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The Political Science of Battlestar Galactica

We welcome another guest post from Stephen Benedict Dyson.  His previous post on the political science of Star Trek is here.


Battlestar Galactica, a science fiction drama, was an extended allegory of war on terror-era American politics. As President Obama tries unsuccessfully to move beyond the perpetual conflicts and roiling liberty-security debates of these years, this is a good chance to reflect upon one of the more profound cultural artifacts of the period. I should begin, though, by pointing out one major difference between this fiction and our reality: the civilization in Battlestar, fearing the downside of big data, had the good sense to give up computer networks and wireless telephones many years prior to the events depicted in the series.

Debated at the United Nations and honored as the best show on television, Battlestar offers several rich points of analysis. I focus here on the remarkable portrait of a political leader operating in a time of crisis, President Laura Roslin. The political history of the Roslin administration allows us to reflect upon leadership in wartime, the malleability of constitutional forms in radically changed circumstances, and the role of faith in guiding our leaders. As with my earlier analysis of the politics of Star Trek, I discuss significant plot points and so those who have yet to watch the show may wish to come back to this post after having done so.

Roslin’s presidency begins with a near-extinction event for her civilization. At the time of the surprise attack Roslin is secretary of education in the administration of President Adar, a Clintonesque figure high on charm and of flexible principle. Roslin survives the attack through serendipitous means – she was visiting the obsolete Battlestar Galactica (essentially an aircraft carrier-in-space) on the day of its decommissioning. Roslin, 43rd in the line of succession, is sworn in as president when it becomes clear that the existing political structure has been obliterated. The creator of the show was an avid student of political history, and deliberately reconstructed the iconic scene of Lyndon B. Johnson taking the oath of office after the assassination of President Kennedy.

President Roslin’s early decisions mirror those made by the U.S. leadership on 9/11. Whilst the attack is still underway, she has to make sense of the situation. She does so more effectively than the military authority figure, the commanding officer of the Galactica William Adama, who is determined to launch a futile counter-attack. Roslin accurately appraises the situation: “I don’t know why I have to keep telling you this,” She says to Adama. “The war is over. We lost.” Her leadership in convincing Adama to run rather than fight allows a rump remnant of colonial civilization – 50,000 or so souls – to survive.

Roslin has to quickly learn how to lead in this perpetual crisis, and her growth into the office is a prime feature of the series. In the first days of flight she is faced with an incomprehensible dilemma. A passenger airliner carrying several hundred people, lost in the chaos, suddenly reappears and approaches the fleet. Unable to establish contact and suspecting the airliner has been commandeered by the enemy, Adama recommends to the president that it be shot down. Roslin has seconds to decide, mirroring the situation faced by Vice President Dick Cheney on 9/11.

Roslin’s presidency often involved ad hoc judgments on major matters of constitutional interpretation, and a recurrent theme is the tension between the system of laws that existed prior to the attack and the new realities. Battlestar Galactica portrayed its characters as flawed and the decisions they made as complex mixtures of good and bad motives, judgment, and luck. The storytelling challenged us to reconsider simple verities and to see people we admire making decisions we abhor, an experience uncomfortably familiar to liberals considering President Obama’s drone policies. Adama, the military commander, turns out to be far more committed to civil liberties than the president, who develops a policy of eliminating enemy agents by tossing them out of an airlock.

Roslin is an unelected president serving the final months of her predecessor’s term. When a challenger emerges in the person of Tom Zarek, an imprisoned utopian revolutionary reminiscent of Vladimir Lenin, Roslin argues that holding an election runs counter to the core mission of survival. Roslin’s fears are at the core of the most compelling arc of the series. She is eventually opposed for the presidency not by Zarek but by Gaius Baltar, a celebrated yet narcissistic public intellectual. Baltar’s campaign is opportunistic. The president, bowing to demographic realities and overturning a lifetime of pro-choice commitment, had banned abortion, a decision Baltar cynically exploits. Then, in the midst of the campaign, there is a universe-sized October surprise – the discovery of a planet that could offer a permanent safe haven. Roslin believes the planet to be unsafe. Baltar offers disingenuous assurances to the public, and surges ahead in the polls.

