The Institutions of Star Wars

There’s been blogging. Have you felt it? A new “Star Wars” teaser has been released, which has prompted a round of blog posts about the franchise and its depiction of politics. (Yes, in full disclosure, my pulse quickened upon seeing the trailer, but to those who allege a correlation between the quality of a trailer and that of its film, I offer you “Man of Steel.” Not to be negative, but we have no idea how the film will turn out at this point. I’m still hopeful.)

Anyway, Alyssa Rosenberg offers a smart post noting that politics is basically always shown in the “Star Wars” films as a function of the character’s personality traits. The Emperor is dictatorial, Vader operates on blind faith and a hatred of disorder, Leia’s revolutionary instincts are paper-thin, etc. Rosenberg longs for some deeper understanding of the political forces operating in the background.

Jonathan Bernstein, however, urges caution in this regard. Understanding politics really involves understanding institutions, he argues, and this is complex and hard to convey in a two-hour film. “Star Wars” at its best, he says, deals in archetypes, and perhaps they shouldn’t attempt to get into the big political picture.

I like what both have to say, although I’d note that Lucas’ films, particularly the three prequels, attempted to do exactly what Bernstein talked about. Lucas dealt with institutions. He just sucks at it. To wit:

Episode I featured a two-minute depiction of life in the Galactic Senate in an attempt to demonstrate the Old Republic’s dysfunction. That scene also revealed that Lucas doesn’t understand how legislatures function, what bureaucrats are, why legislative parties form, the function of the media, etc., but it still attempted to show institutional behavior.

Episode III contained a subplot in which the Emperor sowed discord in the government by appointing a plainly unqualified and inexperienced Jedi to the Council. This is all about institutional competition and the challenges of separation of powers.

Episode IV, of course, was all about the executive branch’s accretion of power at the expense of the legislature, which of course led to a violent rebellion headed by ousted senators. There was a farm boy and some robots, but that was a sub-plot.

Now, just because it’s hard to depict political institutions doesn’t mean it can’t be done. “Lincoln” did an outstanding job showing the strengths and weaknesses of both the U.S. House and the Presidency in the 19th century. And even if we’re not talking about institutions, films can deal effectively with the group interests and transactions that undergird politics. “Gangs of New York” did that masterfully, but even somewhat weaker films like “All the King’s Men” (either version) and “City Hall” still did a competent job of showing how corruption and leadership are two sides of the same coin without getting bogged down by moralistic, inspiring speeches.

But just because it can be done doesn’t mean it should be, particularly in a “Star Wars” film. Politics was never Lucas’ strength, and it’s not obvious from his previous work that J. J. Abrams has much interest in the subject. And that’s just fine. His 2009 “Star Trek” reboot had almost no politics in it at all and was one of the better sci-fi films of the last decade, faithful to the old franchise but still charting out new territory. “Into Darkness,” however, attempted to address some darker political motivations within the Federation, and it was a complete mess.

There’s certainly the potential for some interesting political observations in Episode VII. At least some significant remnants of the Empire clearly remain, for example; I’m curious to know how they survived the Battle of Endor and what kind of control they exert within the galaxy. But I’d be totally fine with little or no explicit political references in the coming films. My fellow bloggers and I will intuit them anyway.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.