Was the success of the Star Wars franchise inevitable? What does Star Wars have to teach us about politics, revolution, and constitutional interpretation?
Cass R. Sunstein explores the critical and financial success of the Star Wars movies.
Show Notes and Further Reading
Cass R. Sunstein, The World According to Star Wars (2016)
This is a previous Free Thoughts podcast with Ilya Somin on the politics of Star Wars.
Cato scholar Michael F. Cannon has written a column for Libertarianism.org on Star Wars and the nature of evil.
Trevor mentions a previous episode of Free Thoughts on originalism featuring Randy E. Barnett.
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: Joining us today is Cass Sunstein. He’s the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard where he’s Founder and Director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy. He has served as administrator at the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and he’s a member of the President’s Review Group on Intelligence Communications Technologies. He’s the author of many books. His newest is The World According to Star Wars. Welcome to Free Thoughts.
Cass Sunstein: A pleasure to be here.
Aaron Ross Powell: In light of your academic and scholarly career and the books you’ve written, this one stands out a bit. So I guess why Star Wars?
Cass Sunstein: Well, it’s not as if I thought that writing a book on Star Wars was a logical progression of my work on constitutional law and regulation. It wasn’t like culminating in this. I have a now seven-year-old son who got obsessed at the age of five with Star Wars. A healthy obsession I should say that lasted only a few months. But during that period, I got keenly interested in two questions.
First, how did George Lucas come up with this? And second, why did this become such a defining saga for our culture? The first question actually got to me more than the second initially about how creativity works and I found what isn’t a mystery if you dig a little bit, that a lot of the hot points of Star Wars were a seat-of-the-pants improvisations by a guy who was constructing a series of narratives and it occurred to me that’s a lot like a lot of things including political life.
For better or for worse, constitutional law has that feature. Our own lives have that feature. Freedom itself pulls in that direction of episode creation and that got to me. I thought that’s an interesting tale to tell and then the question, “How did this thing end up taking over our culture?”
Trevor Burrus: Like your own personal experience with Star Wars, did you – do you remember seeing the first movie or when did it really hit you that this was the coolest thing ever?
Cass Sunstein: I remember it as if it was five minutes ago. I confess I was mostly a Star Trek fan until relatively recently. But I like Star Wars plenty and seeing that original ship and what’s now called A New Hope and it’s getting bigger and bigger on the screen and continuing and continuing. I must have seen it within a couple of months of initial release. It was like a joke to see that ship just keep going and all of the mysteries of who was Obi-Wan really. Who was the father? What is the force? How did these visuals come in to one’s face?
So that’s a keen memory and for everyone who saw the initial release of A New Hope, I think it’s seared on the brain.
Aaron Ross Powell: One of the interesting parts of the book – there are many interesting parts of the book. But we will step through them in the order they’re presented I suppose. From the perspective of the kinds of things that Trevor and I have talked about a lot on this podcast in the past is the way that markets work and the way the markets find things to be successful or reward merit or how things take off because there’s – there’s this kind of crude story that markets simply – if it’s good, it will sell. If it doesn’t sell, then that’s an indicator that it was bad or it was a shoddy product.
But you have an extended discussion of how it’s more complicated than that by way of trying to explain whether Star Wars was inevitable.
Trevor Burrus: Well, there’s also even another side of a crude market analysis, sort of Galbraithian, that advertisements and commercials can make you want things that you don’t actually want. So somewhere in between those, we analyze why Star Wars is popular to begin with.
Cass Sunstein: Right. These are great question. So Star Wars’ success is a challenge for Galbraith in the sense that it seemed to be a spontaneous bubbling up of enthusiasm. The studio didn’t advertise it much. They just had two ads at holiday seasons and the studio didn’t expect it to do very well. So it didn’t create Star Wars taste. I think if you had asked them before the movie was released, you know, create a Star Wars’ taste so that your movie will be a success, they would have thought that’s crazy and it’s doomed.
So in a way, the success of the tale is a tribute to the bottom-up processes that often markets reflect. On the intrinsic merit point versus the kind of social network point, it’s very hard to tell because history is only run once. So let’s give both examples that – intrinsic merit argument is that at least some goods take off in markets because they’re just too phenomenal. You can take your favorite picks. It might be Apple computers or the iPhone or it might be some General Electric products at certain points in time, which just took over. They just work so well.
