For years, many fans and critics have seen the Star Wars movies as allegories about the dangers of American Empire. Creator George Lucas has said that the Vietnam War inspired the original trilogy about an underdog insurgent rebellion that defeats an powerful, technologically superior empire.
The prequels include digs at the George W. Bush administration. The evil Chancellor Palpatine used terrorist attacks as an excuse to centralize more and more power, in ways reminiscent of the Patriot Act. Anakin Skywalker, after turning to the Dark Side, told Obi-wan, “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy”— echoing Bush’s post-9/11 statement, “Either you’re with us, or you are with the terrorists.” And Congress’s standing ovation in response may have inspired Sen. Amidala’s observation that liberty dies “with thunderous applause.”
Several neoconservatives have responded to these implicit attacks on American Empire by embracing the Galactic Empire. Jonathan Last, in a Weekly Standard article titled, “The Case for Empire,” wrote, “Lucas confused the good guys with the bad. The deep lesson is that the Empire is good.” Sonny Bunch, in a Washington Post column, defends the destruction of Alderaan as “the least bad of all available options.” Needless to say, others disagree.
But like the rebels at Endor, neoconservatives have fallen into a trap. Despite what many may think, Star Wars resoundingly endorses several principles that have long been promoted by neoconservatives. Here are three.
1. The Star Wars universe is explicitly divided into good and evil.
While the original “Star Wars” was a rebuke to America’s war in Vietnam, it was also a shot against what George Lucas saw as the cynicism and moral ambiguity of 1970s ‘New Hollywood.’ “Star Wars” presented courageous heroes fighting against the odds against space Nazis who named their ultimate weapon “the Death Star.” The very first teaser for “Force Awakens” includes an unseen narrator proclaiming the ongoing conflict between “the dark side and the light.”
Lucas saw “Star Wars” and his earlier film, “American Graffiti,” as hearkening back to earlier times of moral clarity and simplicity. Like “Rocky” and “Jaws,” these movies were credited or blamed—depending on your perspective — for ending the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate New Hollywood era of morally challenging, if not openly cynical, films like “Taxi Driver,” “Chinatown” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” and ushering in the blockbuster age.
Many liberal hawks in the post-Vietnam era shared Lucas’s perspective. They rejected what they saw as the moral relativism of the “New Left,” which treated the United States and the Soviet Union as equally villainous. James Mann pinpoints this as the main reason that several liberal hawks, including Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Paul Wolfowitz, drifted from the Democratic Party and into the Reagan administration, embracing the moniker ‘neoconservative.’ They welcomed Reagan’s unequivocal belief in the battle between the U.S. ‘city on a hill’ and the Soviet ‘evil Empire.’
George W. Bush adopted similar language, referring to U.S. enemies as ‘evildoers.’ The Star Wars movies may have mocked Bush’s moral absolutism, but they also mirrored it. If Obi-wan believed “only a Sith deals in absolutes,” he needed to look in the mirror (and look up the word ‘irony’). The desire to deal in absolutes was a major reason Lucas created Star Wars in the first place.
2. Only force (the Force?) can defeat evil. Compromise leads to disaster.
Neoconservatives believe evil dictators can only be defeated through force; compromise always ends badly. According to them, Allied compromise with Hitler and Mussolini led to World War II; Allied force led to victory. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s compromise with Stalin led to Communist division of Europe; Reagan’s unwavering stance led to Communist collapse. Bush 41’s refusal to overthrow Saddam led to an unnecessary decade of oppression and ineffective sanctions; Bush 43’s invasion ended Saddam’s regime in a matter of weeks.
Star Wars tells a similar story. It was Anakin’s compromise with evil that ultimately destroyed the original Republic. Anakin is willing to look past Palpatine’s desire for unlimited power, so long as Palpatine can save his wife, Padmé. Anakin naively and dangerously puts the life of one person — three if you count his twins — over those of millions in the galaxy, with catastrophic consequences. And Padmé still dies.
Luke, however, refuses to compromise with evil. In “The Empire Strikes Back,” Darth Vader entreats his son to join the Dark Side and “end this destructive conflict.” Luke adamantly refuses. In “Return of the Jedi,” Luke again rejects the Emperor’s attempts to sway him. Twice Luke risks death rather than compromise with evil, and twice this saves the galaxy.
“The Force Awakens” continues this lesson, though this point is complicated by the confusing relationship among the Republic, Resistance and First Order. The tie-in books reveal that the New Republic signs a peace agreement with the nascent First Order (‘peace in our time’?) instead of completely destroying all its imperial forces.
Only Leia recognizes the threat and calls for the Republic to attack — she’s the Star Wars Winston Churchill. And in return for its compromises and half-measures, the Republic capitol Hosnian Prime gets Alderaan-ed. Star Wars couldn’t have depicted neoconservative fears of a nuclear Iran any better.
3. Mixed feelings about democracy itself
Neither neoconservatives nor Star Wars can fully decide how they feel about democracy. Both outwardly appreciate democracy as an ideal. The importance of “freedom” and “liberty” was a constant refrain of the Reagan and Bush-43 administrations. Prequel characters persistently maintain that democracy is the best form of government. But events suggest otherwise.
The corrupt, inefficient Senate can do nothing to stop the Trade Federation’s invasion of Naboo. Queen Amidala declares in the Galactic Senate chamber, “I was not elected to watch my people suffer and die while you discuss this invasion in a committee!” It is military force, not the democratic process, that liberates Naboo—even if military force just means an army of Gungans and a ten-year-old boy on auto-pilot. When Anakin later tells Amidala that the system doesn’t work, she fervently disagrees but has trouble explaining why.
Neoconservatives are similarly skeptical of how much democracy really works at confronting threats. Jeanne Kirkpatrick argued in what became known as the Kirkpatrick Doctrine that right-wing dictatorships were a greater bulwark than a democratic government against domestic Communist insurgents.
That’s why neoconservatives support long-term occupations after overthrowing a regime: to ensure countries become stable, pro-U.S. democracies rather than falling to Communists or Islamists.
Jonathan Caverley suggests that the inherent weakness of democracies is the very reason neoconservatives support spreading it abroad—the better to keep the United States in the paramount position. Either way, democracy is seen as weak and untrustworthy, requiring strong U.S. guidance.
In other words, neoconservatives don’t need to champion the Empire. The Star Wars saga itself champions the empire of the American ‘city on a hill,’ not the one in a galaxy far far away.
Michael McKoy is an assistant professor at Wheaton College. He has written a chapter on neoconservatism for a forthcoming edited volume on American foreign policy.