Why We Need Politics in Star Wars - by Dom Nardi


In all of the speculation surrounding the Sequel Trilogy, there seems to be a consensus on one point: there should be no politics in Star Wars. Even many fans of the Prequel Trilogy complained that the Senate scenes dragged. Last January, an article in Entertainment Weekly enthused that with J.J. Abrams as director for Episode VII we’d likely get less politics – “and that’s a good thing.” However, this sentiment overlooks the fact that, implicitly or explicitly, Star Wars is and always has been about politics. Lucas took inspiration both from ancient history and current events, sometimes even using the films as social commentary. If anything, in order to capture the public imagination, the Sequel Trilogy needs more, not less, politics.

Before proceeding, I should clarify what I mean by “politics.” Political scientists informally define politics as the process of dividing resources and power amongst a group of people. Thanks to C-SPAN, for many people visions of dry congressional debates spring to mind. However, the overwhelming majority of wars and social movements in our history have political roots. The Civil War was essentially a debate between North and South about the authority of the federal government. During the early 1970s – when George Lucas wrote the story treatment for Star Wars – popular anger against the Vietnam War, segregation, and the Watergate scandal led to widespread protests, the counterculture movement, and terrorist attacks. Nobody who lived through such changes would ever believe that politics is “boring.”

In terms of dramatic storytelling, it is important to focus on the exciting elements of politics – the ideological disputes and the impact on characters. The “why” of politics is often more interesting than the “how.” Some of the most important developments in American political history have hinged upon seemingly mundane procedural matters. Senator Sam Ervin’s Watergate Committee conducted meticulous investigations into the scandal in order to document what President Nixon knew and when. However necessary, most of the testimony was relatively routine, punctuated by startling revelations. When Hollywood decided to make a movie about Watergate, it wisely focused on the epic narrative of two ordinary journalists, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, bringing down a president.

As for Star Wars, despite never showing the Galactic Senate, the Original Trilogy was inherently political. According to the opening crawl of A New Hope, the Rebellion sought to overthrow tyranny and restore democracy. In the commentary to Revenge of the Sith, Lucas states that Richard Nixon’s attempt to change the constitution so he could run for a third term inspired him to think about how democracies turn into dictatorship. In a July 1981 story conference for Return of the Jedi, he even stated, “[The Emperor] was a politician. Richard Nixon was his name.” Lucas was also fascinated by the ability of “primitive” natives to resist militarily superior invaders. The key to Luke’s victory in the Death Star trench run is not his technology but rather his faith in himself and his cause. Return of the Jedi takes this dichotomy to the next level with the Ewoks, who are simply a “cute” version of Vietnam’s communist insurgency.

These political themes translated into the visual imagery of the films. The totalitarian Empire is depicted as cruel, impersonal, and homogenous. As if in direct opposition to the social movements of the 1960s, the Empire does not tolerate ethnic or gender diversity; the Imperial officers are all old white men. By contrast, in the Rebellion, women (e.g., Mon Mothma) and aliens (e.g., Admiral Ackbar) can achieve positions of leadership. Military briefings in the Rebel bases tend to be informal and permissive; Rebel pilots freely ask questions and even make jokes. In the Empire, Darth Vader frequently strangled officers who dared to question him. It is clear to anybody who watches the Original Trilogy why the Rebellion fights and what makes the Rebellion different from the Empire.

Part of Lucas’ genius was combining the political drama and moral choices of Dune with the optimism and fast pacing of the Buck Rogers serials. [/ut_blockquote_left] It is worth emphasizing just how political Star Wars was compared to the science fiction works that preceded it. Lucas famously based the saga on the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials, but those movies rarely mentioned political themes. Many other science fiction tales, such as The War of the Worlds, depicted alien invasions that did not raise any political questions (the aliens never sent ambassadors). Frank Herbert’s Dune was a major exception. The book depicted a rebellion on a desert planet against a galactic empire (sound familiar?). However, Dune proved to be a cautionary tale against charismatic leadership; by the end, Paul Atreides’ rebellion is something to be feared, not celebrated. Part of Lucas’ genius was combining the political drama and moral choices of Dune with the optimism and fast pacing of the Buck Rogers serials.