You could say Star Wars is the equivalent of that and while it was not anticipated, Steven Spielberg who’s pretty smart, said after he saw the first one, “George, this is the best movie ever made,” and that the audiences – we’ve talked about that a little bit. They went berserk. The studio couldn’t foresee that just like governments often can’t foresee stuff. So a point for Hayek.
The things are great and that it’s hard to know until people get going. That might be – I think the book does say in the end that is the right account. Star Wars was too amazing not to do really well. Easy to say that in hindsight though. So the alternative view, which I think often is correct – whether it’s correct in the context of Star Wars, I’m just not sure – is that once you pass a certain threshold of awesomeness, you can either tank or be a spectacular success depending on the social dynamics that markets reflect.
So Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy is a famous book. It did spectacularly well. If his dad hadn’t bought 40,000 copies and put them in Hyannis in some sort of place, who knows whether it would have done well. It became a best seller and then was kind of a famous book and kept going.
Now the idea for Star Wars would be that as for many products that markets reward, it got the benefit of early enthusiasm that created a kind of echo chamber. As the echo chamber got louder, more people heard it. Once they heard it, they started joining it.
Now if it had been terrible, it would have tanked. But it needed the echo chamber and the kind of cascade effect that echo chambers often create. Without that, maybe we would be talking about some other movie or the TV show Awake, which was from 2011 I think. Fantastic. It never created an echo chamber or if it did, I was the only one in it. Since I didn’t come out as a fan of Awake until this very moment, it’s kind of buried in the book.
It was as if no one liked that phenomenal TV show. So I think market – sometimes amazingness is sufficient. But often amazingness is necessary but not sufficient and you need the network.
Trevor Burrus: Maybe the best demonstration that it – anything Star Wars wouldn’t have produced a cascade effect is the Star Wars holiday special, which did not become very big or very popular despite writing the cascade of Star Wars – because it is just horrible, absolutely horrendous.
Aaron Ross Powell: How widespread was the Star Wars phenomenon when it hit? Because there’s – it seems like we sometimes, especially now, can misread how culturally pervasive things are. Something – there was a recent article in current affairs on the musical Hamilton that basically pointed out that if you’re someone who reads the New York Times and The New Yorker and other bastions of cultural good taste, you get the sense that Hamilton is the biggest thing in the world right now.
But almost nobody has seen it and as they point out, basically everyone who has seen it are the people who are writing about it and then similarly, we get these stories every now and then about how you think like these other TV shows, Breaking Bad. It’s the biggest thing in the world. But its ratings are actually very small. It’s just a certain class of people talking about it whereas I think like the biggest TV show is at NCIS because it’s watched by like retired people in flyover country basically. So Star Wars – did it look like that? Could it have been bigger? Was it focused in areas?
Cass Sunstein: OK. So it’s a great question that Star Wars we could think early – in early days, that is the days of A New Hope, was spectacularly successful in the sense that there were all these crowds around the block. But that it was very narrow compared to something that was – you know, genuinely everybody heard of or 85 percent of people knew about it.
I think Star Wars was not relatively narrow though it took a few months to get there. So it was originally released on just dozens of screens. It couldn’t get in the movie theaters. Amazing, right? That these people whose economic self-interest was at stake made such a mistake in not seeing this would take off. I have some explanation for why that might be so. But let’s bracket that.
After the big crowd started coming around and – you know, they were around the block. You don’t see that anymore. It started getting on the evening news. So Walter Cronkite who was watched by not a small segment of people but by lots and lots of Americans – I don’t have the number, but much higher than evening news now.
Trevor Burrus: Or Bill O’Reilly.
Cass Sunstein: Or Bill O’Reilly. He was even more popular than Bill O’Reilly, hardest it is match it. He had a segment on Star Wars and the general interest news magazines like Time and Newsweek, they covered Star Wars and they had much more salience then. So the kind of number that gives you a clue is that Star Wars became the second most – in inflation-adjusted terms, the second most successful movie of all time after Gone with the Wind and that happened in relatively short order.
Trevor Burrus: Gone with the Wind was probably in theaters for a year or two back in the day, right back when there was no VHS or TV. It was probably in theaters forever.
Cass Sunstein: Completely. So if you just – not only for inflation but for entertainment options, Star Wars undoubtedly the all-time winner. So we have to break it down demographically. There must be some demographic groups that would have – had no idea what Star Wars was. But compared to almost anything in the last – what? Seventy-five years. Star Wars had pervasiveness, not like Mad Men which the – the example like Breaking Bad. The elites loved it. They thought everyone was talking about Mad Men and the percentage of people who are talking about Mad Men is very small.
