Sci-Fi Poli Sci, Episode I: Regime Types Across Sci-Fi Universes

Assuming that one is looking for them, it is fairly easy to find internet arguments that stem from comparisons among and between science fiction universes, and a great many of these arguments center on comparing governments within those universes. Which government is more democratic: Star Wars’ Galactic Republic or Star Trek’s United Federation? Who is more repressive: Firefly’s Alliance or Star Wars’ Galactic Empire? How do the military assets of the Stargate universe stack up against those found in all of the other sci-fi universes? Indeed, given that nerd culture is now nearly synonymous with pop culture, these conversations seem to be quite common, particularly if one regularly eats lunch with the bloggers at The Quantitative Peace.  However, while some political scientists and economists have tried to answer questions that have clearly spawned from science fiction, I am unaware of any that have attempted to apply some of the more commonly used quantitative measurements in political science to the governments seen in such universes. Therefore, this post represents a first attempt to apply quantititative measures from political science to the polities envisioned in some of the most beloved science fiction franchises, in an attempt to answer the question: Which sci-fi governments are the most democratic, and which are the most autocratic? In the paragraphs below, I take a close look at a few sci-fi governments and use a couple of the more popular measures of regime type to compare them.

While this is mostly an attempt to have some Friday fun with political science measurement, I do not think it is an entirely frivolous exercise.  If our measurement schemes are valid, then they should apply quite nicely across regimes, even imagined ones.  Furthermore, as someone who regularly teaches classes about quantitative research in political science, I think there may be instructional advantages to using fictional regimes to introduce students to the methodological challenges associated with developing valid quantitative measures of such things as human rights, regime type, military capabilities, etc.  In fact, the use of fictional governments may allow the instructor to escape the various normative hang-ups and national attachments that can often impede undergraduates’ willingness to pursue strict coding guidelines in quantitative data collection.  Thus, to quote Paul Krugman (1978, 2), “while the subject of this [post] is silly,” the content should make sense, and as such, the post should be viewed as a “serious analysis of a ridiculous subject.”

Sci-Fi Regimes

Since I cannot pretend to know the structure of every governmental entity in science fiction, I will focus on five specific governments, chosen because (1) they vary widely in terms of regime type, institutional organization, respect for civil and political rights, etc., (2) they are sufficiently popular to be of interest to a fairly general audience, and (3) I am interested in their universes and know something about them. Based on these criteria, the governments that will be compared are:

1. Star Wars’ Galactic Republic

The Galactic Republic gets a bad rap.  Sure, it was surprisingly easy for one person to use institutional rules and minutiae (combined with a war) to turn the republic into a fascist empire.  However, it apparently existed for more than 25,000 years before those events, so maybe it just seems like a terribly designed government because we only get to see it during its final years.

According to Wookiepedia, the Republic was a unicameral federal republic, led by a Supreme Chancellor who was democratically selected from the membership of the Galactic Senate.  Until Chancellor Palpatine was granted emergency powers in Episode II, it appears that the Chancellor’s powers were limited to mostly serving as “an officiator of parliamentary procedure and the first among equals in the Senate.”  However, while many of the Republic’s leading figures gave democracy lip-service, it remains unclear precisely how democratic the Republic was.  On one hand, the Galactic Constitution gave all sentient beings the right to suffrage. On the other hand, while the queen on Naboo is elected, all other governmental posts are appointed by the Queen, including the Senator. Further, non-voting representatives to the Senate are appointed by a non-elected commission.  Indeed, Padmé essentially says in Episode II that, while the people of Naboo wanted her to be queen for life, she turned it down; there is no mention of this action possibly having negative consequences for Naboo’s membership in the Galactic Republic. Finally, it also seems that “powerful megacorporations and industries” are capable of having their own Senators.  As such, while the Senate itself appears to operate according to democratic rules, it seems that non-democracies may still be eligible for membership in the Republic.

