Not so long ago, in a galaxy not so far away … democracy was in danger. Our current political environment is filled with threats to democracy, from the rise of authoritarian populism around the world to the massive expansion of state power during the COVID-19 pandemic, which may never be completely defeated.
As constitutional law scholars, we are interested in how these threats emerge and what can be done to address them. We argue in a recent article, that several useful lessons can be learned from a surprising source: the Star Wars films.
You might wonder why we are learning these lessons from Star Wars and not from Weimar Germany or ancient Rome. But we believe that culture has an important role to play in telling these stories in an accessible way.
More people will see Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar than read detailed stories of the fall of the Roman Republic. Many more people will see Star Wars and reflect on its stories than the risks of democratic decadence in our society will ever fully consider.
Star Wars is not just a science fiction film series, but a cultural phenomenon. His stories resonate with countless millions of people. If we can use this to highlight some of the ways democracies are dying – and perhaps help people think about contemporary political challenges in new ways – it seems like a worthwhile effort.
Lesson 1: Governments that are too strong often come from too weak
In the most common narrative, The Rise of the Empire in Star Wars is a story about the dangers of concentrating power in one person, who can then tyrannically abuse it. This lesson is always worth learning, because this threat is very real. But in fact, Star Wars also teaches a different lesson: a government that is too weak is a major threat to democracy.
The Galactic Republic in Star Wars is a dysfunctional political system. The Senate is full of bickering delegates who, faced with the invasion of a planet, form a committee of inquiry. No one trusts leadership. There is no army other than the Jedi, a small religious order of space wizards. Even when a secessionist movement threatens the Republic with great military force, the Senate cannot agree to create an army.
It was this utter failure of the political system to protect the well-being of the Republic that gave Chancellor Palpatine – who would later become the Evil Emperor – emergency powers to act unilaterally. As the war continues, he gains even more power and the Senate begs him to stay in office long after his term expires. This is how the seeds of Empire are sown: too weak a government fails and people turn to a strong leader.
This was called the Paradox of Publius, observed for the first time by the American founding father Alexander Hamilton. If the government weren’t strong enough, Hamilton said, leaders may have to “overstep the limits” imposed by law in times of crisis, which could make them unmanageable later. Tying government too tightly, for fear of creating tyrants, can indeed create tyrants.
Star Wars teaches this lesson vividly: The mess that can arise when a state is not strong enough is the perfect breeding ground for a potential emperor to agglomerate power and run into, as one character laments, ” thunderous applause ”. https://www.youtube.com/embed/su0XwTvqkDA?wmode=transparent&start=0
Lesson 2: Commitment to the law will not save us
Literature on democratic decay often advises states to avoid tyranny and dictatorship by pledging to respect the rule of law. Star Wars presents an interesting take on this lesson: Commitment to the law alone doesn’t help.
Everyone in the Star Wars universe is obsessed with legality, even the bad guys. However, it is only in formal respect for the law that one thinks, and not of the consequences of these legal actions. If Queen Amidala signs a treaty at gunpoint justifying the illegal invasion of her planet, we’re told, the Senate will think all is well. Hardly anyone is questioning Palpatine mustering more emergency powers and staying in power for far too long once it’s approved by the Senate.
Star Wars reminds us that we should not be misled into thinking that people using the language of law should do the right thing. Many autocratic and undemocratic regimes around the world drape themselves in law to justify their wrongdoing. To prevent the erosion of democracy, we need to examine how the law is used (and misused) and what “legal” actions are for.
Lesson 3: Confusion at the height of power leads to chaos
Finally, Star Wars shows the risk of not knowing who is in charge. In the movies we see serious confusion as to who is the ultimate guardian of the common good of the Republic and the defender of constitutional order: the Supreme Chancellor or the Jedi Council. It is clear that both see themselves as the ultimate guardian of the political community.
It ends badly, with Jedi Master Mace Windu trying to overthrow Palpatine because he “spotted” a plot to destroy the Jedi. It is not known who, if any, authorized him to remove the elected leader of the Republic. He then concludes that Palpatine is “too dangerous” to stand trial and attempts to summarily execute him.
Star Wars shows the risk of having two rival guardians of political order, with no way to choose between them. This constitutional tension turns into chaos when their opposing claims collide with violence, and Palpatine uses the fact of this plot as a reason to consolidate the Republic into an empire with him at its helm.
These are important lessons for anyone who wants to build and maintain a stable democratic state to learn.
Keep up to date with all the ideas.
Browse the news, 1 day of email.
Subscribe to Qrius