Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Katie Lula
is currently a law student at the University of Kansas. In 2004, she obtained her Bachelor's Degree in English Creative Writing, with Honors. She studied art history in France and Italy for three months, and has extensive dance experience as a performer, a choreographer, a teacher, and a scholar. She recently finished a thesis concerning dance copyright issues, though she has also written many essays on subjects ranging from Virginia Woolf's penmanship to Kansas sunsets. In her spare time, Ms. Lula enjoys dancing, playing the piano, writing, reading something by Jane Austen, and watching Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" on DVD

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The bad individual, having become prince or emperor by bad ways, will never think to use for good the authority that he or she has acquired badly

To Kill a Democracy: If Not Psychologically, At Least Physically

By Katie Lula

Niccolò Machiavelli believed war for a government is inevitable because either others wish to govern our government or others fear our desire to govern theirs. Necessity requires a government go to war, although at the beginning of the STAR WARS prequels, heroine Padmé refused to condone any course of action that would lead to war and argued that if the galaxy went to war, "Many will lose their lives, all will lose their freedom." Later, Anakin Skywalker and she discussed the dangers of war, embodied by the civil war consuming the galaxy:

ANAKIN: …I think this war is destroying the principles of the Republic. PADMÉ: Have you ever considered that we may be on the wrong side?…What if the democracy we thought we were serving no longer exists, and the Republic has become the very evil we have been fighting to destroy?…[T]his war represents a failure to listen . . .

Yet war is inevitable: when government organized with a view to its internal stability eventually goes to war and manages to maintain its independence in war for any length of time, the burden of its resulting empire, which it cannot manage given its original infrastructure, will result in its downfall. Even if such a government could avoid war entirely, such peace would engender faction, resulting ultimately in the same lamentable outcome as war successfully prosecuted for the government ill-prepared for empire. This was the problem in STAR WARS: the Galactic Republic was too big and too stable. Its peace engendered faction, which resulted in civil war. One character observed in disbelief, "It's unthinkable. There hasn't been a full-scale war since the formation of the Republic," though Palpatine himself hinted that civil war was inevitable: "I will not let this Republic which has stood for a thousand years be split in two."

Machiavelli's "faction" naturally stems from corruption: the common people's refusal to put the common good before their individual private benefits. The threat of such corruption to a government, however, lies not with the common people, but with the ambitious few in a government, who-if the government is to survive-should not be permitted to gather common people with promises of private benefits. Machiavelli refused to blame people if they look to someone who promises them relief and rewards, for naturally people will respond to such promises.

The mortal threat to a government occurs when people come together around one individual, raising that individual over his or her rivals and creating dangerous political inequality and thus faction, which, of course, leads to war. While people look to this ambitious individual to easily satisfy their desires with private favors such as helping them with money or defending them from others, the ulterior motive of the individual who offers such favors, of course, is to make partisans, who will make him leader over the government; in other words, partisans give rise to tyranny. In Robert Bolt's A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, the villain Cromwell explained the concept of partisans-and bureaucracy:

"It's much more a matter of convenience, administrative convenience. The normal aim of administration is to keep steady this factor of convenience…Now normally when a man wants to change his woman, you let him if it's convenient and prevent him if it's not - normally indeed it's of so little importance that you leave it to the priests. But the constant factor is this element of convenience… However, in the present instance the man who wants to change his woman is our Sovereign Lord, Harry, by the Grace of God, the Eighth of that name. Which is a quaint way of saying that if he wants to change his woman he will. So that becomes the constant factor. And our job as administrators is to make it as convenient as we can…"

This is the core horror of corruption: all it takes is one person to enact a government's ruin; as Galadriel, Elven Queen of J.R.R. Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS, acknowledged: "Even the smallest person can change the course of the future." In order to remain free of corruption, much less survive, a government must concentrate on its leaders and ensure that political equality is maintained among them. Corruption must be managed: easier said than done, but an answer. As war breeds corruption, and corruption breeds war, they are causes and not excuses for the inevitable tyranny that follows them.

To save a corrupted government, Machiavelli demanded complete renovation, a new law and order. This sounds like revolution, a dangerous creature, as a speech in Bolt's play illustrated:

MORE: "What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?…[W]hen the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you-where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast-man's laws, not God's-and if you cut them down-and you're just the man to do it-d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?"

Regardless, Machiavelli believed salvation must originate from a single "virtuous" individual: a hero, in modern-day lingo. If a government that has fallen into decline through corruption is to rise again, it can only rise through the virtue of one individual, either a reformer of a very long life or two virtuous ones continued in succession. The individual must become leader through ordinary procedure, however corrupt that procedure may be so long as it is legitimate, but then he or she must use extraordinary means, even repugnant means, to correct the government and make the sweeping changes necessary to restore it and purge it of its corruption. When the deed accuses him, the effect excuses him.