For the Prequel Trilogy, George Lucas made a conscious decision to focus on the macro politics of the galaxy. I think the Prequels made a valuable – and sadly underrated – argument about why democracies collapse and the ambiguity of civil war. Unfortunately, for the majority of moviegoers, the Prequels focused too much on the “how” rather than the “why” of politics. The Senate scenes were the dramatic equivalent of C-SPAN in that they featured speeches and exposition that could have been presented more efficiently (especially compared to Tarkin’s curt announcement in A New Hope that the Emperor had disbanded the Senate). As much as I love politics and history, even I find C-SPAN boring.

More importantly, the Prequels did not explain why those political disputes were important. Why was Naboo so crucial to the Trade Federation’s tax dispute? What caused the Confederacy of Independent Systems to secede from the Republic? Tax disputes can contain drama – during the Boston Tea Party, Americans dressed up as Native Americans and dumped tea into the harbor. But the real drama often comes when tax disputes stand for larger ideological or moral struggles. The Boston Tea Party has captured American imaginations – even inspiring the current Tea Party movement – because it symbolizes the ideal that citizens should have a voice in setting and approving taxes. By contrast, the underlying political motivations in the Prequels never crystalized. The answers we received tended to focus on Darth Sidious’ machinations, the importance of which did not become clear until the second half of Revenge of the Sith (remember, people watching the movies in chronological order would not know that Palpatine and Sidious are the same person).

I actually think this ambiguity makes the Prequel films fascinating in their own right. Not all wars are fought to “save democracy.” The “fog of war” often clouds the truth, forcing voters and policymakers to make decisions based on limited information. Lucas started the initial treatments for Star Wars soon after America withdrew troops from Vietnam and released Revenge of the Sith during the invasion of Iraq. In both cases, American want to war based on faulty intelligence (the Gulf of Tonkin attacks in the former, weapons of mass destruction in the latter). Large portions of the American public eventually questioned the rationale for war. Like the Republic during the Clone Wars, real democracies frequently impose limits on civil liberties during times of war. The name “Order 66” likely comes from President Franklin Roosevelt’s Order 9066, which authorized the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps.

In not presenting a clear motivation for the conflict, the Prequels reflect this ambiguity. Viewers are supposed to have mixed feelings about the Republic and the Clone Wars. Lucas used parallel visuals between the Original Trilogy and the Prequel Trilogy to contrast the moral clarity of the Rebellion with the moral morass of the Republic. At the end of Empire Strikes Back, the Rebel fleet’s survival signals a reason for hope. By contrast, at the end of Attack of the Clones, the massing of the Clone Army foreshadows a destructive war. By Revenge of the Sith, Padmé asks, “What if the democracy we thought we were serving no longer exists, and the Republic has become the very evil we have been fighting to destroy?” The movie ends with the Galactic Senate applauding the birth of the Empire, showing that the very people entrusted to safeguard democracy contributed to its downfall.

Ironically, none of the main characters in the Prequels has a vested stake in that political conflict. Obi-Wan does not become involved in politics and scorns politicians; his life is completely given to the Jedi Order. Anakin’s internal conflicts stem from his desire to save the ones he loves. Padmé obviously cares about the downfall of the Republic, but in the latter two films she is portrayed mostly as a passive observer (although the deleted scenes for Revenge of the Sith do show her taking a more active role). The movies tended to convey the politics through exposition rather than through the actions or emotions of the main characters. Only Palpatine, a secondary character and the villain, is truly a participant in the political plot.

So, what does this mean for the Sequel Trilogy? Although we still know nothing about the script, the Sequels will at least need to establish the political context of the Sequel era. Return of the Jedi ends with a military victory for the Rebellion but never shows us what comes next. Viewers need to know if the new government is democratic or has reverted to authoritarianism. Having seen the Prequels, many will wonder if the new government has succumbed to corruption. Nevertheless, this does not necessarily mean that the conflict will focus on a political dispute. It is possible the story will not actually involve the upper echelons of government, at least not directly. However, scriptwriters J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan will still need to find a way to imbue the conflict with politically relevant meaning.

