The Star Wars Prequels and 21st Century Political Disillusionment

By Sophie Boulter, US & World News Editor

Autocrats promise stability and order, gaining power by exploiting the fear and anger endemic within a deeply flawed political and economic system. Corporations are represented in the Senate in a system rife with economic inequality. Faced with a rapidly deteriorating world order, some choose to secede from large organizations rather than continue to pledge loyalty to a decaying, unstable and precarious status quo.

You might think I’m describing contemporary geopolitical challenges, and you’d be right. But I’m also describing the political backdrop of the Star Wars prequels — films which, though often criticized, present a nuanced and biting critique of twenty-first century politics-as-usual.

There are many deep and prescient political lessons to be taken from these three films, but I think the most jarring is the widespread political disillusionment that comes from corrupt and unequal political structures. As Anakin Skywalker says in Episode II: Attack of the Clones, “I don’t think the system works.”

1. Laws should be applied equally to all — but they aren’t. Therefore, individuals are losing faith in institutions and political systems.

Episode I: The Phantom Menace sets up the political dynamics which underpin the subsequent prequels. In The Phantom Menace, Queen Padmé Amidala and her Jedi allies Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi land on Tatooine, a planet in the Outer Rim of the Republic. Astonished by the neglect and enslavement experienced by Anakin and Shmi Skywalker, Padmé resolutely expresses her faith in the Galactic Republic’s laws.

“The Republic’s anti-slavery laws —” Padmé begins, assuming that the Republic’s laws are applied equally to everyone, regardless of national origin, socio-economic status or geographic area. Shmi deftly interjects, “The Republic doesn’t exist out here. We must survive on our own.”

After this conversation, Padmé elects to use her position to further the causes of the underprivileged; however, the Jedi — who are purportedly the “good guys,” and “keepers of the peace” — do nothing to stop galactic inequality.

“I didn’t actually come here to free slaves,” Qui Gon says, when asked if he will use his powers to emancipate Shmi.

Anakin Skywalker sees the cold indifference of the Jedi to the plight of the underprivileged, which leaves him disillusioned with the Republic and its institutions (especially the Jedi Order) at an early age. It also makes him more vulnerable to manipulation from people who seek to use his anger, such as the demagogue Sheev Palpatine.

A similar phenomenon happens in our world: as young people watch as indifferent bureaucrats ignore the degradation of the rule of law, they lose faith in democracy.

According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of people around the world are dissatisfied with democracy, and only 32% of people surveyed believe their representatives “care what people like them think.” Mistrust of political systems and democracy itself is even more widespread among younger populations. Individuals may turn to autocrats instead, who seem to be more efficient and honest than the decadent politicians of contemporary democracies.

2. Political idealism can be an inspiring defense against disillusionment, but idealists may become worse than the corrupt systems they aim to dismantle.

Episode II: Attack of the Clones features Obi-Wan, Anakin and Padmé contending with a secessionist movement from the Republic. The leader of this movement, Count Dooku, was a former Jedi who left the Jedi Order due to political disputes with the Galactic Senate. This leads to a series of conflicts between the Republic and the secessionists (dubbed the Separatists), called the Clone Wars. The Jedi, who serve the Senate, are purportedly peacekeepers — peacekeepers who serve a corrupt body as bodyguards and eventually soldiers.

Dooku, in a confrontation with Obi-Wan, notes contradiction between the professed aims of the Jedi and the decadent Republic that they serve. He observes, correctly, that the Republic is under control of a leader who has managed to rapidly move to the highest echelons of political power, constantly being granted additional emergency political powers.

In a deleted scene, Jedi Archivist Jocasta Nu explains that Dooku is an “idealist,” “always out of step with the (Jedi) Council . . . an individual thinker . . . he left because he lost faith in the Republic.”

Leaving his prestigious position within the Jedi Order to protest governmental corruption was a noble and courageous act. If Dooku’s political activism continued to be motivated by virtue, tempered by an ability to see beyond his own point of view, then he would be a hero rather than a villain.

Yet, he allows his fight against the Republic to be tainted by greed and lust for power. He begins to surround himself with cowardly allies just as corrupt as the Galactic Senators he criticizes.

Dooku will do anything to see the Republic fall. His fledgling Separatist movement becomes just as — if not more — decadent than the Republic.

The film shows that it is right to fight against corrupt systems, but adopting an attitude which seeks to achieve an insular ideological vision at any cost is dangerous. However, if nothing is done to fight corrupt systems, these systems will continue to stumble on and perpetuate injustice.

In our world, legislatures and legislators around the world have lost the trust of their people. People cry for radical change as governments do little to address climate change, mass migration and economic inequality. “Moderates” seem to promise little and do little.

Unfortunately, politicians elected on platforms of radical change — most notably Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Chinese President Xi Xinping — have been proven to be corrupt and oppressive leaders. It is unsurprising that many choose to reject the system altogether rather than continuing to adhere to strong ideals; even the idealists are letting them down.

3. Something must be done to stem corruption and disillusionment before it is too late.

The politics of the series reach a crescendo in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. In the film, the Jedi finally learn of Palpatine’s plot to use his position as Supreme Chancellor of the Republic to wipe out the Jedi Order and declare himself Emperor of a Galactic Empire.

By this time, however, Palpatine has already assembled the backing of the governmental bureaucracy, most Galactic Senators and the clone troopers who serve alongside the Jedi as the Republic’s military and police. He has control of the courts and big banks.

The Jedi, while powerful, are mistrusted by many normal citizens for their hypocrisy; they claim to be peacekeepers, but aid the prolonged conflict ripping through the galaxy. Unsurprisingly, when Palpatine scapegoats them for the Clone Wars and orders the death of every Jedi, most citizens do not question him. They have lost faith in the Jedi and other institutions of the Republic.

Padmé wryly observes, “this is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause.”

When Jedi Mace Windu finally confronts Palpatine about his plot and argues that he should be answerable to the Senate, Palpatine observes, “I am the Senate.” There is no accountability from this corrupt institution.

When Anakin sees the confrontation between Mace and Palpatine, he is presented with a choice. He can defend the Jedi Order, which he sees as the embodiment of corruption and hypocrisy: the institution which did nothing to free his mother or bring peace to the galaxy. Or, he can choose Palpatine, who promises him order, stability and peace.

Disillusioned, confused and angry, Anakin chooses to join Palpatine in his mission to transform the Republic “into the first Galactic Empire, for a safe and secure society.” He does this by any means necessary, including mass murder.

Anakin represents the worst of the many disillusioned people throughout the galaxy. Yet, most people do side with the Empire and the stability it promises, rather than the corruption and decay of the Republic and the Jedi Order.

As we approach politics in our world — with its unaccountable political leaders, entrenched and aloof bureaucracy, and economic inequality — many individuals choose to reject democratic values and support extremism, or choose to remain apathetic and watch democracy falter.

Indeed, democracy is frustrating and politicians are prone to corruption, by the nature of economic inequality and corporate representation in politics. Young people, who face the effects of poor governance most acutely, are understandably frustrated.

Nonetheless, the values which underpin democracy — justice, liberty, the rule of law — deserve more than apathy and are more important than order and stability. They must be robustly defended by everyone, or they will disappear; unlike the Galactic Republic, it is not too late for our world to improve and cherish our democracies.

Padmé’s successor as Queen of Naboo, Queen Jamillia, is right: “the day we stop believing in democracy is the day we lose it.”