2. Star Wars’ Galactic Empire

The Galactic Empire has become the ultimate fictional stand-in for fascism; indeed, a mere humming of the “Imperial March” can convey all one needs to know in certain situations.  When one looks at the structure of its government, it’s easy to see how the Empire earned its notoriety.  The Empire was ruled by Palpatine, who used the Galactic Senate’s rules to steadily grant himself increasing amounts of power in the face of a rebellion that he was secretly masterminding as his alter ego, Darth Sidious.  He then faked a second rebellion, this time on the part of the Jedi, which he used as pretense for the need to declare himself emperor of a new Galactic Empire.  While the Senate continued to exist following the formation of the Empire, it had very little power and was eventually abolished in 0 BBY. Following the dismantling of the Senate, there was no real method for transferring power after the Emperor’s death. Palpatine was fine with this arrangement, as he made several cloned bodies for himself and, in essence, never intended to die.  Furthermore, as Emperor Palpatine was a Sith, a group that regularly takes power from their masters by killing them, it is probably fair to say that the only way power could have transitioned in the Empire would have been for Darth Vader to kill Palpatine and take it from him (as Vader clearly planned).  As such, following both the Emperor’s and Vader’s deaths, the Empire was in shambles with no one person having a strong claim to the throne. Several Imperial Moffs and commanders set themselves up as warlords in its aftermath, and the Empire was slowly dismantled by the Rebellion, which eventually formed the New Republic.

3. Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets

I should start by first saying that, of all the universes here, I am least familiar (but not entirely unfamiliar) with Star Trek.  I have watched several of the Star Trek movies and a few episodes of its many series, but I have not absorbed all things Star Trek, particularly in comparison to Star Wars, Firefly, and Stargate.  So, if you have corrections to this description, feel free to let me know in the comments.

Like the Galactic Republic, the Federation was a federal republic made up of a union of allied planets.  However, unlike the Galactic Republic, the Federation’s central government was organized as a presidential, rather than a parliamentary, system.  Also, the Federation strongly enforces each sentient being’s right to self-determination, and takes “the form of a post-capitalist liberal democracy.”  As such, it seems clear that the Federation Council, i.e. the Federation’s legislature, is elected.  Indeed, the clearest analogue to the Federation’s institutional structure is that of the current United States, as the Federation appears to have some form of separation of powers, as there is also a judicial branch headed up by a constitutional court, the Federation Supreme Court.

4. Firefly’s (or Serenity’s) Union of Allied Planets

From what we see in Firefly and Serenity, the Alliance looks pretty evil.  They kidnapped, tortured, and experimented on River, sent both the Operative and the Hands of Blue on unchecked murder sprees in pursuit of the Tams, are completely in bed with the Blue Sun Corporation, and accidentally poisoned an entire planet, killing 99.9% of the population and turning the remaining 0.1% into a society of sadistic, xenophobic, insane cannibals that rape and kill anything they can get their hands on.  However, while it is clear that the Alliance has engaged in some irredeemably evil acts, these acts tell us little about the Alliance’s form of government.  Was the Alliance an authoritarian state in the mold of the Galactic Empire?  Or, is it simply a democracy that engages in baneful tactics?

The Alliance’s culture and flag suggest that it was formed by the remnants of the Earth governments of China, the United States, and the European Union, and the Alliance apparently started off as the government of the core planets alone.  However, it eventually announced that it would exert control over the entire system of planets, leading to the Unification War, in which the Alliance fought the Independent Browncoats and eventually took the outer Independent Planets by force.  By the time period seen in Firefly and Serenity, the war has been over for several years, and the Alliance has firm control over all planets in the system.  The most powerful governmental institution in the Alliance appears to be the Parliament, which is apparently elected, as sources state that most people are allowed the rights to vote and run for office.  However, there are people who are not allowed to participate as they are not seen as “full citizens.”  These persons include those who fought for or supported the Browncoats in the Unification War.  As mentioned with reference to Blue Sun above, private corporations seem to exert a great deal of influence in the Alliance. Furthermore, there appear to be at least some feudal aspects to the Alliance, as several persons hold the title of Lord in the Firefly series.  However, these titles seem to be ceremonial and indicative primarily of economic wealth; as such, it seems that the organization of the Alliance is likely to be similar to the United Kingdom’s system of constitutional monarchy combined with parliamentary democracy.  Indeed, according to creator Joss Whedon:

