Americans don’t like politics. What they do like is Star Wars.
A new poll by the Morning Consult aimed to find out how Americans relate to the politics of Star Wars, or if they even acknowledge those themes at all. About 53 percent of the 2,200 respondents said they don’t see the Star Wars films as political—you might call these people the general audience. About 17 percent said the series was political, and of that group, 41 percent are bothered by Star Wars’ political tone. For these die-hards who love to debate the series’ message, the idea that Star Wars is just pure escapism is something akin to heresy.
Star Wars is arguably the most beloved cinematic franchise on the planet. Set in a galaxy far far away and featuring worlds, technology, and mystical powers we can only dream of, Star Wars continues to sweep us away.
Yet, it’s familiar. That familiarity is rooted in the creative vision of George Lucas, the man behind Star Wars who had a few strong opinions about the world we call home. He crafted Star Wars in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, events that rocked the nation to its civic core. In 1975, Lucas described the Empire as “Nixonian gangsters” and looked at the Rebel Alliance as the hippies of another galaxy, challenging the status quo and a tyrannical government that seeks to silence them.
Twenty-five years later, Lucas launched the prequel trilogy, which tells the story of Darth Vader’s origins and descent into evil. Two of the three films were released while President George W. Bush was in office. Where little is obvious about the partisan politics of the original Star Wars movies, the prequel trilogy is more overt. "Episode I: The Phantom Menace" begins with corporatist villains Newt Gunray and Lott Dod, a not-so-subtle nod toward congressional GOP leaders Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott.
When it comes to the politics of the prequels, there are some understandable falsehoods that dog them to this day. Yes, the movies allude to a phony war being perpetrated by an executive accumulating emergency powers and alarming new authority. Yes, in "Revenge of the Sith" Anakin Skywalker says to Obi-Wan Kenobi “if you’re not with me, you’re my enemy,” very much in a way that echoes Bush’s 2001 declaration that you were either with us in the War on Terror or against us.
No, the movies were not handcrafted to be a Bush critique. The story of the prequel trilogy was conceived and written long before their release. A democratic republic’s fall into tyranny is also not exactly an original story by any stretch of the imagination. George Lucas drew on Napoleon, Caesar, Hitler, Stalin, and other famous despots of history to inspire his space opera’s sinister Empire. And let’s face it -- despite all the genuine fear Bush’s critics felt back then, he was no Napoleon. Current events and politics were projected onto the films by audiences, which is the master craft of Star Wars. It’s always relevant.
Star Wars possesses a cultural power unlike that of any other franchise in existence. While that marginal 17 percent of fans may be horrified that the general public doesn’t see the politics of Star Wars, they should take a step back and try to remember why Star Wars is what it is.
I’m reminded of an episode of AMC’s Mad Men, season one’s “The Wheel,” where Don Draper delivers a legendary product pitch. He says of nostalgia, “...it's delicate but potent. It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship, it's a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards... it takes us to a place where we ache to go again.” This insight from the fictional world’s leading ad man is poignant and relevant to Star Wars' power and limitations. Your childhood memories of seeing Star Wars with a parent, sibling, or friend are sacred and untouchable mountains of emotion where politics are frankly not welcome.
This poll from Morning Consult shows the strength of universalism when it comes to Star Wars message. Be good. Don’t be bad. Love others. Reject fear, anger, and hatred.
Star Wars' upcoming eighth installment, "The Last Jedi," presents a risk for Star Wars’ fortitude against a hyper-politicized time in our culture. A “Resistance” is going to face off with the First Order, our new bad guys in the saga. The Resistance, led by Gen. Leia Organa, came about in December 2015, before a President Trump seemed remotely possible. #Resist stemmed directly from Trump’s election and launch of the Women’s March in January 2017, with Leia as a central figure in the demonstrations following actress Carrie Fisher’s death.
The timeline of Star Wars and the Resistance is almost certainly going to be obscured in the analysis of "The Last Jedi" in the coming weeks. Star Wars and Disney deserve great credit for continuing to be a bastion of fantasy, exploration, and imagination for multiple generations while keeping politics within reach for those who want it. The politics of Star Wars exists and is there for those who seek it. My view is that engaging with the deeper messages of Star Wars enhances the films. But to those 53 percent who don’t see it, I respect that escapist desire.
In "The Phantom Menace," Obi-Wan said to his master, Qui-Gon Jinn: “But Master Yoda said to be mindful of the future.” Qui-Gon’s response? “Not at the expense of the moment.”
Don’t let politics keep you from the greatest intergalactic journey this side of the Milky Way.
Stephen Kent (@Stephen_Kent89) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is the spokesperson for Young Voices and host of Beltway Banthas, a Star Wars & politics podcast in D.C.
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