Some political scientists at the University of Missouri-Columbia are working on a project to use science fiction as a way of explaining political institutions.
“One of their core themes is that the federal system of Star Trek represents a well-functioning political institution while that of Star Wars represents the opposite. Endersby said,
“Star Wars is a contrary example, where the federal (interplanetary) government fails completely. Millions watch these movies and TV shows, so it’s a way to introduce political science ideas to an audience that is interested and willing to think about them.”
Naturally, this sort of poli-sci-fi is of interest to me, so it’s worth pondering how these academics are approaching the universes in question.
Star Wars is a fascinating case to give as an example of broken governance: according to the official cannon the Old Republic, which preceded Palpatine’s government was actually around in a stable form well over a thousand years. It was succeeded by the Galactic Republic, which also lasted for a thousand years before the Clone Wars broke it apart.
While the fragility of the Galatic Republic is certainly worth exploring (though I would argue it is also the result of very poor storytelling), the fact that both governments existed for so long is a powerful counterargument to the idea that Star Wars represents a universe with weak or non-functioning governmental institutions.
In contrast, for the television shows at any rate, the United Federation of Planets has only been around for 200 or so years, and undergone substantial changes over that period of time.
Furthermore, as Daniel Nexon and Patrick Thaddeus Johnson have argued, there is a clear moral order baked into the Star Wars universe:
In “Star Wars,” there is a moral order built into the very fabric of the universe. You have to work hard to ignore that order and to imagine that Imperial fleet’s tactics are somehow intended to defeat the enemy outright instead of to advance the Sith plot against the Jedi.
Palpatine presses the Jedi into military service not because of the combat advantages of having Jedi military leadership (which are tremendous) but because he’s corrupting the entire Jedi order by forcing them to act as warriors instead of as “keepers of the peace.”
But while the political makeup of Star Wars is its own topic, I’m fascinated by the endorsement of the Federation, from Star Trek, as some sort of ideal of a government. In fact, I object to the idea of calling the Federation a government at all, since you never actually see it govern in the TV shows or the films. You see Starfleet imposing a sort of peace and acting as a simultaneous exploration/military force, but there’s almost no governing for a supposedly utopian conglomeration of dozens of worlds.
This is related to our previous discussion of who, in a utopia like Star Trek, would sit down and think “It’s true we have no wants and no real economy because there’s no scarcity, but I need to build the most horrifyingly powerful weapons our species has ever seen.” Namely, that Star Trek is actually not the utopia we imagine it to be (or rather, that it tells us it is); instead, the Federation represents a dreary homogenization of the human race (and all other races too) under a military dictatorship that isn’t appealing, but rather horrifying.
Think about it: how often in the Star Trek shows and films do you ever see or hear about an elected official representing his constituents? This is a basic tenet of a just government, but the vast majority of the encounters with elected leaders in Star Trek are actually portrayed as evil:
- The Elected One, who was shown as bad bad for not immediately handing handing over the crew of the freighter Odin;
- The Romulan Senate, though democratic by definition (Senators must be elected; otherwise they aren’t really Senators) is shown as not only undemocratic, but as corrupted and fundamentally evil, incapable of “truly” representing the needs and interests of the Romulan public. It is held up as a contrast to the Federation, which does not appear to hold elections;
- The Klingon general K’Trelan, who installed a democratically elected on government on their homeworld, is one of the most hated figures in their history; and
- When Winn Adami was elected the first Kai of Bajor after the Cardassian occupation, she immediately became a foil for Benjamin Sisko and eventually was the chief villain of the entire series.
That is just a couple of examples. There is no reference, ever, to the President of the Federation (who functions as a strong executive as head of state, head of government, and commander in chief of Starfleet) being elected: the office is “supported by the Cabineta special committee comprised of the heads of the executive departments of the Federation government.” We learn there is something called a Federation Council, but we know nothing of how Counselors are chosen, how long they serve, or what limits exist on their power.
There are almost no references to competitive elections anywhere in the Federation, ever: it is portrayed as a vast, multicultural galactic society with no factions, no competing interests to balance, and no politics. Whenever local planets or colonies DO manifest their own politics, especially if they’re in dissent with Federation policy, Starfleet moves in to brutally suppress it (c.f. the Maquis, Dorvan V, etc.).
Lastly, it is important to consider how important the Federation’s Deep State is, by examining Section 31. Billed as a quasi-CIA-cum-ISI-cum-SOCOM, Section 31 operates independently of any government control, and routinely infiltrates and coverty manipulates Starfleet Intelligence along with planetary and alliance governments. As of the events of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Section 31 had operated with zero oversight for more than two centuries.
The effect of Section 31 on eroding the supposed ideals that animate the Federation cannot be understated: it is through Section 31 subterfuge that the Federation nearly engaged in genocide against the Dominion’s Founders using a genetically engineered virus. Actions like that normalize occasionally extreme measures that would amount to war crimes. For example, Captain Picard was lambasted by Starfleet command for not using a captured Borg drone to infect the Collective with some sort of computer thingie that would have killed them all.
If anything, Star Trek is not the triumph of effective political institutions, but rather the horror of an anti-politics, where differences, despite being superficially celebrated, are actually suppressed while outsiders are punished with horrifying acts of violence. In many ways the Federation of Star Trek is a less benign version of Iain M. Banks’ Culture, only instead of an actual utopia (which is boring because nothing really happens in utopia), it is too closely hewn to the 20th century ideals that sparked its creation by Gene Roddenberry and thus limited its potential to serve as a setting for good stories.
Indeed, the best stories to come out of Star Trek are these where the political institutions of the show are shown to be hollow, or myth, or subject to bending when circumstances become dire. Think of the time Captain Sisko covertly arranged for the murder of a Romulan Senator to get them to join the war against the Dominion: it is against everything that the Federation supposedly believes in, but it was also the best decision to prevent the Alpha Quadrant from being overrun by an aggressive and powerful outsider.
Nevertheless, we can still learn a lot from this universe, and from Star Wars. It is one reason why I love to use stories to examine these big issues: otherwise something like “constraints on executive power” or “ethics in conducting an existential war” can be terribly dull topics to bat around in a mass audience.