The Case Against a Galactic Republic – Continuing Thoughts

Mike: Over the last few years I’ve started to wonder whether the Old Republic’s model of governance, even prior to the rampant corruption on display in the prequel trilogy, was doomed to fail just by dint of the scale of the Galaxy Far, Far Away and the idiosyncrasies of its countless worlds. On Friday I presented my case here, and in response I was pleased to hear a wide variety of other takes on the matter both here and on social media. Two of my fellow Eleven-ThirtyEight staff writers in particular, Nick Adams, and Jay Shah, had some very thoughtful, yet strong, disagreements with my conclusions.

While I suppose we’re going to have to agree to disagree, I felt that the conversation that ensued in the original piece’s comments section was worthy of a spotlight of its own—never let it be said that I don’t encourage a diversity of opinion here at ETE. As such, that conversation has been lightly edited and expanded and is “reprinted” below for your enjoyment.

Nick: Galactic history has already proven that when governance is weak evil rises. Without some central authority and military, what prevents powerful worlds from exploiting weaker ones? In your model, how would the “shining city on a hill” and Rey’s young school of Jedi stop Kuat from building a large navy to impose its will on its neighbors? Or stop the Corporate Sector from establishing control of trade in the Outer Rim?

If the answer is hoping that Chandrila will speak out, Mon Cala will build a navy to counter it, and Ryloth will send pilots, that’s a tad naïve. The galaxy has proven it can rally a few times, but is that really to be counted on? “Every village sending a warrior” isn’t a strategy, its a Pollyanna-like wish. We see this very risk in the sequel trilogy. If the “good worlds” don’t show up, do we just hope things will get better?

The answer is not abolishing the idea of a galaxy-spanning republic. The answer is building a republic that meets the needs of its citizens. The Galactic Republic failed because it got complacent and didn’t listen to its citizens. Its senators and Jedi were too insular. The New Republic actually built a republic that was much closer to what the galaxy needed. It was initially focused on its citizens, rebuilding, and being egalitarian. Where it failed was not having a governmental structure that could find consensus on important issues, as well as lacking a navy capable of protecting its citizens from emerging threats.

We don’t know much of the era prior to the thousand-year piece, but even it had an “Old Republic”. It’s also telling that after the Sith rose and nearly destroyed everything, the galaxy’s answer was to build a New Republic. All this points to a galactic government being needed and wanted. The KEY is making sure to adapt to the needs of its citizens and the times. To do otherwise risks the rise of evil and the fall of a republic yet again.

“The New Republic rejected and ostracized the Resistance from day one; if their scattered allies were slow to recognize how dire things had become I think we know exactly who to blame.”

Mike: Wow, I never thought I’d see the day that you’d speak so cynically of Mon Cala’s willingness to join a worthy cause! Must have hit pretty close to the mark to get you all riled up like that. 

As far as the sequel era is concerned, the New Republic rejected and ostracized the Resistance from day one; if their scattered allies were slow to recognize how dire things had become I think we know exactly who to blame. And if—let’s be real, when—the Resistance is back to fighting shape in ROS, where do you think those new fighters will have come from? Certainly not Hosnian Prime; they missed their chance.

You say the OR failed due to “not having a governmental structure that could find consensus on important issues”, and I’d agree—my problem is, what does that even mean? And what’s the likelihood that ROS, being a Star Wars movie and not a Jon Meacham book, could offer a solution to that that would be at all satisfying? At best we’d just have to take their word for it.

Looking ahead to your hypothetical aggression from Kuat and the Corporate Sector, the answer to those scenarios is that I have no idea how they could be stopped. But there is one period in known galactic history where we know for a fact that such crises were kept in check for centuries (or more likely, never became crises to begin with), and that period did not involve a Republic navy. We don’t know to what extent the government was involved in heading off those problems versus Jedi peacekeepers on their own, so I’ll grant you that I can’t say definitively that a Republic would hurt in that scenario—but I can say quite definitively that a navy was unnecessary. And when one did show up it was a harbinger of the end times.