The Alliance is like the predominant US view of the USA in World War II: doing very good things, helping people, spreading democracy. At other times the Alliance can tend towards black ops and power-grabbing, although rarely more so than any real-world democracy (Wikipedia; additional support can be found at TV Tropes).

Of course, we don’t get to see much of the Alliance’s “good side” because, first, our protagonist is a former Browncoat and current criminal and, second, (due to Mal’s desire to stick it to the Alliance) much of the plot is tied up with the Alliance seeking to cover up some of its dirtiest secrets, i.e. River Tam and Miranda.  Thus, it would seem that the Alliance is not a pure authoritarian state, nor is it a perfect democracy.  As such, it should add interesting variation to the assigned scores below.

5. Stargate’s Goa’uld System Lords

The Goa’uld were parasites (as opposed to their symbiotic relatives) who took over human bodies and used technology stolen from other societies to pose as gods, ruling over the majority of the Milky Way Galaxy in the Stargate movie, as well as the first eight seasons of Stargate SG-1.  Their government is best described as a form of feudalism.  At the top of the feudal hierarchy sat the System Lords, each of whom were served by lesser Goa’uld (typically granted fiefs by their System Lord), their own personal Jaffa warriors, and their serf-like human slaves. However, the System Lords, while maintaining communication with one another and abiding by certain rules, were almost constantly at war with each other in pursuit of increasing their own territorial holdings; as such, there was no clear centralized government, but rather a feudal system composed of constantly warring principalities. Finally, since the Goa’uld use technology that makes them nearly immortal, they do not anticipate ever transferring power and seem to make few plans for it.  However, as they do have some family structure, they may intend their children to inherit their kingdoms in the rare event of their death.  For example, Heru’ur and Klorel stand out as children of Goa’uld who may have been intended to adopt their fathers’ territories.

Measuring Regime Type

Based on the information above, as well as from some of the linked sources and the primary source material (i.e. movies and TV shows), each of these regimes will be given scores for their regime type on the basis of measurement schemes provided by two sources: Polity IV and Freedom House.  In the sections that follow, I briefly describe each of these measurement schemes before applying them to the sci-fi regimes listed above.

Polity IV Project: Institutional Regime Type

In the Polity Project’s (Marshall and Jaggers 2010) own words:

The Polity conceptual scheme is unique in that it examines concomitant qualities of democratic and autocratic authority in governing institutions, rather than discreet and mutually exclusive forms of governance. This perspective envisions a spectrum of governing authority that spans from fully institutionalized autocracies through mixed, or incoherent, authority regimes (termed “anocracies”) to fully institutionalized democracies. The “Polity Score” captures this regime authority spectrum on a 21-point scale ranging from -10 (hereditary monarchy) to +10 (consolidated democracy). The Polity scores can also be converted to regime categories: we recommend a three-part categorization of “autocracies” (-10 to -6), “anocracies” (-5 to +5 and the three special values: -66, -77, and -88), and “democracies” (+6 to +10)…The Polity scheme consists of six component measures that record key qualities of executive recruitment, constraints on executive authority, and political competition. It also records changes in the institutionalized qualities of governing authority. The Polity data include information only on the institutions of the central government and on political groups acting, or reacting, within the scope of that authority. It does not include consideration of groups and territories that are actively removed from that authority (i.e., separatists or “fragments”; these are considered separate, though not independent, polities) or segments of the population that are not yet effectively politicized in relation to central state politics.

