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Vander Graaff: ‘Star Wars’ could rescue our failing democracy

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

Free debate, wealth of information, passion and community — these are pillars that should bring to mind the concept of democracy.

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But today, they seem to more accurately represent the “Star Wars” franchise — and not just because of its otherworldliness. 

Although we might not always notice it, “Star Wars” is inherently political. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, creator of the franchise George Lucas said that in “Star Wars: Episode III,” he was concerned with the question of how democracies can become dictatorships.

Democracies aren’t overthrown; they’re given away,” he said.

Lucas goes on to share that he created the movie during Nixon’s presidency, in the midst of the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War. The fears of this historical moment were mirrored in “Star Wars” when Chancellor Palpatine manipulates Queen Amidala into giving a vote of no confidence, which leads to the current chancellor’s impeachment and his own election — which quickly turns into a dictatorship.

Arguments and debates on these forums are common, and they exemplify something that seems glaringly absent in our democracy today: people willing to debate an issue and do the research necessary to have an informed opinion while doing so.”

But the politics of “Star Wars” go beyond the formation of a dictatorship. Throughout the series, we see examples of war, foreign policy and social class distinctions that are central to the plot of the franchise, forcing the audience to engage with their nuances.

The dynamics of the “Star Wars” universe are complex, and just like in real life, they can take some time and effort to fully understand. The official “Star Wars” website is complete with news, blog posts and an encyclopedia that offers information on just about anything to do with the franchise. Another website called The Force offers fan information and forums; Wookieepedia and the Full of Sith podcast fulfill similar roles.

It’s important to mention that this column is based on the reactions of mainstream audiences — not the fringe groups of fans who have harassed cast members, such as Jake Lloyd, who played young Anakin and has struggled with mental health after the negative response to his role.

Arguments and debates on these forums are common, and they exemplify something that seems glaringly absent in our democracy today: people willing to debate an issue and do the research necessary to have an informed opinion while doing so.

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Pew Research Center reports that after the 2016 presidential election, 23% of Americans surveyed said that they shared a fake political news story. Of those surveyed, 14% said they did so knowing the story was fabricated. 

These statistics come at a time when President Donald Trump, who now faces impeachment, has labeled reliable, fact-checked news pieces as “fake news,” increasing the general confusion of the American public.

Misinformation and polarization have plagued our political atmosphere to the point that, in the face of presidential impeachment, many of us are left questioning the validity of our democracy. And still, it seems like some people don’t care about what’s happening in the world around them.

We see the impeachment in the news every day, while asylum seekers fleeing the mortal danger of their home countries are placed into more danger at the U.S.-Mexico border. Natural disasters are increasingly attributed to climate change, yet Coloradans voted against a measure that would have required oil and gas wells to be located further from schools, houses and water sources in 2018, and they voted against Proposition CC in the most recent election, which would have allocated funding to education and public transportation.

Calvin and Torri as Captain Phasma and as a shadow stormtrooper from “Star Wars.” (Collegian file photo)

We see this apathy even at Colorado State University, where very few students voted in last year’s presidential elections for the Associated Students of CSU, and those who did vote elected leaders who had allegedly censored The Collegian and misused campaign funds. 

It seems that we relate more to the characters in the faraway galaxy of “Star Wars” than we do to people in our own world, at our own borders, backyards and conference rooms because the movies allow us to feel empathy in a way we never can for someone who is nothing but a name in the paper or a face we pass on the street.

“Star Wars” is bipartisan. The basis of the story may be the entangled politics of the Empire, but it’s also full of space ships, lightsaber fights and aliens, ranging from the grotesque Jabba to the adorable Ewoks. 

In many ways, it far exceeds the mundane and disheartening atmosphere of a courtroom or Senate chambers. The fan reaction to “Star Wars” is a model for democracy because of its fan engagement, but this could merely be a result of its distance — it’s easy to be objective about fictional issues that take place in space. 

Although healthy debate and involvement may be absent from our democracy right now, ‘Star Wars’ reminds us that we do, in fact, still know how to do these things.”

Just like a liberal democracy should, the franchise is constantly expanding to engage a diverse range of people — though there have been pitfalls to these efforts. The casting of Finn, a one-dimensional protagonist portrayed by Black actor John Boyega, has been seen as racial tokenism by some, and a similar argument could be made for his love interest, Rose.

Still, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” broke records for ticket sales in 2015, and its popularity only continues. The final movie of the franchise will be released on Dec. 20, and the new show, “The Mandalorian,” is the talk of the internet. 

I know it’s a pipe dream to hope that democratic involvement will ever be as emphasized as access to streaming services and meme engagement are right now. But we can still draw lessons from the passion of “Star Wars” fans and the way they freely debate and share facts.

Although healthy debate and involvement may be absent from our democracy right now, “Star Wars” reminds us that we do, in fact, still know how to do these things. 

In a series where even the darkest villain, Darth Vader, experiences a moment of grace before he dies, perhaps the thing about Star Wars that appeals so strongly to so many people is its rhetoric of hope — something our democracy could certainly use more of.

Abby Vander Graaff can be reached at letters@collegian.com or Twitter at @abbym_vg.

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