Tragedy follows. Roslin, convinced that a Baltar victory would be disastrous, has her operatives rig the vote. Only at the last moment, under sad counsel from Admiral Adama, does she back away from the scheme. Baltar is elected president and proceeds with settlement on the planet, whereupon the enemy returns and begins an occupation. Roslin becomes the leader of an insurgency, showing American audiences sympathetic figures making unconscionable choices in the course of resisting an occupying power. Baltar remains as a Quisling president, and challenges Roslin on her use of suicide bombers. It is a quintessentially Battlestar exchange, as both human beings are simultaneously right and wrong, operating from necessity and from a position of deep moral ambiguity. Baltar, a collaborationist president with blood on his hands, challenges Roslin, an insurgent leader sending young people to their deaths, to look him in the eye and say that she endorses suicide bombings.

In later seasons, Roslin’s presidency becomes inseparable from her faith, a situation not unprecedented in the politics of our world. She becomes less of a secular figure and more of a charismatic leader. Suffering from cancer, she is driven by a sense of destiny and by religious visions. Roslin’s faith is dealt with sympathetically in the show. Her great interlocutor, Adama, does not believe and is teased as “Admiral Atheist” by the president. As the final season progresses the storytelling becomes increasingly metaphorical and poetic. Adama’s secularism and Roslin’s faith are portrayed as unresolvable projections of human needs and negotiations. Toward the end of the series we see a dying Roslin experiencing what could be a preview of the afterlife or just a side-effect of medication. It is moving and beautiful, and represents the effective end of her presidency.

Whereas Star Trek offered an optimistic vision about human nature evolving in a progressive direction, Battlestar Galactica portrayed a flawed species doomed to repeating cycles of violence and self-destruction. This was a hard-sell to TV audiences. The intricacy of the storytelling made it difficult for casual viewers to begin watching halfway through, and the dark profundity of the themes was not to all tastes. These very features, though, magnified the show’s ability to tackle complex political issues and to offer a comprehensive and nuanced representation of executive leadership in a time of crisis.

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The Political Science of Star Trek


We welcome this guest post from Stephen Benedict Dyson.


Star Trek Into Darkness, the number one movie in America, is rife with political resonance. Political scientists have taken to analyzing popular cultural entertainment, and Star Trek, in its classic and current incarnations, is perhaps the most fertile ground of all for this. It was always deeply political. The original 1960s television series reflected cold war tensions, featuring border strife between the idealistic good guys and other belligerent, mysterious superpowers. This was married to an uplifting vision of a future of gender and racial equality, an absence of avarice, and a military with a primary mission of exploration and peacekeeping. The central governance structure, the Federation, was an interstellar United Nations. Member planets made collaborative decisions, were accorded absolute equality, and pooled their resources in pursuit of collective security and cultural exchange rather than plundering conquest.

Later movie versions continued this idea-driven focus, dealing with weapons of mass destruction, the strange human lust for damaging our habitat, religious fanaticism, and the end of the cold war. Although these new Star Trek movies – this is the second in the series directed by JJ Abrams – have altered the ratio of ideas to action in favor of the latter, there is a lot to think about in Into Darkness. I will not seek primarily to evaluate the merits of the film – with apologies to Leonard McCoy, I am a doctor, not a movie critic – but instead focus on political themes that deserve our attention.  Those yet to see the movie and who wish to do so without knowing plot points will want to postpone reading any further.

The movie opens with a sequence exploring the most politically relevant idea in the Star Trek universe: the Prime Directive. This sacred covenant of the Federation – it is Star Fleet General Order # 1 – prohibits interference in the internal affairs of less advanced civilizations. The Prime Directive engages classic political issues of imperialism, colonialism, and development. It is a deeply idealistic principle – self-determination of peoples regardless of their material capacity – that is often compromised in Star Trek and in our own world. Foreign policy realists have constantly cautioned idealists that universal principles, divorced from concrete situations, are likely to be untenable and may do more harm than good. In Into Darkness, the crew faces a choice between allowing a devastating natural catastrophe that will result in the death of the native inhabitants of a planet, or preventing it by making the pre-industrial population aware of technology that can only appear God-like, thus upending their culture and changing the trajectory of their development. These dilemmas remain profound as we think about, for example, the competing imperatives of a responsibility to protect versus intervention aversion in the Syrian civil war.

