As American politics become even more divisive, some parts of the entertainment industry seem inclined to insulate themselves from political discourse. This Sunday, Super Bowl LI will reportedly limit its famous commercial breaks to only “apolitical” ads. Moreover, Lucasfilm has exhibited a similar conciliatory approach to Star Wars. During Rogue One‘s press campaign, Disney CEO Bob Iger went so far as to assert that the film was devoid of political statements.
With respect to Bob Iger, that’s simply not true. There have always been political statements in Star Wars, Rogue One included. It’s a matter of what fans choose to see. Rogue One can be seen as a story that lionizes the Rebel Alliance and vilifies the evil Galactic Empire. Or, it could instead be a story about how the rise of a totalitarian regime like the Empire is inevitable. It all depends on your perspective.
Given the United States’ current political climate, some fans want Lucasfilm to sanitize Star Wars of political commentary. That way, the beloved space saga can unite all fans, regardless of their political views. However, that simply isn’t possible — nor should it be. Entertainment has a responsibility to make us look more deeply at the lives we lead. It doesn’t matter how much escapism Star Wars contains. Here are the most striking examples of the classic saga’s political commentary.
The Death of Liberty
The prequel trilogy never quite connected with some Star Wars fans because of its intense political focus. Nevertheless, the prequel films represent some of the franchise’s strongest political commentary. In effect, Darth Sidious became the head of state for not one, but two sham governments. As Chancellor Palpatine, he ruled the Galactic Republic for an unprecedented thirteen years. And as Count Dooku’s master, Sidious controlled the opposing Confederacy of Independent Systems by proxy.
By design, this arrangement allowed Sidious to instigate the Clone Wars, which kept him in power long after his consecutive terms as Supreme Chancellor had ended. As a result, both the Republic and the Confederacy were rife with corruption. Ultimately, there was only one person who benefited from the Clone Wars: Sidious himself.
One of the prequel trilogy’s most oft-quoted lines of dialogue is from Revenge of the Sith. When the Senate unequivocally accepts Sidious as the head of the first Galactic Empire, Senator Padmé Amidala declares, “So this is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause.” What makes her words so poignant is the fact that they summarize the prequels so well. With the galaxy at war, Sidious perverted democracy as a weapon to suppress citizens’ rights and establish total rule under the Empire.
Do the prequels show us that democracy is doomed to fail? The real question is whether democracy even existed within the Republic or the Confederacy, since both were run by self-serving Sith Lords. Take what political messages you will from the prequels, but there’s no denying that they epitomize Star Wars politics.
The Futility of a Two-Party System
Speaking of the failure of democracy, Claudia Gray’s novel Bloodline shows what happens when a constitutional republic implodes. In the lead-up to The Force Awakens, the Rebel Alliance defeats the Empire and becomes the New Republic. However, the New Republic suffers from even more bureaucracy and corruption than its predecessor, the Old Republic. That, in turn, allows Bloodline to illustrate the potential failures of a two-party system.
Within the New Republic, two political parties take shape. The Centrists believe in stronger government, while the Populists (among them Leia Organa) advocate for smaller government in favor of individual worlds retaining their sovereignty. Thanks to this political deadlock as well as a flawed constitution, the New Republic rarely gets anything done. Sadly, the New Republic fails to understand its shortcomings. It loses its infrastructure and core leadership in a horrific attack during The Force Awakens.
Bloodline is a political thriller at its finest. Yet, it also seems to embody some real-world concerns about the effectiveness of a two-party political system. The unmitigated enmity between the Centrists and Populists draws unmistakable parallels to the growing rancor (no, not that rancor) between the Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Can a polarizing two-party system truly make any progress? I’ll leave it to current affairs to answer that question.
Rebellions Throughout History
One of the recurring themes of Star Wars politics is how one government grows out of another. The Confederacy, though ultimately a sham, stemmed from legitimate concerns about the Galactic Republic. The Rebel Alliance rose from the Republic’s tenets to oppose the Galactic Empire. Moreover, both the First Order and the Resistance are paramilitary groups that emerged from within the New Republic.
Even though the First Order served as the second iteration of the Empire, it couldn’t have existed without the New Republic. In Bloodline, Lady Carise Sindian and other Centrist senators go to great lengths to found and fund the First Order. Similarly, Leia Organa establishes the Resistance by recruiting rebel veterans and New Republic military personnel. The Force Awakens: The Visual Dictionary also explains that the Resistance largely received its funding and resources from New Republic brokers.
The Confederacy, the Rebel Alliance, the First Order, and the Resistance are each rebellions in their own way. Some are perhaps more legitimate than others, at least in terms of where they fall on the moral compass. (I doubt the fanatical General Armitage Hux would take kindly to my characterization of his precious First Order as a rebellion.) Still, each of these governments has its roots in our own flawed world’s history of politics, war, and violence.
What, then, are we to make of the political ideologies within Star Wars? Perhaps the first step is to admit that Star Wars is — and always has been — political. Even though the space saga is fictional, it owes its 40-year success to the fact that it remains accessible and relevant to its fans. And that relevance only occurs through channeling real-world problems into meaningful stories. Hopefully, Star Wars preserves that tradition as it continues its momentum.