What if there is no "thunderous applause"?
An essay on what Star Wars may NOT teach us about democratic demise
If you take a look at your podcast feed, Beltway Banthas should be there with a new episode. With a new monthly approach to the show, we’ll be produced one narrative, newsy style Star Wars political analysis every few weeks. In between those episodes, there will be one on one guest interviews, round table discussions, and all sorts of other bonus content. I want to figure out a way to make some of that exclusive to newsletter readers first (if you have any ideas on what might work, email it to me: email@example.com)
This email contains 1) The new episode 2) What to expect with more content and 3) A write out of the episode’s monologue, if you’d to read it as well.
This is me (below) being totally psyched and pleased to have finally cut another episode of Banthas. Felt really good to get back at it.
You could probably tell that in this new format I’m working with a monologue style script. And I wanted to share it with you if you’d like to read it!
We’re on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get podcasts. We need new reviews if you’ve never left a comment or 5-stars. Could you take 30 seconds and tell us in a Review what you think? It’s still so crucial for lifting up the podcast to new people. Podchaser is a great app for posting reviews cause it posts on all the major apps at once. I use it every day.
WHAT STAR WARS DIDN’T PREPARE US FOR: AN ESSAY
It was on July 30th, 2020 that a sitting U.S. president for the first time ever suggested publicly that an upcoming federal election be delayed. Taking to Twitter as he often does for ill-advised ideas, President Trump tweeted, "With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely, and safely vote???" There’s a first time for everything, and for Trump’s most committed critics this kind of anti-democratic expression didn’t come as a surprise.
If there’s one thing that Americans on the left and right are pretty well attuned to, perhaps to a fault, it’s the spectre of dictatorship handed down to us in standard U.S. History classes. Of course, if you’re anything like me, your real schooling in the demise of democracy came from the Star Wars prequel trilogy.
The first time I ever considered the idea that American democracy could be temporary was in 2005. Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith had just hit theaters, and discussion of how Chancellor Palpatine transformed the Republic into an Empire was everywhere in my school for those first few weeks. I vividly remember a friend asking during our lunchtime banter about Episode III, “Do you think Bush would ever try to stay in office?”
I was a pretty conservative teenager at that time, but even then, I wondered. With the controversial Iraq War nearly two years in and George W. Bush having just been re-elected on a platform of fighting terror at home and abroad, my imagination was for the first time really running wild with how America could go the way of the Republic.
Looking back on that time, it seems a bit silly in comparison to where things stand today. But the lesson of George Lucas’ prequels were to be vigilant, even of mild mannered, buttoned-up politicians like Sheev Palpatine. For a whole generation of fans, if you were unaware of how Julius Caesar transformed the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire, or that Adolf Hitler was a democratically elected Chancellor just one year before becoming the “Führer” of Germany --- Star Wars was your lesson on the popularly understood way in which democracies steadily decline and can eventually become dictatorships.
“So this is how liberty dies...With thunderous applause,” is arguably Padme’s most impactful piece of dialogue in Revenge of the Sith. The evidence is simply that you can’t escape it on social media. The GIF is used in excess every election night as results come in, whatever they may be. Fans also use it to express themselves on whatever Congress may be up to on any given day. The meaning is simple: freedom is not taken but given away, most often with public approval. Palpatine enjoyed this public support in Episode II: Attack of the Clones when he first was granted emergency powers by the Senate to build a Clone Army in the Republic’s defense. His accumulation of power through rushed votes and unilateral decrees is referenced in a crucial deleted scene from Revenge of the Sith.
What Mon Mothma astutely references in this secret meeting of what would later become the Rebel Alliance, is that Senators were all too willing to rubber-stamp Chancellor Palpatine’s accumulation of executive power. They did this according to Mothma because, “they know where the power lies and they will do whatever it takes to share in it.” Basically, to challenge the overpowered executive would be to embrace political death. Staying close to Palpatine is a devil's bargain, which we know of course, doesn’t work out in their favor.
The problem that American’s face is far more insidious than the simple grabbing of executive power during manufactured crisis situations. One critique of President Trump is that he has all the personality and desires of a thuggish autocrat, but none of the Palpatine-esque skills in government to make his most anti-democratic fever dreams come true. Watching Trump for three years, this checks out. His bluster is vile, but at the end of the day, most of it amounts to just bluster. He can’t delay the election, he can’t dismantle the New York Times.
President Trump represents the tip of the spear for a modern Republican strategy of controlling as much of state and federal government as possible, with as few voters as needed. With a mixture of aggressive statehouse gerrymandering, judicial appointments and a U.S. Senate strategy aimed primarily at winning Supreme Court confirmations -- we’re mired in a minority rule situation.
Put more simply, nothing in American government can get done. It’s a uniquely American problem in that resisting popular sentiment or “lowercase d” democracy is part of our systems design. There’s a popular anecdote (a fictitious one according to experts) involving George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, where the former supposedly likened the U.S. Senate to a cooling saucer. The principle being that the Senate would be more deliberative and serve to temper the passions of the House where the popular sentiments of the citizenry would be more actively embodied.
This slows down change in American life. It’s exactly the kind of design that cuts against, “so this is how liberty dies...with thunderous applause.” There will never be thunderous applause, and then enters the president to govern by way of executive orders
You can’t get any kind of popular consensus in American government these days. And that’s where the President steps in. Barack Obama started 2014 by saying if Congress remained deadlocked on his legislative goals, that “he had a pen, and he had a phone,” to go the route of executive orders instead. In early August, President Trump channeled the same energy on renewing coronavirus relief after Congress failed to negotiate a second package before going on recess.
It is not entirely in the realm of fantasy that a despot could emerge in American politics and seize total control away from Congress and the courts. We’ve gotta always be wary of Star Wars’ central warning - which is about popular demand for freedom to be exchanged for immediate action in the name of safety, security, insert your issue of choice...but we mustn't be blind to the fact that democracy can also die...muffled...screaming into a pillow.
May the Force be with you, always