In STAR WARS, this was where Palpatine went wrong. He became Chancellor in a completely legitimate way, but his governmental reform enacted afterwards rather had the effect of permeating the Galactic Republic's ills, although the changes were prima facie designed to renovate the Galactic Republic: "In order to ensure our security and continuing stability, the Republic will be reorganized into the first Galactic Empire, for a safe and secure society…An empire that will continue to be ruled by [the Senate], and a sovereign ruler chosen for life…An empire ruled by the majority…ruled by a new constitution." Whatever the galaxy, an empire is never the same thing as a democracy.

However, two closely-related problems for the virtuous individual arise, one come from the corrupted government and another coming from the individual. First, in Bolt's A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, the Common Man observed, "It isn't difficult to keep alive, friends - just don't make trouble - or if you must make trouble, make the sort of trouble that's expected." The virtuous individual might die if he tries to rescue his government form itself, for a corrupted government, though needing desperately to be saved, naturally doesn't want to be saved from itself. Corruption likes corruption, and it will try to destroy anything and anyone contrary to it.

Second, if an individual knows what a government needs to amend its corruption, he or she may not be able to achieve it without sacrificing the very principles that render him or her the virtuous savior. Because the proper reordering of a government for a political way of life presupposes a good individual, and becoming prince or emperor of a government by violence presupposes a bad individual, the good individual will never become prince or emperor by bad ways, even though his end is to do good, for the bad individual, having become prince or emperor by bad ways, will never think to use for good the authority that he or she has acquired badly.

In STAR WARS, perverting that distinction was what made Palpatine so evil: having come to power entirely through legitimate means, he should have been presupposed a good man, but his entire motivation was to put himself into a secure position where he could abuse at will the authority he had acquired so goodly: he wanted to become a tyrant all along.

For the truly virtuous individual to save a corrupted government, he or she must be placed in power by others. A virtuous individual, to save a corrupted government, cannot save it until he or she is called to do so. He or she must feel forced that this path is placed before them, and no other path exists, nor can anyone else rightly walk it. As Galadriel noted of heroes, "If [they] do not find a way, no one will."

However, once a corrupted government has fallen but is replaced by a democracy, is it possible for that democracy to succumb to similar events, forces, and people that fell the original government? Democracy has sometimes been expected by some people to be the golden solution, to succeed in every area where all other forms of government failed. This is an impossible expection of perfection, and for democracy to fall short is, however natural, nevertheless disappointing.

The fundamental cause of democratic decline in contemporary politics is the major imbalance now developing between the role of corporate interests and those of virtually all other groups. Taken alongside the inevitable entropy of democracy, this is leading to politics once again becoming an affair of closed elites, as it was in non-democratic governments. Changes are so powerful and widespread that it is impossible to see any major reversal of them. It leads us to say the fall of democracy is inevitable because it is already falling.

In STAR WARS, Anakin and Padmé shared a conversation exemplifying how easily a democratic government can fall to become a non-democratic government simply due to complacency with the reality of democracy's failures and acceptance of the impossibility of its ideal model:

ANAKIN: I don't think the system works…We need a system where the politicians sit down and discuss the problem, agree what's in the best interest of all the people, and then do it.
PADMÉ: That's exactly what we do. The trouble is that people don't always agree.
ANAKIN: Well, then, they should be made to.
PADMÉ: By whom? Who's going to make them?
ANAKIN: I don't know…Someone wise.
PADMÉ: Sounds an awful lot like a dictatorship to me.
ANAKIN: Well, if it works…

America is undergoing a process of fundamental change, though exactly where it will lead is uncertain. The 2000 presidential election foreshadows the coming of ambitious individuals to America as a stronger embodiment of what has already begun. The growing complexity of issues has made it increasingly difficult for people to have informed positions, make intelligent comment, or even know what "side" they are or should be on. Participation in political organizations declines; voting is apathetic. Like Palpatine, then just a Senator in STAR WARS, observed, "There is no civility, only politics. The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good…The bureaucrats are in charge now."

It may not be too long before America-and democracy-suffers an accumulation of events, forces, and people similar to or at least with the same strength of that which fell Rome. Taking a snapshot of where and what we are now, in 2006, gives us no picture of what lies in store, but if we put that snapshot in an album, in context of history, we might see a pattern and a path. War has already begun: the current war in Iraq may not be enough, but it need not be. There was Bosnia, Somalia, the Gulf War, the Vietnam War, the Korean War. There has been dissent-the feminist movement, Civil Rights protests-and there has been corruption: Watergate, Whitewater, Clinton's impeachment. The corruption has been somewhat managed and controlled, but if efforts to manage it fail, and extraordinarily, irreparable catastrophe and damage result, soon someone might echo Padmé's cold words: "I was not elected to watch my people suffer and die while you discuss this invasion in a committee. If this body is not capable of action, then I suggest new leadership is needed… It is clear to me now that the Republic no longer functions. I pray [that someone] will bring sanity and compassion back to [democracy]." Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, seemed to be along Padmé's line of thinking when he called for a special election to be held in November 2005 to continue dramatic reformation of the state's government and finances, saying, "I did not come to Sacramento, and [the people] did not send me here, to repeat the mistakes of the past."

NOTE: This is an edited version of the article. For the full length version, click here.

Posted January 18, 2006


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