More detailed information on the Polity measurement scheme can be found in the project’s coding guide, which I used extensively in the formulation of the codes listed below in Table 1.  The columns in the table represent Polity’s measures of executive recruitment regulation (XRREG), executive recruitment competitiveness (XRCOMP), executive recruitment openness (XROPEN), executive constraints (XCONST), regulation of participation (PARREG), and competitiveness of participation (PARCOMP).  The final columns represent the indicators of democracy (DEMOC), autocracy (AUTOC), and overall regime type (POLITY), all of which are determined by combining information from the component indicators that precede them in the table.

First, I have obviously done away with the country-year format that the Polity IV Project and many other political science datasets use; we simply do not have enough information about yearly changes to merit that unit of analysis.  Instead, these are rough approximations of the regime attributes during the entire time periods covered in the primary source materials, i.e. the movies and television shows associated with these universes.  We probably know the least about Firefly’s Alliance in terms of material (only 13 episodes of Firefly and the Serenity movie); however, from the information gleaned from those and other sources, it seems that, due to the exclusion of those in the outer planets from the political process, the Alliance falls along the Anocracy/Democracy borderline.  I also had some difficulty determining the degree to which executive recruitment was regulated in the Galactic Empire and the Goa’uld System.  I have assumed here that the Galactic Empire was essentially established via coup, and that, since the coup leader had no intention of ever stepping down, executive recruitment was unregulated.  On the other hand, given the feudal nature of the Goa’uld System Lords and some congruent suggestions in the Stargate SG-1 series, I have assumed that executive recruitment follows hereditary lines in that particular system, which establishes it as the most consolidated authoritarian system according to Polity.  However, there are probably reasonable arguments against both of those conclusions.  Finally, it would seem that, on the basis of central governments alone, the Polity method of coding regime type leaves both the Galactic Republic and the Federation categorized as fully consolidated democracies.

Freedom House Index: Substantive Democracy

While the Polity scores help us successfully gauge the degree to which these governments’ institutional structures resemble those of a successful democracy de jure, it tells us little about the de facto presence of the rights and freedoms that we connect to the experience of individuals living under a fully-functional democracy.  That is, while Polity allows us to say something about whether strong democratic institutions are in place, it tells us little about the degree to which those institutions result in the presence of substantive democracy.  While institutional and substantive democracy should be (and are often found to be) highly correlated, looking at this second dimension of regime type may allow us to draw some distinctions between governments that are obscured by the Polity score.

I was tempted to use the Empowerment Rights Index from the CIRI Human Rights Data Project to get at substantive democracy, but, since I hope to return to the topic of “sentient rights” in a future post, I have decided to use the Freedom House Index, which relies on averaging separate measures of civil liberties (CL) and political rights (PR) to determine the degree to which a country is “free.”  The checklist upon which these measures are based (and upon which I relied heavily for developing the scores below in Table 2) can be found HERE.

Once again, I have done away with the country-year format that these measures typically use and, instead, have based the scores on the events covered in the primary source materials, i.e. the movies and television shows associated with these universes.  Also, I believe that I had to make more educated guesses here than I did in the Polity section, but I believe most of those guesses are defensible and few of them resulted in creating large gaps between governments of the same regime type.  Unsurprisingly, the results are quite similar to those found using the Polity Scale; however, there is some interesting new variation here, particularly concerning the Galactic Republic and the Federation.  While the Republic and the Federation appeared to be equally democratic using Polity’s criteria, it seems that the Republic does slightly worse than the Federation when it comes to protecting the political rights that one typically associates with democracies.  First, the Republic does not directly elect all of its voting legislative representatives; for instance, the Senator from Naboo is appointed by the Queen.  Second, economic oligarchies, like the Trade Federation, have much more political might in the Galactic Republic than they appear to have in the Federation.  Third, as referenced throughout the prequel trilogy, corruption is a pervasive problem in the Galactic Republic.  As such, while the Federation receives the highest “free” rating of 1, the Galactic Republic lags slightly behind with a 1.5.