So without a navy, without a Republic, how exactly do a few Jedi stop a war? Beats me—but it sounds like an awesome story and I want to read it one day.

Nick: Joke all you want, but put yourself in-universe and in the shoes of those who lived on Hays Minor (our friends, the Tico sisters). Do you sleep well at night knowing that, in the event your poor, backwater world is attacked that a “coalition of the willing” will EVENTUALLY amass a fleet to come to your aid? Are you okay with waiting under occupation? Or dealing with bloodshed? Even if Mon Cala, Chandrila, Sullust, and Corellia do muster the political and military will to act in a timely manner, it is still ad hoc and reactionary. Their willingness is and continues to be noble and worthy of note, but it is still reactive.

“Worlds big and small, bereft of support from each other and a government, would devolve into anarchy.”

The proactive approach to avoiding bloodshed on a localized or galactic scale is some sort of government. Not the Galactic Republic. Not the Galactic Empire. Not the New Republic, at least as we saw it in its later years. Just because the prior republics didn’t get it right (i.e., the balance needed for a galactic government to function) doesn’t mean that a republic can’t work.

You made a comment about where the “new ships” in TROS will come from. While I wouldn’t rule out some being NR Defense Fleet ships, I can as easily argue that those allies are the worlds of the New Republic setting up where the federal government can’t or didn’t act. I’ll remind you that a galaxy-spanning republic isn’t all centralized bureaucracy on a capital. It is ultimately composed of united member worlds and citizens. When ships from Mon Cala, Corellia, Sullust, and Ryloth start popping up, I see the New Republic’s members rising to the challenge, NOT a simple loose coalition of a warrior from every village.

In regards to your final point, story merits aside, in-universe it would absolutely be horrible. Worlds big and small, bereft of support from each other and a government, would devolve into anarchy. Furthermore, even if the major systems are all fine, I’ll ask you to tell me who will step in to help Hays Minor? Rey’s Jedi, if they evolve back to the origins of the Order, aren’t galactic policemen. They are galactic do-gooders following the will of the Force.

The second you make the Jedi solely responsible for the peace and security of the galaxy is the second you risk the rise of another Palpatine. The galaxy deserves better. A republic, a “more perfect union” that evolves to the needs of its citizens IS the answer.

Mike: I must have missed the story where the Republic did a damn thing for Hays Minor! Your Kuati Death Fleet was a hypothetical, but Hays Minor was a thing that actually happened while the Republic existed and had a fleet and they had no response whatsoever. I don’t think we know for sure if it was part of NR territory or not, but either way the NR doesn’t come out of that looking too great.

You’re very convinced that the simple existence of a Republic makes crisis response more assured when we’ve literally never seen anything but the opposite: the established government ignores the problem and a few scrappy upstarts rise to the occasion. That may (or may not, frankly) be less realistic than an orderly, thorough governmental response, but it’s the quintessential Star Wars story, and it always will be.

You say that there needs to be “some sort of government” and I don’t know that I’m completely disagreeing with that—I’m just advocating for something closer to the UN than to Rome. Or if naval capabilities are that important to you, think of NATO; a mutual defense/nonaggression agreement among an assortment of local navies sounds just as good to me as a centralized navy, and with a fraction of the bureaucracy (and much less risk of being co-opted by one crazed dictator).

Nick: My proposed model isn’t all the dissimilar from a hybrid UN/NATO, albeit in my model there are certain areas in which my galactic government would be the final authority. My hypothetical republic is built around the five core areas we discussed: common laws, free trade, universal rights, a forum to mediate disputes, and a central navy. These functions have value and protect lesser worlds from being exploited by larger, more powerful ones. Governing beyond these functions is pretty impossible on a galactic scale. Since I didn’t get a chance to elaborate on my federal model further, let me briefly outline it.

