Once upon a time, in a galaxy not so far away… Democracy was in danger. Our current political environment is full of 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 can never be completely undone.
As constitutional law researchers, we are interested in how these threats emerge and what can be done about them. We argue in a recent paper that many useful lessons can be drawn from a surprising source: the Star Wars movies.
You might objectively ask why we draw these lessons from Star Wars and not from Weimar Germany or Ancient Rome. But we think culture has an important role to play in telling these stories in an accessible way.
The more people watch Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the more people will read the detailed history of the fall of the Roman Republic. Far more people will watch Star Wars, and ponder its stories, than deeply consider the risks of democratic decay in our society.
Star Wars is not only a series of science fiction films, but a cultural phenomenon. Its stories resonate with countless millions. If we can use it to highlight some of the ways in which democracy dies – and perhaps help people think in new ways about contemporary political challenges – then it seems like a worthwhile endeavor.
Lesson 1: Governments too strong often come from people who are too weak
In the most common saying, 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 the danger is very real. But in fact, Star Wars teaches a different lesson as well: An overly weak government is a major threat to democracy.
The Galactic Republic is a dysfunctional political system in Star Wars. The Senate is filled with feuding representatives who, facing an invasion of a planet, form an investigative committee. No one has faith in leadership. A small religious order of space wizards with no army other than the Jedi. Even when a separatist movement threatens the republic with enormous military force, the Senate may not agree to create an army.
It is the total failure of the political system to protect the welfare of the republic that gives Chancellor Palpatine – who later becomes the rogue monarch – emergency powers to act unilaterally. As the war continues, he wields even more power, and the Senate asks to remain in office long after his term ends. This is how the seeds of empire are sown: an overly weak government fails, and the people turn to a strong leader.
This has been called the Publius paradox, first observed by the American founding father Alexander Hamilton. If the government was not strong enough, Hamilton said, leaders may have to “exceed the limits” imposed by law in times of crisis, making them impossible to control later. Tying the government too tightly, for fear of producing tyrants, can actually create tyrants.
Star Wars teaches this lesson vividly: When a kingdom isn’t strong enough it can lead to disorder, a perfect breeding ground for a potential emperor to wield power, as a character laments, “the applause”.
Lesson 2: Commitment to the Law Won’t Save Us
The literature on democratic decay often advises that states can avoid tyranny and dictatorship through a commitment to the rule of law. Star Wars offers an interesting twist on this lesson: A commitment to the law alone doesn’t help.
Everyone in the Star Wars universe is obsessed with legitimacy, even the bad guys. Yet it is only formal compliance with the law that one thinks about, not the consequences of these legal actions. If Queen Amidala signs a treaty at gunpoint justifying an illegal invasion of her planet, we’re told, the Senate will think it makes all the difference. Almost no one questions Palpatine amassing more emergency powers and staying in office much longer after being approved by the Senate.
Star Wars reminds us not to be misled into thinking that people using the language of the law may be doing the right thing. Many autocratic and undemocratic regimes around the world wrap themselves in law to justify their wrongdoings. To prevent the erosion of democracy, we need to look at how the law is used (and misused), and what “legal” functions do.
Lesson 3: Confusion at the top of power leads to chaos
In the end, Star Wars shows the risk of not knowing who is in charge. In the movies we see serious confusion over who is the ultimate custodian of the common interest of the republic and the keeper of the constitutional order: the Supreme Chancellor or the Jedi Council. It is clear that both consider themselves to be the ultimate guardians of the political community.
It ends badly, with Jedi Master Mace Windu trying to overthrow Palpatine as he has “sensed” the plot to destroy the Jedi. It is not clear who, if any, authorized him to depose the elected head of the republic. He then concludes that Palpatine is “too dangerous” to stand trial and briefly attempts to execute him.
Star Wars shows the risk of having two rival protectors of the political system, with no means of choosing between them. When their opposing claims meet in violence, this constitutional tension turns to chaos, and Palpatine uses the fact of this conspiracy as a reason to consolidate the Republic into an empire on its head.
These are important lessons for anyone who wants to build and maintain a stable democratic state.