Political stormtroopers.

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The Jedi Out of Politics, You Must Keep

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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The approach of the new “Star Wars” movie means new opportunities to write about politics in that far, far away galaxy. As much as I’d like to resume my argument about the Galactic Republic as an Articles of Confederation knockoff, all I have to work with so far is Alyssa Rosenberg’s excellent kickoff post.

Rosenberg, who writes on culture and politics for the Washington Post, laments the extent to which politics in the old "Star Wars" is simply personal. She hopes the new series fills in some of what was missing in the original and in the prequels. She’s right that they gave us a lot of vague stuff about “freedom” and little more. But I’m not sure I agree about wanting more politics.

Movies are almost always about individuals. Politics is often about institutions. That’s one reason Mr. Smithism – the idea that all it takes is for one honest person to stand up to corruption – is such a common way of portraying U.S. politics in the movies. It's easier than explaining how institutions work, or how opposing interests can lead to conflict even though neither is inherently right or wrong.  

When movies get things right, it’s more likely to be in the mold of "The Candidate" or "Bulworth," for example, which are more wrong than right about institutions and processes, yet help us understand what it’s like to be a politician. It’s no wonder that Golden Age TV shows such as "The Wire" or "Deadwood," which have time to build the subtleties, are where to go for exploration of politics as collective decision-making.

It’s even harder in "Star Wars" than in most movies. After all, real politics isn't about absolutes, and the Sith aren’t the only ones who think in absolutes. Jedi and Sith agree that the Force has a good side and a dark side. They just disagree about the value of the dark side.

Still, there is something "Star Wars" can do, and the original captured this to some extent. It can help us see what it feels like for the individuals who take political action. From this point of view, the politics-is-personal that Rosenberg talks about is a virtue.

Yes, Luke’s eagerness to leave his obscure world or the motives of Han Solo or Lando Calrissian tell us nothing about how they believe the world(s) should be organized.

Yet we recognize the political types: the kid with more idealism than sense; the cynic who nevertheless has concluded that getting involved is better than not; the guy who doesn’t think of himself as “political” but who is nursing a personal grudge. Or the woman who has inherited her politics.

Or, for that matter, the wise old wizard.

Since the characters are archetypes rather than fully formed people (which isn’t a flaw of the original films; it’s just a style of storytelling), we don’t get the complexity that real people have. That's OK, too. 

What was missing from the prequels, alas, were other people who were drawn to political action – Padme Amidala is the only one, and we don’t get much from her. If we’re lucky, we’ll get that in the new movies.

  1. Hey, no spoilers: I still have a few episodes remaining on "Deadwood."

  2. Yes, this is yet another way in which a fleshed-out Bail Organa, teamed with a Padme who did more in the last two movies than fall in love, get pregnant and die, would have helped.  Condense the first movie into a 10-15 minute introduction, and there’s plenty of room for the adventures of Bail and Padme.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net