A Galaxy Not So Far Away: Star Wars and How Not to Write Democracy

The passions of our staff here at Concerning History extend to the history of worlds beyond this one. A particular preoccupation of Bryan and Francis is the galaxy of George Lucas’s Star Wars. As with any creation originating in this world, however, Star Wars can both be influence by our own history and compared to it. This is the second installment in a series exploring how the past both informs this pop culture phenomenon and illuminates some of its oversights.

Democracy is a messy form of government. By its nature, it requires some complex systems for the voice of the people, who theoretically hold sovereign power, to be heard so laws are made in the public interest and those in government adhere to the rule of law. That being said, most democracies generally follow some basic principles: they profess a belief in meritocracy within their culture (and often have it for some, if not all, citizens), they use elections to determine policies directly or indirectly, they hold elected officials accountable for their actions, and they have clear divisions of power to protect against tyranny. In the Star Wars universe, however, the democracy of the New and Old Republics is decidedly more muddled and unclear than even the most arcane and atavistic systems of democracy in human history (cough, the American Senate, cough). 

There’s a simple way to point out just how broken the Old and New Republics are by asking a few simple questions. Let’s start with an obvious one: Who does Senator Leia Organa represent in the Imperial and New Republic Senates? The most straightforward answer is that she represents the planet Alderaan. But that only holds true until about halfway through Episode IV, when Alderaan becomes an asteroid field, even if we ignore that Alderaan already has a senator, too: Leia’s adopted father Bail Organa. By the time of the New Republic, Star Wars canon names Leia as the Senator from Alderaan again, even though Alderaan does not exist. The new canon explains that she is now the Senator of the “Alderaan Sector.” Who needs a planet to represent when you can just call yourself a “sector Senator” even though your planet doesn’t even exist (just like some rotten boroughs in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Parliament)? 

If Leia represents an entire sector, that then seems to imply that the New Republic allocates representation based on sectors, rather than planets, with the senator chosen from the preeminent planet in that sector. Leia was thus the Senator of the Alderaan Sector because she was from Alderaan, the sector’s primus inter pares planet. However, it is difficult to actually know if she was really even elected. Why’s that? Well, Alderaan’s senator prior to Leia was Bail Organa, the Grand Duke of Alderaan who was married to Alderaan’s Queen (which is why Leia is both a princess and a senator). Bail and Leia’s positions seem to be one acquired through station and appointment due to their relationship with Alderaan’s monarch rather than standing for election from the citizens of the Alderaan sector. 

The practice of appointing senators holds true in other places within the Star Wars canon as well. Remember how Padme became the Senator from Naboo in Attack of the Clones? Well, it turns out she was appointed to that position by Naboo’s teenage queen. The vaunted champion of democracy, who lamented its demise to thunderous applause, was not even herself elected to the “representative” body that governs the Old Republic! The implications are potentially enormous—is the Delegation of Two Thousand who challenged Palpatine’s authority, and later formed the Rebel Alliance, for instance, really a democratic coalition, or is it more of an oligarchic one? 

That question is left mainly unanswered in Star Wars, but more evidence points to the famed Republic as oligarchic. First, if Leia, Bail, and Padme are all appointed Senators, then they aren’t popularly chosen. Second, as Senators who represent sectors, as the new canon suggests, they don’t represent one planet, but an entire series of hundreds, if not thousands, of planets. That means that each sector with billions of sentient beings has one or two senators to represent their interests, but they do not even get a say in who those people are. 

There’s also a problem that takes shape when comparing the governments of planets within sectors of the Republic. Let’s just look at Alderaan versus Naboo. Alderaan has a hereditary monarch who appoints its senators, namely the monarch’s consort and children. That’s not a democracy, but more in line with a medieval monarch choosing an ambassador to the Vatican in the 1400s. However, Naboo’s monarch is elected. Having the monarch choose the sector’s senator is more akin to governors choosing senators when a vacancy appears in the USA. What happens then if the Republic passes a law requiring planets to be more democratic? Naboo and Alderaan already have different forms of government. Would they both need to change their constitutions? Or do they retain sovereignty to run their planets, or sectors, as they see fit? Are sectors considered devolved governments that cede only certain types of lawmaking to the Republic, as it works in the US and UK, or is the Republic really more like the European Parliament, representing and setting policy agendas for its member planets but lacking the same level of authority that a federal government has in a strong, unified democracy? 

Lastly, there’s also a big question of how the Republic’s executive, the Supreme Chancellor, is chosen and governs. Democracies typically have some form of democratic election to choose their executives. Like the UK and other parliamentary systems, the Republic appears to elect the Chancellor like a prime minister, that is, from within the ranks of the legislature. The Chancellor, however, loses their position as a senator, unlike PMs who remain MPs. The Chancellor’s main job also appears to be to preside over the Senate, akin to the way that the Vice President does in the U.S. or the Speaker of the House does in the UK House of Commons. That is actually pretty scary, though. If the Supreme Chancellor constantly has to preside over the Senate, as Valorum and Palpatine do, when do they have the time to administer the bureaucracy or even make decisions as commander-in-chief? Palpatine’s supposed critique that the Republic is run by bureaucrats isn’t that far off base if this is how the Supreme Chancellor’s office operates! The Supreme Chancellor can’t actually run the government, and must delegate, because he has to argue with cantankerous senators all day long. 

The seeming reality of unelected and appointed senators who represent billions of beings without any real accountability to them, only to the elites on the premiere planets in their sector, and an inconsistent system of government between sectors frays the argument that the Old and New Republics were democracies. Instead, it’s fair to conclude that the famed and mourned “Republic” of the Star Wars universe is an elitist oligarchy that is a government of, for, and by the sector and galactic elite. There is no correlation to modern, inclusive democracies here; rather, the historical antecedents to the Star Wars republics are Ancient Rome and Venice: representative for the people with the prestige, patronage, cash, and pedigree to be known and heard across the comlinks of the galaxy.

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