Can science fiction teach us about political institutions?

A group of political scientists says yes.

James Endersby of the University of Missouri-Columbia is spearheading a project with several of his former students, now colleagues, to show how science fiction illustrates the importance of well-constructed political institutions.  One of their core themes is that the federal system of Star Trek represents a well-functioning political institution while that of Star Wars represents the opposite. Endersby said,

Star Wars is a contrary example, where the federal (interplanetary) government fails completely. Millions watch these movies and TV shows, so it’s a way to introduce political science ideas to an audience that is interested and willing to think about them.”

Co-author Don Gooch of Stephen F. Austin State University added, “The Star Wars republic is a poorly constructed institution. If you use [Nelson] Polsby’s criteria, [successful government institutions must be] well-bounded, [include] specialization and differentiation between hierarchies, and [have] universalistic, not particularistic decision making. [In Star Wars], there’s no defined criteria for membership, there’s no limitation on who can appear and who can make a motion, and the federation is not well-bounded.”

Another contributor, Chapman Rackaway of Ft. Hays State University, continued the thought: “It just becomes too large and unwieldy, they need to change it… With each member having one vote, it becomes too large.”

He added, “They weren’t even consistent in their criteria for membership.”

Gooch sees a parallel between Star Wars and the career of 19th Century American statesman Henry Clay, “Clay became a state legislator, and in seven months he was Speaker. Queen Amidala was a queen, and next thing you know she’s a successor. Jar-jar is suddenly the leader from Naboo. There’s no institutional memory. They don’t have well-defined roles. There isn’t an executive role. England doesn’t have a codified constitution but there are roles. They don’t have any of that in the republic.”

Rackaway added that executive power was easy to abuse in the Star Wars federation when an assassination attempt became “a ruse for seizing power and ending democracy.”

Gooch concluded with a reference to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent, controversial Citizens United ruling, “In the Star Wars universe, corporations are people.”

This contrasts sharply with the Star Trek federation, according to Endersby. It “is a more positive model for governance with clear, although unusual representation, sort of like the US Senate. Star Trek also discusses civil rights, civil liberties, the rule of law [and] also non-interference in other cultures: the prime directive. [These are] the very concepts that are central to what we study as political scientists.”

In addition, the federation of Star Trek is much more stable than that of Star Wars. Gooch noted that in Star Trek, “they have numerous coups: they all fail. In Star Wars, [there is] one coup [and] the whole republic falls apart.”

Endersby believes that the science fiction approach is a good way to introduce a concept that is fundamental to the US and many other governments, but often overlooked: federalism. He told me, “most political scientists don’t really value federalism as a major component of government, but public opinion surveys indicate that most citizens think that a federal system is a very good form… Fifty years of Star Trek may be teaching them that a federation is a good way to resolve conflict.”

Endersby and his co-authors recently did a panel at another political science conference, discussing possible ideas for this book project. While the Star Wars/Star Trek contrast is a central theme, other works of science fiction may also be included. Another contributor, Steven Galatas of Stephen F. Austin University, summed up the possibilities:

“I think it offers us an area of political theory, understandings of utopia and dystopia. If we look for example at the writings of Kim Stanley Robinson, we see debates over environmental politics: how to handle resource scarcity and yet build a more perfect society through his Red Mars series. Likewise, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon Riders of Pern offers a vision of a left-libertarian society struggling with an invasive enemy.”

In the struggle to show how political institutions matter, perhaps science fiction will indeed prove to be the final frontier.

About the author: Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Smith has contributed to multiple media outlets and is also a blogger for the 2016 MPSA conference in Chicago. Follow Smith on Twitter.