Conclusion

While I’ve conducted this exercise primarily for entertainment purposes, I think it also demonstrates that there may be utility in applying some of our measurements to fictional governments.  First, this exercise demonstrates some of the differences between the Polity and Freedom House scales, which are sometimes ignored by placing both under the vague moniker of “democracy” measures.  Second, if one is having a particularly difficult time getting student coders to ignore their own political biases, it may help to have them apply coding rules to fictional governments first, in order to provide a foundation and demonstrate the utility of the measures themselves before asking the student to take the additional step of applying those measures in the real world, about which they may have some strong opinions.

However, this was also clearly done in the fun spirit of providing evidence for the various conversational debates that rage between science fiction aficionados worldwide, a group that absolutely includes the bloggers here at The Quantitative Peace.  With that in mind, I must again point out that I am in no way an expert on all of the universes analyzed here, nor do I regularly code data for Polity or Freedom House, so if you have any disagreements with or questions about what I’ve done here, please feel free to let me know in the comments.  Also, if you feel like coding a universe that I’ve excluded, please feel free to put that information in the comments as well.

K. Chad Clay

About K. Chad Clay

K. Chad Clay is an assistant professor in the Department of International Affairs at the University of Georgia and co-director of the CIRI Human Rights Data Project. His research focuses on the impact of international factors on human rights practices, political violence, and economic development. He received his PhD in political science from Binghamton University in 2012.

8 Replies to “Sci-Fi Poli Sci, Episode I: Regime Types Across Sci-Fi Universes”

  1. I definitely wish Battlestar was here; I certainly considered it. However, my only real contact with that universe was the first (and only) season of Caprica, as I missed out on the beginning of Battlestar. As such, both the miniseries and the series are sitting in my Netflix queue unwatched. If anyone wants to code the Twelve Colonies’ government, feel free to do so, and let me know how it turns out.

  2. Your set of regimes could be also be expanded by including more regimes from the sci fi universes that you cover already. For instance, there’s the Tok’ra and the gov’t of the free Jaffa, and there are several empires and federations within the Star Trek series and movies.

  3. I honestly thought about including a lot of other regimes in the post, but for the sake of simplicity, I figured I would just focus on these five and leave it to others to add regimes as they saw fit. Scoring the Free Jaffa Nation sounds like a fun idea though. I might have to give that one a second look.

  4. Great post! I just wonder how the Galactic Republic / Empire ever managed to wield the power it did given the ridiculously small size of its armed forces relative to its size? The clone army had at the most 1.2 million troops for a period of several years, but given population estimates for the Star Wars galaxy, the Emperor would need 270 Trillion uniformed soldiers to approach Earth’s militarization rate. On that measure, the Star Trek Federation has a much more realistically-sized armed forces. See http://jointstock.wordpress.com/2010/02/16/star-wars-what-army/

  5. Very nice post 🙂 … I wonder whether I’d agree with the Federation’s classification, though, since it all international and diplomatic disputes seem to be settled by army commanders 🙂 …

  6. Jointstock>> Thanks! I really enjoyed your post too.
    Jos>> Thanks for checking it out! There probably is something a bit weird about having the military handle all international disputes. However, I’m not sure that Starfleet members should be seen solely as military personnel. Their primary mission appears to be peaceful exploration, with secondary missions in diplomacy, scientific research, and yes, defense. The President of the Federation is the commander-in-chief of Starfleet, so in that way, the Federation is really no different from the United States, if the United States decided that the Departments of State and Defense would be merged into some sort of “International Relations” Department. That said, there could be something going on here that these two measures just don’t pick up, since they focus exclusively on domestic politics.

  7. Pingback: New Scholarship: Poli Sci Fi | The New West

Leave a Reply