The Case Against the Galactic Senate

20th Century Fox
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Over at Vox, Seth Masket wrote an interesting analysis of the Star Wars films and how to prevent the Galactic Republic’s transition into a totalitarian Galactic Empire.

His solution: multiparty legislative bodies. “This is a real shortcoming for the Galactic Senate, for the one thing it really needed was an organized minority party,” he writes, “Through its oversight and investigative powers, it may well have uncovered Palpatine's plot and prevented his becoming emperor.”

I respectfully disagree.

As Masket notes, Star Wars roots itself in deeply political issues—war, dictatorship, rebellion, genocide—without really addressing them in detail or depth. We don’t have a copy of the Galactic Constitution, but we can infer some government practices from the films.

Masket pins the blame for Palpatine’s rise on the members of the Galactic Senate and argues that, had opposition forces been more vigorous from the start, the totalitarian Empire would not have emerged. But focusing on internal practices within the Senate to thwart a dictatorship seems misguided. The Republic’s greatest weakness is the Senate itself.

Separation of powers is all but nonexistent in the prequel trilogy, and Palpatine, a politician and secret Sith Lord played by Ian McDiarmid, exploits this centralization to become a totalitarian dictator. The unicameral Galactic Senate elects the Supreme Chancellor from among its ranks, who apparently wields some degree of executive power. Taking office amid galactic crisis, Palpatine persuades the Senate to transfer more powers from itself to him until they are powerless to take them back. The prequel films make passing references to courts, but the judiciary apparently lacked either the ability or the will to curb Palpatine's rise.

In fact, the Jedi Order is the only clearly autonomous institution in the Republic’s governance structure. But they broadly defer to the Senate and the Grand Chancellor throughout the films, even in peacetime. The Jedi Council even acquiesces when Palpatine installs his personal representative, Anakin Skywalker, among its members. The films even acknowledge this problem: When Samuel L. Jackson launches in Episode III, he arrests the Supreme Chancellor “in the name of the Senate.” Palpatine’s reply is obvious and accurate: “I am the Senate.”

The other crucial flaw in the Republic’s overcentralization is the absence of federalism. Despite spanning almost an entire galaxy, the Republic is a unitary state without any apparent regional governance structures. Local autonomy is so minimal that Queen Amidala, played by Natalie Portman, readily abandons her throne to serve in a legislative body thousands of lightyears away. Nobody seems able to break a corporation’s trade blockade of a defenseless planet in Episode I until a native insurgency defeats its private army.

Elsewhere, the lack of regional governance means that rule of law seems completely abandoned. Characters from wealthier worlds are surprised to discover slavery still exists on backwater Tatooine in Episode I, for example, despite its apparent legal prohibition.* It's no surprise that when the Sith engineer a civil war in Episode II and III, thousands of star systems also secede from the Republic and join the “Confederacy of Independent States.” (George Lucas isn’t subtle.)

In a sense, the Senate’s weakness is also Star Wars’s weakness. The films make abundantly clear that the totalitarian, militaristic, and genocidal Empire must be overthrown. But Lucas failed to make a convincing case for the Republic, which the prequels depict as uniformly bureaucratic, corrupt, and weak. Liberal democracy is much more complex than that. Robust civil institutions, an independent judiciary, human-rights protections, and, yes, opposition parties are worth defending. Hopefully the next three films do better.

* Stunningly, the characters do nothing to change this in the film, including the two Jedi present. Qui-Gon Jinn, who is portrayed with gravitas and wisdom by Liam Neeson, purchases young Anakin Skywalker to free him, then regretfully says he wasn't able to buy Anakin's mother from her owner and leaves her behind. Liberating her by force from illegal servitude apparently doesn't cross the mind of one of the most powerful Jedi Masters in the galaxy.