My “galactic level” government is detailed above. Below that would be localized groupings (for argument’s sake, sectors, assuming they are a more manageable size) that have regional assemblies. These regional assemblies would be mini-senates, serving the more direct needs of the area. Say you’re a regional assembly-being from Mon Cala. You probably know more about what your sector needs in terms of funding, support, or governance than a galactic senator on Coruscant or Chandrila. Yes, your world/sector sends senators to the galactic government, but outside of the five areas I highlighted, they are largely not a factor in your day-to-day.

I’d also highlight the power of symbols and a name. Its no coincidence that the Resistance chose the Starbird of the Alliance and New Republic. Amilyn Holdo spoke with passion about the restoration of the Republic. While the size, scope, and powers of a hypothetical galactic government can vary, the power of the name and symbol would remain.

At the end of the day, these are all hypothetical discussions about a fictional galaxy, so there is really no way to be right or wrong. However, it is sure fun to imagine the possibilities!

“If SW is a pastiche of the real world, it ought to start seeing the value of a Galactic Republic instead of seeing it as corrupt garbage with an ‘every world for themselves’ message.”

Jay: For me, the role of a galactic government is less martial. It’s not specifically about knights in shining armor defending the innocent (despite the Arthurian backstory of the golden age republic and Jedi). I also wonder if the New Republic deliberately avoided intervening in certain situations to avoid looking like the Empire — there’s a thin line between humanitarian intervention and imperialism (it’s something international relations struggles with in our own world). I also have trouble seeing the Senate agreeing on such things in a timely fashion and that’s a feature, not a bug: people are not always going to agree on what is right, and that’s a cost of democracy that we HAVE to accept because the alternative is dictatorship (in other words, Padmé was right).

I’m pro-galactic government because isolated worlds breed conflict, distrust, and ignorance. Wars happen. Competition happens. Barriers get built. The galaxy gets smaller.

We don’t know why the Republic arose. In Legends, it started as a trade league and became a collective galactic project. That’s the real purpose. For folks to work together, learn from each other, interact with each other, etc.

Focusing on the people who don’t know the larger galaxy is a mistake. That’s where the story lies, for thematic reasons. But they’re not the galactic majority. But even if people are homebodies, that doesn’t mean the galactic government doesn’t have value.

In our real world, the Union of the fifty states or the EU or the UN don’t all lack value because the majority of the billions of people on Earth don’t travel the world. Some of them see the benefits of an interconnected world. Some of them don’t and are left behind. That’s a reason to fix the system, not to scrap it.

And maybe if SW is a pastiche of the real world, it ought to start seeing the value of a Galactic Republic instead of seeing it as corrupt garbage with an “every world for themselves” message. I don’t think that’s the real message of the saga. But that sometimes gets lost in the focus on the frontier.

Think back to Lucas’s comments on the Republic. Or on Leia. I don’t think he’s against the Galactic Republic. I think he thought it lost its way and needs to do better.

Maybe in canon the NR took the wrong lessons. Maybe they should’ve listened to Leia instead of a Mothma.

Mike: As I said to Nick (and, well, in the piece), I don’t oppose something in the spirit of the UN—but that feels to me like a difference in kind from a Galactic Republic and not just a difference in scale, no? And relatedly, a lot of this came out of my suspicion that a galaxy with a million different planets and species might just be too much for the degree of interconnectedness we’re beginning to see here on Earth. I fully support it in reality, but even if it would be equally beneficial to the GFFA (and I do think it would, hence Coruscant playing an aspirational role) I can’t help but wonder if there’s such a thing as too big to govern. Are you convinced the Republic model is infinitely scalable?

Jay: Well, it depends on what we mean by “govern” — the galaxy may very well be too big to centrally administer. In the EU, Imperial Center was basically one big planet of ministries and bureaucracies. But that doesn’t mean that an organizing and unifying notion of a galactic community isn’t valuable.

I’d suggest that it would be something closer to a European Union integration than the UN, if only because the UN tends to be aspirational and encourages the big power players to do as they like. It’s a playground for the powerful. Perhaps the Republic was the same way with the Core worlds and economically powerful Rim worlds controlling the agenda, but I like to think at some point there was a sense of togetherness.

