Corruption, Exploitation, and Decay: The Politics of Star Wars

Eric Geller | November 6, 2012

palpatine

The Star Wars movies were about many things — good versus evil, The Hero’s Journey, tolerance versus oppression, and so on — but one of the most fundamental tensions in all six films concerned the relationship between the state and its people. In the Prequel Trilogy, this emphasis on politics was more pronounced: some of the most important developments in the first three films took place in the Republic Senate, as Palpatine twisted that august body to suit his needs. When Ben Kenobi told Luke that “For over a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic,” that lit a firestorm of speculation about how exactly the Republic had fallen. Through carefully crafted speeches and secret plots, the newer trilogy showed us the fall of democracy itself.

In the Original Trilogy, state-citizen tension manifested itself in the form of the Rebel Alliance and the questions that Mon Mothma’s movement posed for the Empire. The major difference was that starting with Episode IV: A New Hope, the strictly political elements took place in the background — for example, we know that Palpatine and his advisers must have held meetings regarding how to stop a terrorist movement without engendering sympathy for it among unaffiliated bystanders. Even for the galaxy’s vilest characters, there was a political dimension to every action they took. In the absence of civic virtue, their new Empire relied on propaganda.

The bottom line is that for all its focus on grand battles and epic journeys, Star Wars is essentially a political story. The politics of the galaxy far, far away take on many different forms, which is part of what makes them so ingrained into the plot of the series. Politics in the Star Wars films are at times nuanced and at times overt, but they are always crucial to the evolution of the story’s overarching conflicts.

Defense legislation, backroom deals, executive authority, citizen engagement, and other political topics are just as important to the story of Star Wars as they are to our own world. With the 2012 presidential election in the United States today, now is a good time to look at some of the most compelling political scenes in the Star Wars saga.

Defiant Queen

The Defiant Queen Calls for Change (Episode I: The Phantom Menace)

“I will not defer…I have come before you to resolve this attack on our sovereignty now. I was not elected to watch my people suffer and die while you discuss this invasion in a committee. If this body is not capable of action, I suggest new leadership is needed. I move for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum’s leadership.” — Queen Padmé Amidala

With this speech, Queen Amidala unintentionally set in motion the final stage of Palpatine’s long-term plan to create his Empire. The fact that this shrewd young senator was able to control his queen so completely speaks to his mastery of politics. Government is a messy business; it is slow, often agonizingly so. When one is under duress — when one is faced with a grim reality such as a life-and-death scenario — one will go to great lengths to resolve the conflict. When that energetic attempt to solve the problem runs up against the lethargy of a bureaucracy, the tendency toward impatience is often too great. Such was the case in The Phantom Menace.

In masterminding the invasion of Naboo, Darth Sidious knew that it would weigh heavily on the planet’s naïve young queen. He knew that she, like all of Naboo, would be unprepared for the kind of brutality that the Trade Federation would bring with them. He knew that the horrors befalling her people would serve to catalyze her impatience. And he knew that this impatience would produce the no-confidence vote that would sweep him into higher office, placing him on the final stepping stone to ultimate power.

Pacifist's Warning

A Pacifist’s Unheeded Warning (Episode II: Attack of the Clones)

“Wake up, Senators…you must wake up! If we offer the separatists violence, they can only show us violence in return! Many will lose their lives. All will lose their freedom. This decision could very well destroy the very foundation of our great Republic. I pray you, do not let fear push you into a disastrous decision. Vote down this security measure, which is nothing less than a declaration of war! Does anyone here want that? I cannot believe they do.” — Senator Padmé Amidala

Ah, Padmé. You were the great tragedy of the Prequel Trilogy: wise enough to abhor war and naïve enough to fail to see it coming. Less than an hour after surviving Zam Wessel’s assassination attempt, she was in the Senate arguing against the Military Creation Act, her opposition to which had nearly cost her her life. This is actually from a deleted scene available on the Episode II DVD, but it represents Padmé’s opinions about war (and the Military Creation Act) better than most of the scenes that made it into Episode II.

This scene in the Senate Chamber encapsulates the corruption and deterioration of the Republic that made the Prequel Trilogy such a powerful example of political storytelling. Here is a senator whose unexpectedly turbulent morning commute has just demonstrated the lengths to which a mysterious someone will go to assure this bill’s passage, and yet no one has paused to consider what that means. What kind of vested interests are in play, and how much damage will the Republic suffer if their interests are served?

One can say that hindsight is 20-20, and this is true, but the Galactic Senate does not escape blame for the consequences of the ensuing war. When it came to evaluating and acting on the many warning signs that appeared before them, this august body failed. They failed not just their constituents but the entire government that they served. Ultimately, of course, their failure ensured that that government would not exist for long.

Seeds of Empire

Seeds of Empire (Episode II: Attack of the Clones)

“We need a system where the politicians sit down and discuss the problem, agree what’s in the best interests of all the people, and then do it.”

“That is exactly what we do. The trouble is that people don’t always agree. In fact, they hardly ever do.”

“Then they should be made to.”

“By whom? Who’s going to make them?”

– Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala

I always thought that this was one of the most under-appreciated scenes in the Prequel Trilogy. Wrapped up in the line “Then they should be made to” is all of the frustration, all of the obsession with order, that leads Anakin Skywalker to become the Emperor’s enforcer. Even though this scene takes place in the middle of an otherwise eye-roll-worthy frolicking session in the Naboo meadow, it’s hard to miss the sinister implication of Anakin’s words. This was the point at which enlightened audiences were screaming at Padmé to wake up and smell the early warning signs in her bodyguard’s philosophy of governance.

It’s easy to criticize Padmé for being naïve — there are abundant examples of it, after all — but the important takeaway from this scene is that Anakin’s serious concerns about Senate gridlock made him more susceptible to dark influences. When you think about Anakin’s past, this scene makes perfect sense. He grew up on Tatooine, a world that, like most in the Outer Rim, had essentially been abandoned by the central government. Recall how Shmi told a shocked Padmé that “The Republic doesn’t exist out here.” The natural consequence of this feeling of abandonment is that Anakin was never going to be fond of the political class on Coruscant.

This scene in the meadow represents Anakin’s cynicism clashing with Padmé’s idealism, and it is a moment — in the calm before the storm — that deserves more attention than it receives because of the ominous political undercurrents in Anakin’s frustration.

Emergency War Powers

Emergency War Powers (Episode II: Attack of the Clones)

“This is a crisis! The Senate must vote the Chancellor emergency powers! He could then approve the use of the clones.” — Mas Amedda

The vote on the Military Creation Act was postponed due to the assassination attempt, but then George Lucas presented the audience with evidence of a timeless political truism: determined politicians never give up when they lose a battle; instead, they just try another route. In Attack of the Clones, the evidence of this truism was the vote to grant Supreme Chancellor Palpatine the emergency powers necessary to marshal the newly-discovered clone troops for war. So devious was Palpatine that he engineered Senator Amidala’s retreat into seclusion so that he could play upon the even greater naivety of her deputy, Jar Jar Binks.

Fans have directed a lot of anger at Representative Binks for accidentally enabling the entire war, but there are several things to consider when evaluating his behavior. First of all, the Separatists were going to keep preparing for a strike regardless of what the Republic did. The droid foundries that Senator Amidala and her two Jedi friends discovered on Geonosis provided ample evidence of that. It was therefore not a question of whether a war would break out, but when — and with what kind of force the Republic would be prepared to respond.

The second consideration involves the very nature of politics itself. Despite his prior services to the Republic, Jar Jar Binks was by no means a seasoned politician. As such, he was vulnerable to the atmosphere in the Senate Chamber, and this atmosphere was toxic to reasoned disagreement and ultimately to democracy itself. In the midst of this crisis, with more worlds seceding from the Republic every month, the Senate’s first line of defense was ideology, and their chosen ideology was patriotism. In the same way that the newly-christened Darth Vader told his former Jedi Master, “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy,” during their duel on Mustafar, the Senate was suffering from a poisonous us-versus-them mentality during the events of the second prequel film.

Binks, a novice political actor, had to contend with this strong pro-war, pro-Chancellor sentiment when deciding how to act. His decision would help usher in the first widespread, sustained conflict in over a thousand years.

Exploiting the Crisis

Exploiting the Crisis (Episode III: Revenge of the Sith)

“In order to ensure our security and continuing stability, the Republic will be reorganized into the first Galactic Empire.” — Emperor Palpatine

This is where everything comes together. This is the moment that Darth Sidious has been waiting to embrace for decades. Every other political scene that I’ve discussed comes to a head in this scene as Palpatine ushers in his New Order. His careful orchestrations of Anakin’s enslavement on Tatooine, the Clone Wars, and the Jedi Purge have given him a new apprentice and a fractured galaxy looking for stability and confidence. Like so many politicians in the real world, Palpatine seizes on the opportunity to reassure the people that drastic changes are necessary to preserve the common good.

Like Anakin in the meadow, Palpatine here espouses the philosophy that stability and order are more important than messy things like deliberative legislative bodies or freedom of speech. The darkest implications of this philosophy have yet to be realized — we are still years away from brutally crushed protests and the first Death Star — but it’s clear from Palpatine’s words that the government on Coruscant is about to change dramatically.

Palpatine suggests in his speech to the Senate that the Empire will learn from the Republic’s mistakes. Chief among those mistakes, in his twisted mind, is democracy. As if to summarize the Prequel Trilogy’s dark treatment of politics, Padmé recognizes the new Emperor’s sinister intentions — it’s about time — and utters one of the saga’s best lines:

“So this is how liberty dies…with thunderous applause.”

Thanks for reading this little treatise on the importance of politics in Star Wars. If there’s a lesson to be found in all of this, it’s that democracy cannot exist without an active and engaged citizenry. Those of you who live in the United States should really go vote today. Regardless of who you vote for, you’re strengthening the foundation of America as a self-governing nation. Without days like today, democratic nations would succumb to the same indifference and disengagement that produced the cancer that brought down the Galactic Republic. (How’s that for a public-service announcement?)

Eric Geller is a college student with a political science major who manages social media and writes The Clone Wars reviews for TheForce.Net. You can follow him on Twitter and read his TCW reviews here.

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