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The Galactic Senate
The Galactic Senate is a symbol of—and this will definitely shock you—politics. Digging a little deeper, we'd say the Senate represents the best and the worst of republic democracies.
The Phantom Menace doesn't touch upon other political systems such as oligarchies, monarchies, or dictatorship. Even Queen Amidala was elected to be queen, meaning her position isn't a heritable monarch but more like a president.
Oh, and if you're interested to see Star Wars's take on dictatorships, you'll want to watch Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi. Spoiler warning: unless you're the dictator, this form of government ain't all it's cracked up to be.
First, let's consider the look of the Senate. It's an imposing building housing thousands of floating platforms for the representatives of various worlds. In the center is a podium where the Supreme Chancellor and his people conduct the meetings.
Even the dang image of the Senate chambers informs you of how complicated the politics of an entire universe is. The needs and rights of thousands of different systems must be considered when passing a law. This process of democratic checks and balances makes politics slow, complex, and open to corruption as politicians game the system.
But it also lends a voice to every representative.
Queen Amidala learns this firsthand when she brings her plea for assistance to the Galactic Senate:
PALPATINE: Supreme Chancellor, delegates of the senate, a tragedy has occurred which started right here with the taxation of trade routes and has now engulfed our entire planet in the oppression of the Trade Federation.
TRADE FEDERATION SENATOR: This is outrageous! I object to the senator's statements.
VALORUM: The chair does not recognize the senator from the Trade Federation at this time.
PALPATINE: To state our allegations, I present Queen Amidala, recently elected ruler of the Naboo, who speaks on our behalf.
PADMÉ: Honorable representatives of the Republic, I come to you under the gravest of circumstances. The Naboo system has been invaded by the droid armies of the Trade—
FEDERATION SENATOR: I object! There is no proof! This is incredible. We recommend a commission be sent to Naboo to ascertain the truth.
SENATOR: The Congress of Malastare concurs with the honorable delegate from the Trade Federation. A commission must be appointed.
Did you nod off a bit there? Probably—unless you're a total C-SPAN nut—it got a wee bit wordy. This is Star Wars, after all. Isn't there supposed to be… war?
Here's the thing: it's supposed to be a little dull. This scene shows the downside to democratic checks and balances. The commission will take time to ascertain the truth, and in that time, Padmé's people will surely die.
It's a boring/irritating/frustrating situation, but consider this: the other senators don't know the truth as we, the viewers, do. It's even unclear whether or not the Federation Senator knows of Viceroy Gunray's invasion or if he's simply representing his constituents to the best of his abilities.
Rather than take one senator's word over another's, the Senate has to have a procedure in place to objectively determine a course of action… even though that procedure might be too slow for the anxious Padmé. (Or the restless viewer.)
Also consider the alternative. If someone had the power to attack the Trade Federation on a whim, such decisive action could be used regardless of the will of the other representatives. Sure, in this instance, it would be the moral action… but there would be no guarantees that such a person would always use this power morally.
He could just be attacking because he liked watching explosions (like someone, say, watching Star Wars).
And this brings us to the positive qualities of the Galactic Senate. Despite the corruption and slow-as-molasses procedures, no one person has the power to submit the other representatives to his or her will. Every senator has an equal voice in the Senate—as evident by the scene above where a senator can apparently just start yammering without even raising his hand.
Palpatine notes this fact when counseling Padmé:
PALPATINE: If I may say so, Your Majesty, the chancellor has little real power. He is mired by baseless accusations of corruption. The bureaucrats are in charge now.
PADMÉ: What options have we?
PALPATINE: Our best choice would be to push for the election of a stronger supreme chancellor, one who could control the bureaucrats and give us justice. You could call for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum.
In her hurry to help her people, Padmé fails to see that Chancellor Valorum's lack of power is the whole point of the system. Valorum wants to assist her in her struggle with the Trade Federation, but he must do so through a political system designed to prevent one man from bending the other representatives to his desire.
Palpatine's talk of consolidating power for a stronger chancellor woos Padmé because she is young, inexperienced, and worried for people. It's not supposed to woo us, because we know not to trust a guy who put "being a despot" on his bucket list. We also know that democracy, for all its many faults, is better than a dictatorship.
In the end, scared and frustrated at the slow system, Padmé does call for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum, and Palpatine is voted to take his place. As we'll see in the next two films, under Palpatine's rule the Galactic Senate does become much more streamlined in its operations… while also losing its democratic checks and balances along the way, paving the way for the tyrannical Galactic Empire of the original Star Wars trilogy.
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