One way to do this would be to make a major character a politician. The most obvious candidate is Leia. In a 2005 interview with MTV, Lucas stated that Leia would have eventually become a senator after Return of the Jedi. While his comments were partly in jest (he also says Han would grill burgers), this seems like a logical progression for the character. However, the future is always in motion. For one thing, the Sequels will take place approximately 30 years after Return of the Jedi, meaning Leia’s character will be almost 60 years old. That leaves plenty of time for her to advance or even end her political career (in Legends, Leia becomes chief of state at 30 years old and then quits to become a Jedi apprentice). I suspect that given the age of both the actress and character, the Sequels will at least make her head of state of the new government. It would be great way to keep the character involved the story without requiring her to engage in action sequences.

I also suspect the Sequel Trilogy will return to the “micro” perspective of politics. In the Original Trilogy, the main characters are out of power and living on backwater planets. Even Princess Leia loses her senatorial status when Palpatine dissolves the Senate. We only glimpse other high-ranking Rebel leaders, such as Mon Mothma. By contrast, in the Prequels, the main characters walk the halls of power, particularly in the Jedi Temple or the Senate. We spend considerable amount of time with the rich and famous, such as Senator Bail Organa. Of course, it would be odd if the Sequels never visited the halls of government – presumably still on Coruscant –given that the good guys will have reestablished democracy. However, such instances will likely be rare, perhaps only to visit Chancellor Leia Organa-Solo or Grand Master Luke Skywalker. Moreover, J.J. Abrams tends to focus much more on character drama and less interested in political allegories.

So, what type of political conflicts might we see? Thus far, all six movies have featured civil wars. The Prequels showed a civil war from the government point of view, whereas the Original Trilogy showed war from the perspective of the insurgents. We have never seen a “Star Wars” war between separate states (although the Expanded Universe did depict interstate conflict, most notably the Yuuzhan Vong invasion). I think an interstate war could bring a fresh element to the Sequels. First, it would be a good way to quickly introduce a new enemy. For a civil war, you need to first establish the political setting and then show how and why it disintegrates. I think many viewers found Attack of the Clones confusing precisely because it did not establish the motivations of each side sufficiently. By contrast, with interstate wars, all you have to do is introduce an aggressive foreign power intent on conquest.

Interstate war could also require the characters to deal with different cultures and societies. Ironically, for all of the aliens in the background of the Star Wars films, ethnic and cultural diversity plays a small part in the saga. All of the primary protagonists are human and even most of the aliens tend to behave just like the humans. Except for the Ewoks, who almost roast our heroes alive due to an intercultural miscommunication. In the Sequels, it would be fascinating to see how the characters respond to an alien race with radically different customs or beliefs. While I don’t want to see the New Jedi Order books on screen, I do like that the series made the Yuuzhan Vong foreign enough that the heroes struggled to understand their mindset. Fortunately, as demonstrated by movies like Avatar, digital technology has progressed such that Abrams could conceivably grant alien characters larger roles in the new movie.

Ultimately, even if we don’t get any “Galactic C-SPAN” scenes, the Sequel Trilogy will almost inevitably contain political elements. When used appropriately, politics can help imbue Star Wars stories with meaning and raise the stakes. However, it will be important to focus on why the political maneuvering is important to the story and the characters; viewers do not necessarily need to see how political institutions function. Moreover, the political themes need to be tightly integrated into the characters’ story, the visual imagery, and the action scenes. Ultimately, I hope J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan follow George Lucas’ example in turning to our own history for inspiration. Interstate war, cultural interaction, civil rights and injustice – such political themes can give the Sequel Trilogy depth and make the movies relevant to our own lives.

Dom Nardi is a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Michigan Political Science Department. He occasionally blogs about political themes in science fiction at the Poli-Sci Jedi. His favorite EU character is Borsk Fey’lya, literally a political animal. He has traveled to countries with governments that would make the Empire look benevolent.