Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, just released last week, nicely ties together the series, succeeding so well as a film that it plausibly bridges together the first two prequels, each of which is riddled with flaws and weaknesses, with the original three films that take place later.
In Episode III we see the Republic become an Empire, though it is in Episode IV: A New Hope that we learn about the dissolution of the Imperial Senate, meaning, as one high imperial official puts it, "the last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away."
Long before those last remnants, however, the Republic loses most of its republican form and character when its Senate grants emergency powers to Chancellor Palpatine, eventually making him an emperor. In the beginning of Episode I: The Phantom Menace, set against a cheery Disneyfied atmosphere complete with the cartoonish Jar Jar Binks, the Senate is supreme, and even it has few powers to speak of, compared to the powers it later delegates to the Chancellor. There is no galactic army in the pre-war Republic. There is no all-powerful executive. It is much like the united States during the antebellum years.
In both America and the Star Wars Galaxy, it was a war over tariffs and secession that caused the Republic to defer all too much authority to the Executive. (Although, in the case of the American War Against Secession, the Executive usurping the power faced more resistance in the legislature than does Chancellor Palpatine in his own power move.) The corporatist Trade Federation in the Star Wars prequels, although an unsavory band of mercantilists, poses no genuine threat to the health of the Republic and the Galaxy — at least, in the long term, and when compared to the pernicious powers of an omnipotent Galactic Empire. Similarly, we might find severe flaws in the Confederacy, including in the desire of some elements within it to expand its jurisdiction to Latin America. But, truth be told, the Confederacy never posed a real threat to the health of the Northern States — not in the paranoid way the Free Soilers imagined it, anyway. That the "Grand Army of the Republic" is the name of both the army called up to squash the separatists in Star Wars as well as the army Lincoln called up to squash the Southern secessionists, seems too perfect to be a coincidence. Furthermore, we know that, just as Palpatine can be seen playing both sides against each other in Hegelian fashion, all to consolidate power in the center, so too were some banking interests probably profiting off both sides in the American War Between the States. In the end, it is consolidated power that won in both cases.
One thing that needs to be remembered and kept in mind throughout the Star Wars series is that it is the good guys who fall for the fake threats and false crises the whole time, allowing the imperial executive to take root and gain ground. Even the Jedi, for the most part, are fooled, and go along with the manufactured and unnecessary war against the Trade Federation. (Perhaps this is a lesson that Republics, too, are far too powerful and hold too much potential to become murderous dictatorships. Perhaps an anarchist galaxy is the only surefire protection against Empire.) Long before crossing over and becoming the nefarious villain of the galaxy, Anakin Skywalker, as an idealistic and well-intentioned young Jedi student, believes in a benevolent dictatorship, so as to make the galaxy best for the greater good, to the point when, fearful of his wife’s foreshadowed death, he turns to the Dark Side, becomes Darth Vader and realizes that sometimes benevolence is not all it’s cracked up to be: for the "greater good," he slaughters children Jedi-in-training, alleged "enemies of the Republic," in Episode III. The road to tyranny and institutionalized murder is paved with the best of intentions, in fiction but also in real life. At the center of the Star Wars moral is Lord Acton’s proverb that "Power corrupts," and as George Lucas expounded upon it, "[W]hen you’re in charge, you start doing things that you think are right, but they’re actually not." In considering how to deal with Chancellor Palpatine after stripping away his emergency powers, even the Jedi Mace Windu suggests a dangerous and potentially corrupting reform proposal: "The Jedi Council would have to take control of the Senate in order to secure a peaceful transition," he avers. But Yoda understands the corrupting tendency of power, as he responds, "To a dark place this line of thought will carry us. Hmmmmm. . . . Great care we must take." However, the Jedi never have a chance to take such "great care," as most of them are soon slaughtered by Darth Vader and the Senate officially ratifies Palpatine’s Empire.
By the time the transformation into empire is basically complete, we can expect to hear the rulers speak in Manichean terms: "You are either with me — or you are my enemy," in the case of Anakin Skywalker; “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists," in the case of George W. Bush. Anakin swears that the evils he has committed have all been toward his successful efforts to bring "peace, justice, freedom, and security to [his] new Empire." Take out his honest choice of the word "empire," and his Orwellian war to rid the world of all evil sounds all too familiar.
The dissolution of the Senate, of course, has not yet totally happened in America, although it parallels to some degree the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 and the corresponding de facto elimination of the Senate as a body representative of the States. Although the original Senate, being a body of politicians, was hardly a paragon of virtue, what follows when this check and balance gives way to the all-powerful executive is not pretty in any galaxy. While the U.S. Senate is not completely dissolved, it might as well be.
