate quote defending the liberal instrumental vision of the state or a copy of a Mayflower Compact-like document, for example, it may be that it was not necessary to the story. On the other hand, that science fiction version of the Mayflower Compact may be out there undiscovered in the huge body of Star Wars fiction: 9 films (with another due this month); just over 100 Canon books released since Disney purchased the franchise; a much larger number of pre-purchase “Legend” books which are considered non-canon; an animated TV series (canon); canon and non-canon graphic novels; games; reference guides; and more.
Interestingly, there are those who claim that the Empire is not the true evil in the Star Wars galaxy. In “The Case for Empire,” Jonathan Last argues that the murderous Emperor Palpatine is an “esoteric Straussian.” (Last 2002) So, “Strauss has been wildly accused [not only] of everything from being an admirer of Hitler to a devotee of Wilsonian progressivism,” (West 2004) but also the ethical justification for a dark wizard turned genocidal tyrant. (Will the real Leo Strass please stand up?) Last argues that the Jedi are not “a democratic militia,” but an arrogant, elitist, somewhat out of control, “royalist Swiss guard.” Palpatine’s Empire on the other hand, is a meritocracy. Last attacks the Jedi for crushing the Separatists who wanted “smaller government, unlimited free trade, and ‘an absolute commitment to capitalism.’” (ibid.) Of course, Last fails to note that the Jedi crushed the Separatists under orders from his egalitarian hero Palpatine, and in the later installments made some amends by joining the Separatists in the Alliance to Restore the Republic. He finds the Empire’s motivation to be not “slaves or destruction or ‘evil,’” but order. (ibid.) There paradoxically is one of the best arguments that the ethos of Star Wars parallels the great common thread of American political thought, where even the advocates of order at least paid a traditionally obligatory lip service to liberty.
That George Lucas made the first Star Wars film as criticism of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and of the imperial Presidency of Richard Nixon is well documented. To effectively achieve that end, he borrowed heavily from American history and created a political backdrop that paralleled the great strains of American political thought. Throughout the Star Wars franchise, democracy is presented as good, but not without flaws – bureaucracy, corruption, potential for abuse, demagoguery, the tyranny of the majority – which are presented as both consequences of democracy and the seeds of its destruction. Republicanism, liberalism, and covenant thinking run through the stories. The flaws in government, the relation of central government to the periphery, the failure of checks and balances, the need for separation of powers, all reflect the lessons of history and of the ideas of the ratification debates. Radical and conservative factions, and all the negative aspects of faction, are apparent. The languages are often fused in ways that are similar to the American experience, so that, aside from the darkest of the Sith Lords, all the characters of Star Wars, and all the fans, are all Federalists and are all Republicans.
Selections from the films and from “Wookiepedia” are grouped at the end
Abbott, Phillip. Political Thought in America: Conversations and Debates. Fourth edition. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc. 2010.
Beckwith, Ryan Teague. “George Lucas Wrote ‘Star Wars’ as a Liberal Warning. Then Conservatives Struck Back.” Time. October 10, 2017.
Brooks, Terry, R. A. Salvatore, and Matthew Stover. Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy. New York: Del Rey Books. 2005.
Ciscell, Jim. “The Top Ten Similarities Between Star Wars and Real Life.” July 6, 2013. www.toptenz.net/top-10-sim Cowen, Tyler. “The Public Choice Economics of Star Wars: A Straussian reading.” Marginal Revolution. May 19, 2005. ilarities-between-star-wars-and-real-life.php
Cowen, Tyler. “The Public Choice Economics of Star Wars: A Straussian reading.” Marginal Revolution. May 19, 2005.
Dowd, Maureen. “The Aura of Arugulance.” New York Times. April 18, 2009.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan: Or, The Matter, Forme & Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civill. University Press 1904. (Orig. pub. 1651)
Last, Jonathan V. “The Case for Empire.” The Weekly Standard. May 15, 2002.
Lee, Richard Henry. “Letters from The Federal Farmer to The Republican. #2.” October 9, 1787. Papers of the Lee Family – leefamilyarchive.org/papers/essays/fedfarmer/02.html
Madison, James. Federalist No. 46. In The Federalist Papers. avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed46.asp
McMillan, Graeme. “A ‘Last Jedi’ loss that isn’t as bad as it seems.” Hollywood Reporter. December 19, 2017.
O’Connor, Michael. “What are the politics of ‘Star Wars’?” Newsweek. September 14, 2016.
Paine, Thomas. Common Sense: Addressed to the Inhabitants of North America. 1776.
Rosenberg, Alyssa, Dan Drezner, Sonny Bunch, James Downie and Thomas LeGro. “’Star Wars’ if it were directed by Ken Burns.” The Washington Post. December 18, 2015. www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2015/12/18/star-wars-if-it-were-directed-by-ken-burns/.
Sunstein, Cass. The World According to Star Wars. Harper Collins, 2016. Excerpted at www.thewrap.com/why-star-wars-matters-cass-sunstein/
Thrasher, Steven W. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Black Lives Matter’s first science fiction film.” The Guardian. Dec. 29, 2015.
West, Thomas. “Leo Strauss and American Foreign Policy.” Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: Ten Years of the Claremont Review of Books. Ed. Charles R. Kesler, John B. Kienker. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012. Orig. pub. Summer 2004.
Williams, Roger. The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for Cause of Conscience Discussed. London: The Hanserd Knollys Society. 1848. (orig. pub. 1644.)
Yates, Robert. Letters of Brutus #11. January 31, 1788. www.constitution.org/afp/brutus11.txt
Zahn, Timothy. Star Wars: Thrawn. Del Rey Books. 2017.
The Star Wars films:
Lucas, George. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. 1977.
Lucas, George. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. 1980.
Lucas, George. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi. 1983.
Lucas, George. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. 1999.
Lucas, George. Star Wars: Epsidoe II – Attack of the Clones. 2002.
Lucas, George. Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. 2005.
Abrams, J.J. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. 2015.
Johnson, Rian. Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. 2017.
Edwards, Gareth. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. 2016.
“Dark side of the force.” Wookiepedia. starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Dark_side_of_the_Force. Accessed May 2, 2018
“Declaration of a New Order.” Wookiepedia starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Declaration_of_a_New_Order. Accessed May 5, 2018
“Galactic Senate.” Wookiepedia. starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Galactic_Senate Accessed May 5, 2018.
“Intergalactic Banking Clan.” Wookiepeida. starwars.wikia.com/wiki/InterGalactic_Banking_Clan. Accessed May 2, 2018
“Jedi High Council.” Wookieepedia, starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Jedi_High_Council. Accessed May 2, 2018
“Light side of the force.” Wookiepedia. starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Light_side_of_the_Force Accessed May 2, 2018
“Monarch of Naboo.” Wookiepedia. starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Monarch_of_Naboo Accessed May 4, 2018
“Slavery.” Wookiepedia. starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Slavery. Accessed May 2018.