Trevor Burrus: So the 20th Century Fox executives who didn’t realize what this was going to be. So we have a theory of why this might be the case. Now, it seems to me that we could also talk about the way businesses try to find opportunities as we mentioned in the beginning. But 20th Century Fox is a big studio and this was a really weird movie. So maybe they were just risk-averse because large businesses tend to be risk-averse to something that’s pretty different from – I don’t know what the biggest movie in 1976 was. But it probably wasn’t anything like Star Wars.
Cass Sunstein: It probably had Burt Reynolds in it.
Trevor Burrus: Yes. Smokey and the Bandit I think came out at the same time. Burt Reynolds, yeah. So they were risk – I mean this was pretty weird. The only closest analog would have been like a Flash Gordon kind of cheesy B movie thing. So is there – so we can learn about the risk-averseness of large companies with a lot on the line.
Cass Sunstein: That’s great and I think that’s correct. So big companies often think what’s successful is what’s like things they have had success with and what’s doomed is like things that have failed in the past or that they’ve never had success with. As you talk, it actually occurred to me, which it didn’t occur to me writing the book, that there’s a behavioral science explanation which is the availability heuristic, where you think something is more probably if it – an example comes to mind. So if you have an example of a Burt Reynolds movie and there were plenty at the time, you think this is like that, this is – well, there’s just no example of a movie like Star Wars.
Flash Gordon was a limited serial. So it’s not irrational to use the availability heuristic if you have limited information and to see a movie that’s like nothing anyone had seen before and think this is going to do spectacularly well. That would take a lot of boldness and independence of standard market outcomes.
I was also told something though after the book was published that I found very informative, which is someone in an audience that I spoke to about exactly this topic went to USC Film School and said that he had seen the rough cut of Star Wars that the studio thought was bad. He said they were dumb. It was bad. I said, “What made it bad?” and he said there were three things.
First, some of the key voices were done by actors for whom Lucas found substitutes, most notably Darth Vader. If you hear some guy with a – you know, some sort of weak voice talking Darth Vader –
Trevor Burrus: Like a Cockney David – a British guy.
Cass Sunstein: And it just doesn’t cut it as Darth Vader. Instead of menacing, he seems …
Trevor Burrus: Like a Guy Ritchie film or something.
Cass Sunstein: Yeah, your favorite uncle or something and that nice guy is trying to be tough. So that was the first thing. The second thing is they didn’t have the sound effects. If you don’t have the sound effects, the movie is much weaker and the third thing he said, it didn’t have John Williams and that music is critical. Now as he talked, I thought still the music is great. But you don’t need the music and the sound effects.
His view was you need the music and the sound effects. So that probably added to the sense of doom. Now if they had seen the original thing, would they have thought awesome? I think for your reason not and with that – you know, skilled and amazing. But moviegoers aren’t going to like it.
Aaron Ross Powell: The music was the thing that I noticed was conspicuously absent in your discussion of a success because I’ve always wondered how much of Star Wars’ success was John Williams. I mean you’ve got here arguably the greatest score, movie score of all time.
Trevor Burrus: And George Lucas said it was the only part in the movie that he was completely satisfied with.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah. If we had had kind of a bad 70s electronic soundtrack or something …
Trevor Burrus: One of those Italian like Sith bands. Yeah, like Zombie. Yeah.
Cass Sunstein: It’s a great point. So if I were doing the book all over again, I would put more emphasis on John Williams. The character and the creativity of George Lucas is I think completely fascinating and his combination of attraction to Flash Gordon and really shallow stuff and his deep reading and I think deep soul. That’s irresistible. So that tale kind of took over my own narrative. But John Williams, you’re right. Without him, who knows?
Aaron Ross Powell: What about reading the popularity of Star Wars in the other direction and what it says about how things succeed in markets? Because we’ve been talking about – so it has got – you need a certain degree of merit because if it’s terrible, then network effects probably aren’t going to make it successful anyway. But once you get over that, then there’s all this – what often amounts to luck for it to become successful. But is it also possible that the quality of – that we’re over-judging the quality of these films because it’s so successful? So once a whole bunch of people started liking it, then you had to like it or there was something wrong with you, which is how I currently – people who say they don’t like Star Wars, I think there’s something wrong with them. So there’s like cultural pressures to like it and then over-assess its quality.