But who knows? Maybe the wistfulness for the Old Republic is the wistfulness of Core Worlders who always had it good and benefited from the galactic connectedness, and the frontiers which didn’t really see the Republic never did. The real-world parallels write themselves there, too: how do you have an integrated universal system that 1) encourages diversity of cultures and views 2) allows people to mix and learn from each other 3) but doesn’t only benefit the lucky few who are connected with cosmopolitan trade and cultural hubs? And how do you do all this at the same time as accepting the inefficiencies of a non-local government that is responsive without being oppressive? I don’t have all the answers, other than that I think it’s worth not giving up on.

3 thoughts to “The Case Against a Galactic Republic – Continuing Thoughts”

  1. It seems to me that there are two big issues at play here. The first is “historical” and concrete: does the failure of the two previous Galactic Republics, along with the failure of the Galactic Empire and the (presumed) pending failure of the First Order, demonstrate that direct galactic-scale rule is impossible? The second is philosophical and abstract: can central authority expand to encompass an infinitely-vast and -diverse galaxy without being ineffective, tyrannical, or both? On the surface these questions might seem related, but in fact I think they are almost entirely separate.

    On the concrete side, I’d just add to Nick’s point that neither Galactic Republic died of natural causes – both were *murdered.* Given what we see of the Prequel-era Republic, we might speculate that absent a conspiracy of dark wizards it would collapsed under its own weight, but in our imagined universe such a speculation remains “counterfactual.” The thousand-year Republic had no shortage of problems, but there is no way to know whether it would have continued to evolve peacefully or not in response to its crises. What we do know is that the Sith managed to topple the Republic. To do so the Sith played on the Republic’s weaknesses, but the impetus for violent collapse was clearly theirs, not an “organic” outgrowth of the Republic’s political system. This is even more the case in the New Republic, a polity that whatever its faults is (as seen in Bloodlines) nonetheless a functioning government until it is violently overthrown by the First Order (led by, you guessed it, more dark wizards!). Absent this dramatic attack, we might just as plausibly speculate that the New Republic would have lasted another thousand years. In the end, the destruction of the Republics tells us almost nothing about the viability of galactic-level governance, other than the (obvious) conclusion that being destroyed by your enemies in war is bad for long-term survival.

    On the other hand, because both Republics died violent deaths, their actual “historical” ends don’t provide much support for the idea of sustainable Galactic-level governance, either. We could debate endlessly whether having a larger fleet in the aftermath of Jakku would have saved the New Republic, or hastened its dissolution, but in neither case do we learn much about whether a Galactic Republic is really worth building or defending in the first place. At that point, we exit “history” and enter instead the realm of political philosophy: What is the purpose of government? How best can that purpose be achieved? What sorts of trade-offs are inherent in the construction of such a system? I’d probably begin such an analysis with the idea of a Galactic “Res Publica,” the idea that there is a common good that all members of the galaxy share, whatever their background, and that is distinct from the private interests of different planets or classes of beings. I’d further add that the New Republic as shown in Bloodlines did not seem like a polity that was in terminal decay driven by irreconcilable cultural differences or the heavy hand of bureaucratic sclerosis, but instead a reasonable evolution of the Old Republic that nonetheless made greater concessions for the independence of “affiliates” like Ryloth. But at the end of the day, because our stories focus so much on the conflicts and moments of transition between forms of government, we just don’t have much “data” regarding whether galactic-scale government “works” or not for any given purpose. Star Wars has never been about the mundane “day-to-day.”