A key dynamic in Star Trek is the tense interdependence between the hot-headed Captain, James Kirk, and his coldly rational second-in-command, Mr. Spock. Separately, Kirk is impetuous and Spock rigidly utilitarian. Good decisions come when they weave their analyses together. Political scientists, following advances in psychology, are newly interested in the interdependence of emotion and reason, edging away from Mr. Spock’s hyper-rational vision of politics toward an understanding of the inextricable linkages between the two modes of choice. Publics vote, political parties select issue positions, and executives make decisions on war and peace under the influence of both emotion and logic. The new Trek continues these debates. Spock, in peril, explains that he does not want to die as a foreshortened life is one that fails to realize its maximum utility, while Kirk channels George W. Bush in being unable to articulate a rationale for a momentous decision other than “gut feeling.”

The central plot thread of Into Darkness is suffused with post-9/11 significance. “John Harrison” launches a terrorist campaign upon the Federation, culminating in his flying an aircraft into skyscrapers in the capital city. In the hunt for the terrorist, we learn that he is hiding in a sparsely populated province of a planet where it is politically sensitive for the Federation to conduct military operations. Kirk is ordered to launch a pre-emptive strike on the terrorist camp using unmanned drones. Later, in a speech, Kirk reflects upon the danger, or from another viewpoint the necessity, of becoming evil in order to defeat evil, a debate that has been part of post-9/11 American life.

The terrorism plot is conjoined with a classic cold war era rogue military storyline. A high-ranking commander of the Curtis LeMay school of thought decides that war with a hostile civilization is inevitable and resolves to hasten the onset by getting in the first blow. Kirk here plays a role similar to that of President John F. Kennedy, advised by his military commanders to turn the Cuban Missile Crisis into an opportunity by striking the Soviet Union first.

Star Trek Into Darkness resonates with interesting ideas, although Trek purists may feel that its best moments come from a slightly parasitic relationship with an earlier, more emotionally engaging entry in the series. For a summer action movie, it is unusually rich political fare and continues the proud recent run of issue-driven science fiction.

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Sign the Petition: No Death Star!

Last May, this blog published my essay against building a Death Star. And, not to brag,  but at the time I thought we had saved trillions* of lives. With the help of re-posts by WonkblogGizmodo, and legions of social media warriors, the Monkey Cage squelched any thoughts of building a Death Star and saved the lives of countless planets.

Imagine my shock, then, to hear that a petition to the White House had received the 25,000 signatures it needed to force an official response from the White House. I’ve got a bad feeling about this.

This cannot be ignored. I urge every Monkey Cage reader to sign this White House petition to:

ban the development or deployment of a Death Star, or any other moon-sized space station capable of destroying a planet.

Allow me to recapitulate the case against a Death Star:

1) Compared to more discrete alternatives, the Death Star is an inefficient strategy for subduing the population and elites of the galaxy.

2) The money and materials used to build the Death Star would be put to better use upgrading the conventional weapons of the Imperial army.

In the current budgetary environment, the second point is especially important. As we all know, the 2011 debt limit agreement included mandatory reductions in defense spending—the “sequester”—starting in fiscal year 2013. The Department of Defense budget is slated to decrease by $259.4 billion. And yet the advocates for a new Death Star plan to launch it in the midst of this austerity despite its$85.2 quintillion price tag.

Perhaps you are wondering, is an anti-Death Star petition really necessary? Surely the Obama administration will treat the pro-Death Star petition like it’s some sort of joke, even if it means enduring criticism that it is “soft on Alderaan.” Perhaps. But having destroyed the argument for the Death Star once, I was surprised to find that the pro-Death Star forces had moved to in another venue, displacing the local population and threatening the galaxy. I fear they will continue to keep trying until the federal government  sets a clear no-Death Star policy.

