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Obama's former regulatory chief explains what Star Wars has to say about the Constitution

Dey Street Books
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard, is the most-cited American legal scholar by a wide margin, best known for his work on psychology and the law, constitutional interpretation, and cost-benefit analysis. He also headed up the Obama administration's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs from 2009 to 2012.

But his latest book is a foray into a wholly new field: Star Wars studies.

The World According to Star Wars, out now, was inspired by rewatching the series with his young son Dylan (with wife US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power). Sunstein mines the seven films for insights on everything from constitutional law to economics to the psychology of father-son relationships. I spoke with him over the phone about the prequels, what he think the films are trying to say about the nature of democracy and tyranny, and what they have in common with Netflix's Jessica Jones.

Dylan Matthews: Let's start with the most controversial argument in the book — that the prequels are not actually terrible.

Cass Sunstein: The most obvious thing is that Revenge of the Sith is really good. It got caught up in the meme that the prequels suck, but it's a good movie. The volcano scene is visually spectacular, and the scene where the children and other Jedi get killed is searing. The triumph is the way the fall of Anakin mirrors the near fall of Luke. It's a very precise mirroring, and that's narratively impressive.

The opening scenes of Attack of the Clones are visually out-of-sight good, with the sweeping and soaring of the ships. If you take out the cutesy elements of the worst of the three, The Phantom Menace, there's some good stuff there also. The fight scene involving Darth Maul is very good. Some of the scenes involving the Jedi opening up, how they escape, are pretty good.

I think one thing I'm reacting to in praising the prequels is that George Lucas, whatever he is, is no coward, and he took real risks. He didn't repeat himself. He went in areas that were very, very different from the smash success of the original trilogy, and so I think for guts he deserves a salute. Children respond very well to the prequels, and he made them, in a way, for children. To hate the prequels is too cool for school, and with the distance of time it's fair to appreciate their virtues.

DM: Sith is pretty great. When it came out, there was a lot of discussion of Anakin as a stand-in for George W. Bush and interpreting the movie as Lucas's critique of the Iraq War. At one point Anakin literally says, "If you're not with me, you're my enemy." How useful do you think that reading is?

CS: One of Bob Dylan's great songs is "Boots of Spanish Leather," and I think there's reason to think that grew out of a very particular failed romance. It captured the emotional dynamics of any romance that involves two young people in their early 20s, one of whom — that is, Dylan — is an odd person in some ways, yet the song is a beautiful, romantic song. "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" may be even a better example.

So I think with the arc of the prequels, there may well be a connection with the Bush administration, just as with the original trilogy there's undoubtedly a connection with the Nixon administration. But both of them way outrun their particular time. People who respond to the prequels, and they generally are kids, get the idea of a bad leader, a tyrant, and they have no idea who George W. Bush was. They think he was president in the 19th century or something.

DM: Palpatine makes an argument reminiscent of Carl Schmitt, that parliamentary governments like the Republic's are weak and feckless, and there are times when the narrative of the film appears to back that up; the Republic really was vulnerable to being overtaken by a tyrant. What do you think the prequels are trying to say about democracy and institutions?

CS: What many people found boring and maybe tendentious about the prequels — the politics — I found really interesting. What's portrayed is the way in which a number of democratic systems have fallen into authoritarian ones, most notably Nazi Germany but others too.

I don't think it's right to read it as putting a finger on an essential flaw in parliamentary systems. It's maybe a pervasive risk in parliamentary systems that they'll be paralyzed; Montesquieu said the system of separation of powers has a natural state of repose or inaction, which I think he meant as an observation, not an attack on separation of powers, which he liked. But if there's a natural state of repose or inaction, there's a risk that serious problems won't be addressed and that the public will get very impatient.

The idea that small shocks can lead a republic to go down a terrible route, I think that is a fair reading. I think for some republics, including the American republic, small shocks will not be enough. The robustness of our institutions, which has a lot to do with their design and a lot to do with our culture, attests to the absence of real fragility in our system.