    I’d finish with two provocations. The first is that we might “historicize” the question further by asking whether Galactic government perhaps *used to* work, but doesn’t anymore. Ever since Obi-Wan first told Luke about the “murder” of his father, Star Wars has been a work about the cyclical nature of violence, and the ways in which violence even for very noble ends ultimately begets more violence, even and especially across generations. Perhaps galactic governance could function amidst generations of peace, but no longer functions under conditions of continuous violence and vengeance. The obsessive focus of the First Order and Resistance on re-fighting the battles of the previous generation, and the resultant churn of “galactic governments,” stand as a case in point. The real obstacles to Galactic Republic may not be philosophical or cultural, but rather intensely personal.

    The second is that, while people in the real world remain divided over the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, in the GFFA there actually is a Higher Power at work ordering the affairs of all living things, demonstrable to us as audience even if often hidden from the protagonists themselves. Although it manifests itself differently in different times and places, the Force is a phenomenon that actually transcends time, space, or culture. To the extent that galactic government is possible, it seems unlikely that it would function without some guidance or involvement of the Force. But given the existence and potential of the Force, it seems overly pessimistic to me to conclude that galactic-level governance is impossible. Yoda would likely remind you that the scale of the problem is only in your mind 🙂

    1. While we know very little about Republic governance during its “ideal” period, I would argue that its cozy relationship with the Jedi was fatally misconceived and even without the Sith influence the end point of that relationship would have been tyranny of some sort. Jedi serve the Force, and even the most perfect government imaginable is going to have different priorities, moral standards, etc. A decentralized galactic government might not be utterly necessary but an independent Jedi Order absolutely is—and that independence is exactly why I’d trust a proper Jedi Order to maintain the peace in lieu of a fleet and a bureaucracy. As you say, they’re literally the hand of god in that universe and as long as they keep their heads out of their asses I’m confident the Force would put them where they needed to be. That might not be the same as government but it’s far better than anarchy.

      I definitely agree with you about SW’s relationship with cyclical violence, and as much as I think there are serious, in-universe arguments against the idea of a Republic in the canon version of the galaxy, my argument is just as much a recognition of that out-of-universe reality—they’re going to keep making SW movies for the foreseeable future and further movies means further conflict, so maybe recognizing that and choosing to look at the OR as the exception rather than the rule will allow the franchise to at least move forward into different kinds of conflict.

  2. So there are two things I want to comment on. The first thing is a reformed Jedi Order like Mike suggests in the first article, essentially a more nomadic one. I think maybe that is how the Jedi started, just a handful of Masters and their Padawans traveling the galaxy, righting wrongs. Perhaps they occasionally met up to deal with major threats, and eventually those temporary meetups led to the more sedentary and established order in the prequels. I think Rey’s order returning to its roots might be a good change that helps appease anti-Jedi sentiments while also leaving it a small organization that is not a possible threat to the Galaxy in itself (a large order of space wizards seems like something to be worried about in theory…).
    We have three historical Republics at this point, and detailed reasons on why two of those failed. I think the New Republic did a good job of dealing with the failings of the Galactic Republic. The Senate is actually democratically elected now (as opposed to being appointed by governments, many of which were not democratic). The moving capital also probably kept the Senate from getting to complacent. It had a military, which is probably necessary in a Jedi-less galaxy, but they reduced it to prevent it from being overbearing and being compared to the Empire. This all probably made former Separatists rather happy and comfortable with a restored Republic.
    Yet ultimately the New Republic failed. Bloodline makes clear that after Mothma retired, none of her successors were very effective, much like how Valorum was ineffective. The New Republic then became stagnant and ineffectual, marred by partisanship. What I think the big failing of the New Republic was a failure to “de-imperalize”. Essentially they left internal and external former Imperials alone following the Galactic Concordance, This allowed imperial sympathizers to weaken its democratic institutions and to leak info to the First Order, which the New Republic ignored (and imperial sympathizers in the Senate probably helped ensure that). You also have the likes of Tam who were unaware of crimes of the Empire, and end up supporting the First Order.
    To tie this all together, I think a Third Republic with the structure of the New Republic, but devoted to vigilance against Imperials/space fascism, along with a nomadic order, would have a chance of being successful. which then would mean the Galaxy is governable!

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