So please, sign the petition. The planet you save may be your own.

*My best guess, pending CBO scoring.

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Death Star? No thank you.

I wish to address the most important policy question of the millenium: should we build a Death Star?  This debate picked up this year after some Lehigh University students estimated that just the steel for a Death Star would cost $852 quadrillion, or 13,000 times the current GDP of the Earth. Kevin Drum suggests this cost estimate is too low but, in the context of a galactic economy, a Death Star is perfectly affordable and “totally worth it.” Seth Masket and Jamelle Bouie highlight the military downside of the Death Star, suggesting that more people might rebel against the wholesale genocide of the Empire, and that the Death Star would be the prime target of any rebellion. I have two thoughts to add. First, the Death Star is a bit misunderstood. It is primarily a tool of domestic politics rather than warfare, and should be compared to alternative means of suppressing the population of a galaxy. Second, as a weapon of war, it should be compared to alternative uses of scarce defense resources. Understood properly, the Death Star is not worth it.

The Death Star and the Dictator’s Dilemma

The classic problem of representative democracy is that citizens must delegate power to leaders, and then ensure that leaders do not use that power to serve their own interests. As James Madison states, “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Dictators suffer a similar problem of delegation, but in reverse. Dictators must delegate the tasks of subduing and taxing the population to internal security forces, and of maintaining external security to subordinate governors and generals.  Any delegated power, however, could be used to displace the dictator. Internal security forces can assassinate the dictator or join in palace coups. Military leaders can use their forces to rebel against the dictator or secede from the dictator’s realm with a slice of territory. So the dictator must carefully design her security apparatus to maintain control of the population without empowering potential rivals. This challenge grows acute the more dispersed the dictator’s realm and the greater the number of external threats. (For more on the strategy of dictatorship, see here. Political scientists, feel free to add citations in the comments section).

I see the Death Star (DS) as the Emperor’s solution to the dictator’s dilemma.  First, note that its construction precedes the Rebel Alliance; the plans are first developed by the Separatists in Episode 2 and, by the time it is completed, the Rebel Alliance has just won its “first victory.” While it may have some use as a deterrent against possible invaders, the DS is primarily a tool of domestic politics. Prior to its completion, the Emperor is compelled to keep the Imperial Senate around, presumably to maintain the semblance of popular consent. But the Senate imposes some inefficiency—meddling in military strategy, perhaps, or directing spending to some favored planets. Once the DS is operational, the Emperor can disband the Senate and, instead, empower Imperial governors to suppress the local population and extract revenue.  Here’s the critical scene:

But how can the Emperor guard against rebellion by one of these governors? Or revolt by a local planet’s population? The answer is simple: he can zip around in the baddest weapon in the galaxy, destroying his foes with the push of a button. No foe could fight back, and the DS is mobile enough to respond to multiple threats in short order.

Note that this scheme provides an easy answer to the question, “how can we afford a Death Star?” If the scheme works, the Death Star will pay for itself dozens of times in the additional tax revenue from fearful planets, and by the money not spent by the military putting down revolts with conventional weapons.

But will it work?  Only if it induces cooperation through fear. Every planet blown up represents a tremendous loss of potential future revenue, so like nuclear weapons today, the actual use of the DS is a calamity. Moreover, like nuclear weapons, they only work as a deterrent if they are used judiciously. citizens throughout the galaxy must believe that failure to pay their taxes and comply with their Imperial masters will lead to detonation, but also that compliance will save them. The fact that the DS was used against Alderaan, however, would likely have had the opposite effect. Alderaan is “peaceful” and “has no weapons.” It was detonated because its teenage senator was secretly aiding the Rebel Alliance and waited too long to give up Dantoonie. To me, that’s a little too Caligula to induce rational compliance. One imagines the conversations on other planets:

Peasant 1: Did you hear the Empire blew up Alderaan?  What kind of government blows up one of the richest planets in the galaxy because of one smack-talking teenager? It could be any of us next.