But you can certainly move in authoritarian directions because of small shocks even if you don't move to full-scale authoritarianism: the internment of Japanese-Americans, past infringements on free speech where national security has been threatened, etc. The popular fervor for a strongman in Europe and, evidently, in the United States is depicted surprisingly well in the prequels. They're not a political tract, and George Lucas is not a scholar of political movements, but I think he's put his finger on some of the sociopolitical backdrop. There's a squabbling, maybe corrupt legislature, and that creates conditions for something unusual.

Lucas said at one point that when he was writing the original trilogy, Nixon was going for a third term in defiance of the constitutional limit, and you could see some of his thinking as maybe a little more alarmed than reality warranted. But that makes for good drama, and it's also probably a good challenge to pose to people who were complacent about a constitutional order that isn't functioning well enough. It maybe can be exposed in ways people don't anticipate.

DM: This is a very old question, but how much weight do you give to authorial intent in making interpretations like this? George Lucas has said, for instance, that the Ewoks are supposed to be the Viet Cong, making the Empire, at least in Return of the Jedi, an analogue for the United States. Does Lucas's imprimatur give that reading validity other readings might lack?

CS: I think the authorial intent that matters is not at a low level of generality. If George Lucas intended the Rebellion to be the Viet Cong and the Empire to be the US, that doesn't capture the reality of either very well, and it doesn't matter.

Take Jessica Jones, a Netflix series I really like. Suppose the authors intended that the villain in the piece be like Barack Obama or the Democrats, and that Jessica Jones would be like the Libertarian Party, and they were trying to do a parable. I wouldn't agree with that specific conception, but it wouldn't matter. It got at something about manipulation by a loved one, and the obsessive control that someone you love can have over you, and the challenge of freeing yourself from that. They got that, and it's fantastic.

I think what Lucas got was the emotional energy of the freedom seeker, and also the clamping down of the authoritarian, and the complacency of the authoritarian. Whether he meant it about Nixon or about the American Revolution, which is a pretty good fit actually, or the Soviet Union matters very little to our evaluation of the product. It might matter to our evaluation of the author's politics; you might think his politics are not quite ours. But he did something pretty universal.

DM: You repeatedly analogize the process of interpreting a text like Star Wars and the process of interpreting the Constitution. But it seems like there's a pluralism allowed for in the former that isn't possible in the latter. I can think Star Wars is about the American Revolution, someone else can think it's a Freudian tale of paternal estrangement, someone else can see a Christ allegory, and we can all coexist without problems, benefiting from the text in different ways.

But the Supreme Court has to come to one interpretation of the Constitution that's binding at any given time. Clarence Thomas's reading of the due process clause can't be law at the same time as Ruth Bader Ginsburg's.

CS: So there's the creator of a literary text or a film. The creator of a literary text or film might be creating the equivalent of episodes, either in the form of successive chapters of a single work or in the form of a serialized novel or movie episodes.

The creator of the text in that sense is like the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is author of constitutional case law, and the Supreme Court is authoritative in the sense that abortion is constitutionally protected (within limits) now, which could easily have gone the other way. Just as Darth Vader is Luke's father, and that could have gone the other way. The author weighs in, and then that's it, in terms of the narrative we have.

Once you have, say, six Lucas movies and an Abrams movie, then you can interpret them in multiple ways that fit with what we've got. To understand them as Freudian tales is very doable, consistent with what's there, and a Christian narrative is also completely doable given what's there. The interpreters are freed by the author to do those things.

So, too, once the Supreme Court has done its abortion case, the interpreter is free to say, Okay, there's a right to control over your body, so there's a right to polygamist relations, or the adultery law has to go, or there are safeguards against surveillance that fall within the privacy right Roe recognizes. You can say Roe v. Wade implies the minimum wage is in jeopardy, because of a liberty right that opinion established.

All of those things have been said about Roe v. Wade, by sincere people. Those are interpretations that are on the table, just as there are a lot of interpretations on the table after the seven movies. Now once they're on the table, the Supreme Court can exclude those interpretations, just as Episode VIII and IX can exclude certain interpretations. And after that, it's free for the interpreter to say, They went in the wrong way on campaign finance, Roe is wrong, the same-sex marriage case is wrong.

