15 December 2009

The Naboo Question

In Star Wars I to Star Wars III (the 4th to 6th Star Wars films released), Senator Palpatine forces a no confidence vote, manages to get himself elected Chancellor of the Republic's Senate, and then ultimately seizes imperial control of the empire, on the pre-text that the existing regime in the Republic's Senate is incapable of providing timely and decisive action to defend the Republic's member planet Naboo from the Trade Federation, a rival country.

He uses Queen Amidala, the recognized head of state of Naboo, as a dupe to achieve this end. She is a dupe because he is, in fact, the orchestrator of the Trade Federation's invasion of Naboo. If she knew of the plot, should surely would have taken decisive action against Palpatine. But, nothing indicates that she would have acted differently if she had merely known that her patron planned to use Naboo's plight to end the Republic and turn it into an empire. She may have even suspected as much. Queen Amidala's duty was to her people, who faced military occupation and slaughter at the hands of foreign country, not to the democratic ideals of the nation as a whole.

The byzantine procedural mess of the Senate's decision making process, Palpatine argues, leaves it incapable of doing what it needs to do to meet its basic obligations as a sovereign decision making power.

The parallels to Hitler's rise to power by indicting the effectiveness of the Weimar Republic's parliament are obvious, as are the parallels with storm troopers, mysticism at senior levels of government, and the genocide of a peaceful planet that opposes him in Episodes IV to VI (the first three movies released). But, the Naboo problem is more than just an analog to the Third Reich. The U.S. Supreme Court summed up the notion in its aphorism that the constitution is not a suicide pact.

It certainly isn't hard to imagine situations where are particular democractic regime makes it too hard to secure action and change the status quo to meet the needs of the nation, particularly when it reaches the point, as it has these days, when a supermajority in the U.S. Senate, which already undemocratically favors small states, is necessary to accomplish a departure from the status quo.

History has shown that deciding to go to war is actually not one of the things that ties the U.S. Senate in knots. When a President seeks military action, and presents a causi bellum, Congressional cooperation has consistently followed in short order. But, in the area of domestic policy, the U.S. Senate is consistently a force that delays and dilutes change, in effect requiring near consensus.

It isn't obvious that this near consensus requirement is a positive one for the governance of our country. There is something to be said for not sweeping away those reluctant to change, but at some point one has to ask why defending the status quo (which amounts simply to tradition) should overrule democracy. It limits our ability as a nation to react to the needs of the present, weakens Congress vis-a-vis courts and the executive that can manipulate the status quo, and gives dubious political arguments with weak public support more credit than they deserve which in turn encourages extremism. It is one thing to require that change be deliberative, and quite another to give minority factions the power to stop majorities on purely political questions with no constitutional dimensions to them.

Consensus requirements sunk the first effort of the independent United States to establish a workable constitution, and the Europeans are in the process of reducing the need for consensus in their supranational European Union arrangement.


Unknown said...

Your argument would be more persuasive had you made it when the Democrats were using the same rules to slow down (obstruct) the desires of the majority Republicans in the Bush years.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

FWIW, the post was written a couple of years ago, before Obama was elected, and accidentally ended up in the draft category because I pushed the wrong button. I cleaned it up a little (as you known, my copy editing sucks), and posted it, because my creative juices were running a little dry.

Unknown said...

While my personal politics tend to lean the other direction from yours (as you might surmise), I really appreciate and enjoy your perspective on many items, even when we don't see eye to eye.

Thanks for setting me straight. The persuasiveness of your argument is hereby upgraded.

Mishalak said...

Given that it is only one half of the legislature that is the problem I suggest that there is a solution that might be constitutional. Though the constitution says that a state cannot be deprived of its equal representation in the Senate without its consent it does not say that the some of the Senate's powers cannot be reduced.

Perhaps an amendment to allow the House of Representatives to pass legislation without the Senate in some circumstances. For example if the Senate fails to give an up or down vote on a piece of legislation within a period of time it can then become law with the president's signature provided it was passed by at least 8/15ths of the House (232 seats currently or 53.33%).

It would take a long time to get such an amendment through the system and would, undoubtedly have to go through the state convention process given that the Senate would not take kindly to it, but even the threat of such an Amendment might make the Senate reexamine its procedures.