Peasant Windu: Enough is enough! I have had it with these [redacted] emperors on their [redacted] Death Star!

If the net effect of the DS is to make every person in the galaxy think their planet could be the next one arbitrarily destroyed, it actually mobilizes them to join the rebellion.

If the DS is an uncertain solution to the problem of internal security, what are the alternatives?

1) Democracy? Unacceptable to the seeker of unlimited power. Your faith in your friends is your weakness.

2) A Sith Academy? During the Old Republic the Jedi did a good job of providing internal security at a very low price. Why not repeal the limitation on Siths and create a small, powerful, and cheap guard of Sith lords?

This is also unacceptable. An army of Siths, however small, would be a large pool of potential rivals and assassins, all angling to seize the throne. In the end, just having one other Sith around was the Emperor’s undoing; dozens of Sith would lead to anarchy.

For this reasons, dictators have favored delegation to minions who are ineligible to replace them, such as eunuchs, lower-class citizens, foreign bodyguards, or captives from an underprivileged social group. This leads me to:

3) Upgrading the internal security apparatus.

A) Clones. The Emperor already has a military force of clones. Why not a bureaucracy of clones? They could be designed to be smart, honest, and unambitious, and they would be relatively cheap. This would help with the knotty problems of tax collection and law enforcement.

B) Domination of planetary elites. There are tried-and-true methods for gaining compliance without having to pay for massive armies or float around the galaxy in a planet-killing machine. The emperor could compel the political and economic elites of each planet to send their children (as hostages) to Imperial schools, where they will learn about all the great things the Empire is doing. Second, the Emperor could assign Imperial bodyguards to the elite of every planet to protect those who are loyal, report on those who are not, and eliminate the worst. If the Emperor followed this approach, the Organa family would be sleeping with the fishes and Alderaan would still be paying taxes.

C) Imperial takeover of rebellious planets. Again, destroying a planet is a tremendous loss for the Imperial treasury. It would be far more profitable for the Emperor to seize rebellious planets (once subdued by his new and improved army – see below), imprison the rebels, and bring in settlers and Imperial workers to keep the planet’s economy humming.

Upgrading the internal security apparatus is a far more cost-effective option than a DS for the next Sith dictator.

The Death Star as Super-Weapon? 

When I watch Star Wars films now, I often find the battles simplistic because there is little tactical thinking. How would people actually use and respond to these futuristic weapons? The best exception to this pattern is the Rebels’ attack on the Death Star in Episode IV. Instead of attempting a large-scale frontal assault with their strongest ships (the anticipated response) they sent small ships armed with an asymmetric advantage: blueprints of the DS revealing a womp rat-sized weakness.

That is what the Rebels should have done. When I was a Congressional staffer working on defense policy in the 1990s, one of the most insightful essays I read was Richard K. Betts’ “The Downside of the Cutting Edge” (National Interest, 1996) which makes this point: once one has a force that can beat anyone in a fair fight, no one will want to fight fair. Even if the Empire eventually built a DS without a design flaw, its enemies would find some way to fight it indirectly. For example, when its not destroying planets, the DS also likes to grab passing ships in its tractor beam, drag them inside, and then scan them for bad guys. It would be simple to rig a decoy ship as a massive bomb, piloted by a robot with orders to detonate the ship once it’s inside the DS.

The Emperor should not expect, therefore, that a single super-weapon will vanquish all foes. As Seth Masket notes, the same money could be used to make some much-needed, lower-risk investments in the Imperial military. Some examples:

1) Information Security. Wouldn’t it be nice if some too-dumb-to-talk 30 year old bucket of bolts couldn’t hack into the DS’s computer system in a few seconds? I would think so.

2) Troop Transportation. How does the U.S. military get around in the desert? Humvees and Bradley fighting vehicles. How do elite scouts of the future get around? On overgrown lizards:

It’s just embarrassing.