Interpreters have room within constraints to give different readings of legal and cinematic texts, and the authors can make a choice that makes the interpreters sad or mad.

DM: You, like a lot of authors, focus on the relationship between Star Wars and Joseph Campbell's monomyth, in which a hero goes on an adventure, accomplishes a great victory, learns about himself in the process, etc. But of course, plenty of successful texts and films draw on the monomyth: Harry Potter, The Matrix, and failures like the John Carter film as well. What was it about Star Wars that helped it stand out from other films with similar structures?

CS: I do have an operating theory; it's a little tentative. Because so many tales are based on something akin to Campbell's monolith, the ones that break through have to have something original, either visually or in terms of the narrative. if you look at ones that have broken through, Star Wars is visually out of sight, and it gives a sense of familiarity — people know the story, which makes it kind of like a pleasing song that you've heard before — but it also has a series of kicks, both in terms of what you see and in terms of where it goes.

What makes it have that sensational originality is that the standard monomyth doesn’t have a dad threatening to kill his son, and ultimately saving his son through an act of redemption. I don’t know of any story before Star Wars — there must be one — but I don’t know of any that has that. That's really primal stuff, the father trying to lure the son into something Satanic and almost killing him, and then the son saving the dad, choosing not to commit patricide after almost going there, and then the dad saving the son and dying in the process, and saving his soul. That's fantastic.

The narrative arc of the original trilogy is not only tweaking the monomyth but giving it a whole new cast. The first Matrix movie, which I think was also fabulous, had this science fiction tale of what's reality, and made it very intriguing. It had both a narrative twist that was fresh and spectacular visuals. Harry Potter had such a deft author, with near Dickens-level prose and plotting that that hadn't been seen before.

Jessica Jones, my current favorite, has a kind of darkness and ugly quality that is in a way the opposite of the exuberant Star Wars. But it has mischief and wit peeking out from the clouds at all these moments. That's really new.

Batman Begins is another, a little like Jessica Jones, not nearly as dark, but nothing anyone had seen before in a comic book movie. Christopher Nolan managed to be like where people have both the sense, of, "I kind of know that," and, "Oh, my God, what’s he doing?" Those are the ones that catch on.

It's a little like music when it has a refrain or resolution that makes you feel at home, but also makes you think, "That's different." Adele doesn't have that, Taylor Swift at her best does, the Beatles had that. The great musicians are like the great creators of narrative. If you hear those four notes and they’re coming at a time where it’s a resolution rather than a buildup, it's not quite what you expect, but it fits.

DM: The Jedi trouble me a bit, from the standpoint of democratic legitimacy. You have this weird unelected body of elites exerting influence on government policy, without any accountability to the citizenry at large. You can't even work your way up into the Jedi Council if you're not born Force-sensitive and selected for Jedi training at an early age. Should small-d democrats abhor the Jedi’s undue influence?

CS: If you think of them as a parallel legislature with something like lawmaking capacity, or at least as quasi-public, quasi-private nudgers with respect to the arc of the political universe, that from the standpoint of democracy isn't ideal, because they aren't elected and they're not accountable to anyone. A good way to put it is if they're in touch with the light side of the Force, it may not be completely democratic or democratic at all, but not so terrible, because they're benign.

Another way to put it is to think of them as like a secret service, whose basic goal is protection of the republic. They're a little like an amplified version of what the Secret Service is, amplified in both their powers and the scope of their authority. If you see them as like the secret service for the Republic, then they're not policy formulators, they're guards, and that's not so troublesome from the democratic standpoint.

Now, if the guards find there's some usurpation of the self-governing society from the dark side or an emperor, we might not object so much if the guards are worried about that; that might be okay. If there had been Jedi in Germany who had seen Hitler coming, even if Hitler had some kind of imprimatur, and worked against him, in service of the Weimar Republic’s ideal, that'd be okay.