Cool people dislike the “Star Wars” “prequels” — episodes 1, 2, and 3. The dialogue is wooden, the actors are stiff, and there’s far less energy and wit than in the beloved original trilogy. But if you’re looking for a quick guide to current political struggles — both in the United States and all over the world — you should give the prequels another chance.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, paralyzing political divisions threatened democratic governments. Disputes over free trade, and the free movement of people and goods, were a big reason. Stymied by polarization and endless debates, the Senate proved unable to resolve those disputes.
As a result, nationalist sentiments intensified, leading to movements for separation from centralized institutions. People craved a strong leader who would introduce order — and simultaneously combat growing terrorist threats.
A prominent voice, Anakin Skywalker, insisted, “We need a system where the politicians sit down and discuss the problem, agree what’s in the interest of all the people, and then do it.” And if they didn’t, “they should be made to.”
Eventually, something far worse happened. The legislature voted to give “emergency powers” — essentially unlimited authority — to the chief executive. An astute observer, Padme Amidala, noted, “So this is how liberty dies . . . with thunderous applause.”
That, in a nutshell, is the story of the “Star Wars” prequels: the triumph of empire over democracy, facilitated by Anakin Skywalker and resulting in autocratic rule by Chancellor (later Emperor) Palpatine.
It’s a bit of a cartoon, of course. But before filming, George Lucas studied real transitions from democracies to dictatorships — which sometimes occurred right after nations had moved to embrace democracy in the first place. He asked why “the senate after killing Caesar turn[ed] around and g[a]ve the government to his nephew?. . . . Why did France, after they got rid of the king and that whole system, turn around and give it to Napoleon?”
He noted, “It’s the same thing with Germany and Hitler. . . . You sort of see these recurring themes where a democracy turns itself into a dictatorship, and it always seems to happen kind of in the same way, with the same kinds of issues, and threats from the outside, needing more control.” The problem is “a democratic body, a senate, not being able to function properly because everybody’s squabbling.”
In Germany, Hitler’s rise was solidified by his successful claim to unlimited authority to make law, free from any requirement of legislative permission. In the midst of an apparent crisis, signaled by a fire at the Reichstag (legislative) building, Hitler demanded and obtained that authority.
A chilling newspaper account from Feb. 2, 1933, reads like something right out of “Star Wars” (above all, the grant of emergency powers to Palpatine), but it’s real:
The power to dissolve Parliament at his discretion and to rule Germany by decree without Parliament was entrusted today to Adolf Hitler, Germany’s new chancellor, by President Paul von Hindenburg, according to the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, an organ close to the government. President von Hindenburg signed a decree for the dissolution of Parliament, which is expected to become effective before the reconvening of Parliament, scheduled for next Tuesday.
Which brings us to the present day. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia showed significant movement in the direction of democratic self-government. But amidst the nation’s economic and political challenges, Vladimir Putin rose to power. He has often been a recipient of thunderous applause, not least when he defended the illegal seizure of Crimea.
More recently, authoritarian politicians with nationalist tendencies have been attracting significant support in Austria, Germany and France. Their platform? Protection against terrorism and crime, economic nationalism, doubts about free trade and an insistence on a muscular government, striking against the pervasive forces of disorder.
That is Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s platform as well. With respect to the Islamic State: “I would just bomb those suckers. . . . I’d blow up every single inch.” One of his defining slogans is “America First.” With respect to trade, he proposes a 45 percent tariff on foreign goods as “a threat. It will be a tax if they don’t behave.”
He warns and threatens those who oppose him; sometimes he sues them. He doesn’t seem to think all that well of freedom of speech, promising to “open up” libel laws. He exclaims, “We need law and order!”
When he says such things, Trump is often greeted with (you guessed it) thunderous applause. Is this how liberty dies?
We can’t really know what Trump would do as president, and for over 200 years, U.S. institutions have proved to be spectacularly robust. In our country, any question about the potential death of liberty — as occurred in a galaxy far, far way — seems wildly excessive. But here’s a lesson from “Star Wars”: That’s an essential question to ask.
Cass R. Sunstein, Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard, is the author of “The World According to Star Wars,” from which this essay is partially adapted. He was also administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs during President Obama’s first term. He will be discussing his book at Sixth & I on June 1 at 7 p.m.