3) More robots, please. I get it: the “Clone Wars” featured Republic clones vs. the robot armies of the separatists, and the clones won. Still, though, some of those robots would be really useful in tactical situations, perhaps guided by clones on the ground.

4) More probe droids, please. After the Yavin debacle, the Empire sent out probe droids to scan remote systems. Why not keep a few loitering on every planet on a permanent basis? Then it would be lot harder for any rebellion to hide.

5) Practice, Practice, Practice. An entire legion of the Emperor’s best troops was defeated by a village of teddy bears fighting with sticks and stones. It’s just embarrassing. Clearly they needed better training in tactics, marksmanship, and hand-to-paw combat.

Again, it is my belief that a rational dictator could make better use of the resources that would be used to build Death Stars.

So, in conclusion: the Death Star is bad for internal security and a misallocation of military resources. No thank you!

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Culture war: The rules

Could somebody remind me—-I have so much difficulty keeping track . . . poker and Nascar are all-American, but feed caps and PBR are inauthentic, they’re just for hipsters, right? I have a feeling that poker was inauthentic a few years ago, but now that the fad has peaked, poker-playing is normal again. How about MMA? That sure sounds all-American, but given that I’ve actually heard about it, maybe it’s just another example of upper-class slumming. On the upside, I have a feeling that if we wait a few years, gay rights will go downmarket enough that it will be ok to go to a pride march without forfeiting one’s credentials as a middle-American. $45 pasta, though: I think that will remain upper-class.

Background here (via Jay Livingston).

P.S. This discussion is appropriate for our blog because it relates to questions regarding social divisions that arise in discussions of politics.

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Political Scientists in Public Debate: Movie Criticism Edition

Jonathan Kirshner (Cornell) in the Boston Review, on the days when movies were real movies, and critics were real critics.

The New Hollywood was a cinema of moral ambiguity. The notorious Production Code Authority, in ruins by the close of 1966, had insisted on movies about right and wrong, with right winning in the end. By contrast, in the world portrayed by the “’70s film” (and in tune with the tenor of the times) choices are not always easy and obvious (Klute, The King of Marvin Gardens), authorities and institutions are compromised (Medium Cool, The Friends of Eddie Coyle), and, finally, the “hero” rarely wins (Chinatown, Night Moves). Individually ’70s films offer character-driven explorations of troubled, imperfect protagonists and complex interpersonal relationships, with no obvious solutions or clean resolutions proffered (or expected). Collectively they reflect a thriving and identifiable film culture—movies that “don’t supply reassuring smiles or self-righteous messages,” but share “a new openminded interest in examining American experience,” as the critic Pauline Kael put it at the time. “Our filmmakers seem to be on a quest—looking to understand what has been shaping our lives.” These were movies to talk about, and fight about, and accordingly it was also the decade when the critics mattered. An ambitious cohort of film critics, shaped by new sensibilities, expectations, and experiences, led a tumultuous public debate about the movies, their meaning, and their relationship with society. Of these critics, the argumentative, bohemian Kael was the most influential.

Kirshner writes about 1970s film-makers’ willingness to embrace ambiguity – a good reading, perhaps, to assign for ‘Movies and Politics’ classes

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This is confusing

Andrew Sullivan quotes Jon Huntsman, back in September, loving all over Captain Beefheart and specifically referring to Trout Mask Replica.  Wow.  That has to be the most non-mainstream musical identification (cf. party identification) ever given by a U.S. presidential candidate.  And a Republican to boot.

What’s the logic whereby you are willing to say that, but not to be the one guy to raise your hand in response to the question about whether you would accept a budget deal with a 10-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases?

You’ve already given up and figure what the hell?  You don’t think this could ever feasibly be used against you in a future campaign?  Despite seeming sane compared to some of your rivals, you actually do believe that it’s more important not to raise any taxes at all than to actually lower the deficit?  Probably there’s just no logic or strategy going on here, but while I haven’t done a systematic study, my impression had been that presidential candidates are as careful and boring about music choices as they tend to be about sports team advocacy.


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