By the time Episode IV is underway, the Empire has developed a demonic weapon of mass destruction — the Death Star — capable of destroying an entire planet. In one genocidal show of force, defended explicitly by at least one writer at The Weekly Standard, the Empire obliterates the peaceful planet of Alderaan, murdering millions. As the Weekly Standard writer put it,
[S]ince Leia is a high-ranking member of the rebellion and the princess of Alderaan, it would be reasonable to suspect that Alderaan is a front for Rebel activity or at least home to many more spies and insurgents like Leia.
Whatever the case, the important thing to recognize is that the Empire is not committing random acts of terror. It is engaged in a fight for the survival of its regime against a violent group of rebels who are committed to its destruction.
Stark are the similarities between the Death Star and the U.S. arsenal, especially its run-of-the-mill nuclear weapons cache, but also including its increasing ambitions for dominance and superiority in space toward the policy goal of "freedom to attack as well as freedom from attack." For all the neocons who saw the first few Star Wars movies and thought that the Evil Empire of Darth Vader paralleled the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union, they obviously missed the point big time. The Soviet Union did not develop into a totalitarian empire from a genuinely peaceful Republic. The Soviet Union never used a weapon of mass destruction the way the Galactic Empire did, and the way the United States did during the Second World War. Furthermore, the U.S. response to the Soviet Union’s own horrible nuclear arsenal was never to pinpoint and destroy it, but rather to build up its own to be much deadlier and more powerful that that of the Soviets. And, we should remember, it was the U.S. that developed these weapons first, initially during its stint as an ally of Stalin, whom it sent uranium and assisted in developing nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, the arms buildup commenced, with few significant parallels between the Soviets and the Galactic Empire. Had the Galactic Empire only developed the Death Star after the rebels developed and demonstrated such technology on innocents first, there might be a similarity there for the neocons. But they’ve always been on the Dark Side — whether they know it or not.
In Episode VI, the rebels win and the Galactic Empire is defeated. Part of the reason is hubris and overstretch. The Galactic Empire places its Death Star—shielding technology on the poorly guarded Moon of Endor, home of the Ewoks. The Empire had never thought in a million years that the indigenous population living in the woods and jungle could pose a threat to the strongest government in the galaxy. But the Empire loses the guerilla war, just as it did in Vietnam and as it is doing now in Iraq. The Empire’s limitations are seen throughout the series: despite its capability at destruction, it has little central-managerial competence. Black markets and smuggling exist throughout the galaxy. The once great commercial society certainly has lost much of its shine by the time the Empire is established, but an entire galaxy simply cannot be ruled by the Death Star’s force and fear alone. The pockets of resistance cannot be squashed; as Leia puts it in addressing an imperial official in Episode IV, "The more you tighten your grip… the more star systems will slip through your fingers."
When the American Empire collapses, it will similarly be due to its own weight and hubris. I do not expect we will have a New Hope in the form of a messianic Luke Skywalker. A single sharp shot will not disarm the U.S. Empire, and a crew of ragtag fighters will not defeat it. What we can learn from the Star Wars movies, however, is that Republics turn into empires when the people, the legislature, and those trusted most to protect the liberty and security of the population, place too much of their confidence in the executive. More specifically, crises and wars empower the Imperial Executive and Central State, as documented so well by Robert Higgs in his book Crisis and Leviathan. Good intentions channeled through statist means and insufficient jealousy for civil society and liberty allow for monsters to take over, build Death Stars, and lay entire civilizations to waste. What Senator Amidala says in Episode III is often true: "So this is how liberty dies — to thunderous applause." Let’s not get fooled again. War is indeed the health of the State, both on earth and in galaxies far, far away. But war too can expose the flaws and follies of the State, for all Empires eventually overstretch themselves to their own decline. Perpetual empire violates the laws of human nature and the balance of the force.
The Empire will fall one day. It will likely not, thankfully, require violent revolution. All it will take is one too many wars or imperial projects, and the system will break under the dense mass of its own unsustainability. The Death Star’s blunt instrument of mass destruction couldn’t crush the diffuse human spirit to breathe free. The Empire currently attempting to run the world will likewise find its coercive mechanisms to be rather clumsy implements, inadequate in the long term in enforcing compliance and maintaining loyalty and tacit approval throughout the earth and among its domestic population. Many Americans had had enough of empire by 1977, when the first Star Wars movie came out, and today’s Empire is even far larger, and more arrogant and overstretched than it was then. Its days are even more numbered.
We have a reason to hope, for although every Republic contains within it the seeds for its sad and decadent regression into Empire, so too does every Empire, pompous and presumptuous, contain within it the seeds of its own decline. We must maintain eternal vigilance, and keep speaking the truth, and the return to normalcy might surprise us in its painlessness and suddenness. As Yoda might say, Hopeful and determined we must be.