There wasn’t much politics in the original Star Wars trilogy, thankfully. Lucas made it pretty straightforward, with the Empire being evil because they kill like communists. In fact, if you omit the planet-crushing and the actual wartime combat, Darth Vader seems to spend the bulk of his effort killing his own officers, much more so than oppressing all those other planets that don’t get nuked.
That is a lesson in itself. There’s a powerful notion that too much power is held in too few hands, a distinctly conservative idea (a concept at odds with recent statements by our President). Why are the rebels the good guys? Easy! Because they’re fighting against an autocracy that puts its boot on the neck of the people, or a quintillion petawatts of laser-power into their planets. This is a very general idea, though it suffices for the plot. We don’t need a treatise to understand the disgrace of the Empire.
In the prequels appear some of the machinations that led to Vader’s co-totalitarianism. There’s a senate/parliament/United League of Planetary Nations thing, and it’s hopelessly buried in bureaucracy, unresponsive to the needs of the people, and all too easily manipulated through back-room conniving.
Still, the bulk of the movies are consumed with flashy special effects, as they should be. Star Wars isn’t in the theater to show political debate! I know many people have huge hangups about the prequels, and I admit they hold no place in my heart neighborly to the originals. I can enjoy them, most of the time.
There is a gem of a scene though in Attack of the Clones. Anakin has not yet become Darth Vader and he is hopelessly in love with Padmé. They spend a romantic vacation hiding in a wilderness arguably the most picturesque ever displayed on screen, with the possible exception of James Cameron’s Pocahontas remake.
Anakin is frustrated with every structure of society. He sees the Republic as a sham where entrenched interests get their way at the expense of the poor, he is sure that the senate is but a tool of those conspirators, and he is confident that the Jedi Council is doing nothing to stop the total corruption of the political structure. (Interestingly, all these charges are true, yet one should be as careful with proscription as he is with diagnosis.)
Anakin: I don’t think the system works.
Padmé: How would you have it work?
Ankin: We need a system where the politicians sit down and discuss the problem, agree what’s in the best interest of all the people, and then do it.
Padmé: That’s exactly what we do. The trouble is that people don’t always agree.
Anakin: Well then, they should be made to.
Padmé: By whom? Who’s going to make them?
Anakin: I don’t know. Someone
Anakin: Of course not me!
Padmé: But someone?
Anakin: Someone wise.
Padmé: Sounds an awful lot like a dictatorship to me.
Anakin: Well, if it works…
We are immediately confronted with one of the oldest solutions in human history: the philosopher king. Anakin jumps from legitimate problems to possibly the worst of remedies, that which Plato only fooled around with in his imaginative Republic.
Star Wars is, of course, all imagination, and yet there are lessons in this simple exchange. Anakin denies that he posses the wisdom necessary to exact justice, and we all know that he took up the mantle anyway. It was enough for him to know that problems abounded. He didn’t have to consider what the consequences of his actions would be, only that he could do something (anything!) about the problems that exist.
How easily that can be twisted into rash action and deeds far worse than the problems meant to be solved! Once again, intentions are really not so valuable to the affairs of man, since action is the only thing we can measure in a person with certainty. Change can be for the worse as easily as for the better.
Power held in too few hands can be misused on a scale far beyond anything held in many hands. When power is in many hands, those hands can operate as a check on the use of that power, and should! Government is force, and by definition is a restraint of human action. Therefore, it should be used only in cases where it is very clearly justified. We might say when the justification is beyond reasonable doubt.
The Constitution of the United States of America was ingeniously constructed to check the power of both individuals and mobs. Its federalism, its separate branches, its checks and balances; all conspire to demand that the federal government do only that which is proper.
The prequel movies give us the sense that the Republic in Star Wars is very old and has lost its vitality and efficiency. Quoted from Will Durant’s Story of Civilization Volume 3: Caesar and Christ ch. 7:
Plato says that from the exaggerated license which people call liberty, tyrants spring up as from a root… and that at last such liberty reduces a nation to slavery. Everything in excess is changed into its opposite… For out of such an ungoverned populace one is usually chosen as leader… someone bold and unscrupulous… who curries favor with the people by giving them other men’s property. To such a man, because he has much reason for fear if he remains a private citizen, the protection of public office is given, and continually renewed. He surrounds himself with an armed guard, and emerges as a tyrant over the very people who raised him to power.
One theme that is certain from Episode III all the way through to the climax at the end of Return of the Jedi; Darth Vader was a slave to the Emperor. In his final act, he sought redemption by killing his master (the word he uses several times to address the Emperor).
The Republic was lost because people sought change without taking care to understand that changing problems isn’t necessarily fixing them. And in the process, you can become a slave to newer, bigger problems you’ve created by tearing down the walls, rather than mending them.
We can solve a great deal of problems, by making many other things worse. You can end highway fatalities by limiting everyone to fifteen miles per hour. No one seriously believes that the economic sacrifice that would force is worth the benefit, even thought the benefit is lives saved on the highway. The price of every good that has to be moved to market would be increased dramatically, because additional time in transit means fewer items moved per the amount of driver-hours. Also consider emergency services; if they could not exceed 15 miles per hour, how many more lives would be lost in fires and cardiac arrests and assaults?
You have to be careful what you intend to fix and how you intend to fix it, because results are always going to be askew to some degree, whether you like it or not. The Republic of Star Wars had a long way to fall, and it was a generation before an opportunity to reverse those changes was achieved.
Our republic is aging too, and the checks against rash action have all but eroded away. You probably shouldn’t look too deep into Star Wars for lessons in our lives. However, the few I’ve given here are worth thinking about.