Another October and another Supreme Court vacancy battle being had out in the U.S. Senate. It already goes without saying the proceedings are 100 percent silly season, but the commentary can be guaranteed to set the bar even lower. Among the political grandstanding and partisan drivel, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) stood out by invoking Star Wars imagery to make a point about Senate process or daily politics. This isn’t the first time the Utah senator has made this move. There was his interesting Star Wars–themed takedown of the Green New Deal last March, complete with a printout of Luke Skywalker atop a Tauntaun, where he mused sarcastically that Alaskans could perhaps ditch gas-powered vehicles and ride Tauntauns in support of combating climate change. It was hokey. That’s just how most of this stuff goes.
Slate’s argument boils down to one predictable thing: presumed racism.
This time, however, Lee made a comment to his Senate colleagues on the Democrats’ stated desire to expand and pack the Supreme Court, likening the potential judicial body to “the Senate from Star Wars” — that is, obscenely large. Republican Sen. John Kennedy (La.) also strayed to that galaxy far far away in his allotted time, saying the Kavanaugh hearings of 2018 were something like “the cantina scene from Star Wars.”
Enter Slate writer Ben Mathis-Lilley to obfuscate the obvious in favor of a bad-faith reading of these quips.
“The Galactic Senate […] is an egalitarian democratic body that, in the Star Wars timeline, is eventually disbanded by the autocratic Emperor Palpatine, whose Galactic Empire was explicitly designed, by Star Wars creator George Lucas, to evoke Nazism,” he writes. “Are Kennedy and Lee aware of these connotations?”
Basically, what Mathis-Lilley argues is that since the Republic is undone and replaced by a fascistic regime, then the Galactic Senate must be above reproach. He thus ascribes to the story of Star Wars a fawning esteem for the Galactic Senate as an avatar for pluralistic democracy. But the truth of Star Wars is much more complicated, not that Mathis-Lilley would know this given his stated incapacity to watch the very movies in question.
Mathis-Lilley’s is a fundamental misreading of George Lucas’s prequel trilogy. The Galactic Senate is certainly eclectic, representing a multitude of species from all across the galaxy, but representation in government and egalitarianism aren’t one and the same. George Lucas’ Senate was an expression of his frustration with corporatism, which is the prequels’ primary critique of government. If the Galactic Senate is “egalitarian,” it’s only in the sense that both a sovereign world like Naboo and a corporation such as the Trade Federation or Banking Clan are held in equal standing. Corporate interests in the Star Wars Senate have immense power; they even go so far in Episode II as to secede from the Republic along with thousands of disaffected member worlds who feel disregarded by the political elite on Coruscant.
Is Ben Mathis-Lilley aware of these connotations?
The best way to understand how George Lucas felt about American democracy in the early 2000s, and likely how he still feels today, is to look to Anakin Skywalker. This character is where Lucas funneled his own sense of morality and his righteous anger at the rampant selfishness of politics. Of course, he did so with a certain self-awareness that good intentions of building a better world have limitations — thus Darth Vader.
Lucas’s opinion on these matters is no secret. “Here’s an interesting thing about democracy,” he said in a 2005 interview with the BBC about Episode I: Revenge of the Sith. “If you don’t treat it well, if you don’t do your job, especially if you’re a representative in the senate, parliament or whatever, the whole thing can go awry…. If you’re always bickering and not agreeing on things and [not] doing the people’s work who elected you, a tyrant will come in and take over and do it for you, because the people want to get the job done.”
Echoes of that opinion resound in Episode II: Attack of the Clones in a conversation between Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala, his bride-to-be. Anakin says that in his ideal government the representatives would come together and discuss what’s in the best interest of the people and take decisive action. Padmé responds with the obvious, “The problem is that people don’t always agree.”
“Then they should be made to,” Anakin says, capturing Lucas’ professed belief that “a benevolent despot is the ideal ruler.” He said this in a 1999 interview leading up to The Phantom Menace, and went on to bemoan the dysfunctional nature of democracy.
Slate’s argument boils down to one predictable thing: presumed racism. If Mike Lee derides the Star Wars Senate, Mathis-Lilley assumes, it’s because he is frightened by scenes of diversity. And if John Kennedy sees vicious character assassination and ugliness playing out in the Senate and calls it “the cantina,” where Luke Skywalker was assailed by a pig-faced serial killer for no reason other than existing, it’s apparently about racism.
Xenophobia exists in Star Wars — it’s well documented as a tenet of the Empire’s military hierarchy — but you won’t find it in the Galactic Senate. The films focus their energy on themes of subjugation and discrimination toward the issue of droid servitude. The only characters not allowed through the doors of the cantina are C3PO and R2D2.
At the end of the day, Star Wars references are part of Washington culture, just like they are in every part of the country, because the galaxy far, far away is a beloved place in people’s hearts. For most lawmakers, like the rest of us, the love of films like Star Wars is casual, not particularly avid or deep. It’s dishonest to read in to their quips. But those who are going to do that anyway should be sure to get it right.
Stephen Kent (@Stephen_Kent89) is the host of Beltway Banthas: Star Wars & Politics Podcast and author of the Politicize Me pop-culture politics newsletter.