Cass Sunstein: I think you’re completely right. So I think the clearest example is the Mona Lisa, which is the most famous painting in the world. It became famous because it was stolen and became a celeb in its time. It was thought to be one of Da Vinci’s good paintings, but not the best.
People see it, like ordinary people as well as people who know something about art unlike yours truly, and they see it and they think, “Oh my god, the mystery of her smile, the subtlety of her expression.” It’s – probably it’s a very good painting, but it’s not that – oh, that special.
Trevor Burrus: I’ve never met anyone who went to Louvre who wasn’t disappointed by it.
Cass Sunstein: It’s also small.
Trevor Burrus: It was very small. It was always crowded. Yeah.
Cass Sunstein: And it’s the most famous painting. So Star Wars – you know, I have – after working on it for so long, I have a sense that anything a human being could give as a rating to Star Wars is too low, that it’s kind of infinitely good. But that might be immersion, which is an even stronger version of what you’re describing. So the idea that it is not just tremendous and magnetic. But the first three are the greatest movies ever. I will stand by that view. But acknowledge that there – you have to drink a lot of Kool-Aid to think something like that.
Trevor Burrus: So this is a – I mean Aaron and me sometimes would just want to run a Star Wars podcast I think, which I would be OK with. But this is ostensibly a political show to some extent. So – but there are political elements of Star Wars and you talked about it a little bit in the book. You actually – you even quote – because I wrote a piece a while back when the new movie came out about maybe what was wrong with the galactic governing structure. You quote the opening crawl from Attack of the Clones, which you think is better than Phantom Menace …
Cass Sunstein: Yeah, I think so, the movie. Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. Aaron is shaking his head. He thinks – but the opening crawl of Attack of the Clones gives you this interesting little thing. It says, “There is unrest in the galactic senate. Several thousand solar systems have declared their intentions to leave the republic,” which is interesting because apparently there are several thousand solar systems represented in the galactic republic, which seems a little unwieldy. If we go back to American history, we talked about the discussions of whether or not we could govern a republic with 13 disparate colonies. Several thousand sources have seen – this is – maybe this is why the empire came along. Your thoughts …
Cass Sunstein: That’s a great point. So, in the American founding, there was a debate between the heirs of Montesquieu who thought that a centralized republic was doomed especially if you had diversity. You just couldn’t govern and the anti-federalists actually spoke accurately for Montesquieu in saying this is a big mistake and Madison and Hamilton all thought that size could be a virtue because you could have more checks and also more virtue, literal virtue. The representatives would be better in character.
So size would counteract faction. Madison and Hamilton won that debate in their time. But I don’t think they would think that thousands and thousands of solar systems, you’re going to have a large public and it’s going to turn out OK. So for something like that to work, it’s kind of an impossible thought experiment. But there would have to be an accompanying technology that allowed people to deliberate in a representative way without missing a ton of information and there’s a lot of technology in Star Wars.
Trevor Burrus: Well, that’s why I thought it was an interesting question because your work on politics deals with technology and good governance and things like this. Could Cass figure out how to make this work? I mean I put you in charge of the – it would be fine.
Cass Sunstein: Cost-benefit analysis.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, we can make this work. I see an analogy too because it also – in Attack of the Clones, they talk about how the republic has grounded to a halt and it’s no longer getting work done and the emperor comes in to say, “I’m going to get things done,” which maybe also have some parallels to now.
Cass Sunstein: This is great. So Montesquieu said the system of separation of powers had a natural state of repose or inaction, which is paralysis in its extreme case. On one view, that’s fine that you – you know, burden a governor with so many obstacles that you free up liberty. That’s one view. But another view which I think accounts for the emperor’s success is if you have a paralyzed government, then it can’t do stuff that’s indispensable. Now let’s suppose the view is that there are police and national defense functions that are necessary and the government can’t agree on that because it’s paralyzed. Then even if you think the central and the – in the old republic has a quite libertarian set of responsibilities. Maybe it can’t do them because they’re all – they can’t produce a budget. We’re not sure exactly what they’re fighting over. But if they can’t do police and fire protection, then problems.
Aaron Ross Powell: This is made interesting in light of what we know in The Force Awakens too because we’ve had Palpatine rise to power and then we’ve had him overthrown and Return of the Jedi ends with this triumphant – like the galaxy is going to be great now and then not so much 30 years later. It’s the same problems again. You’ve got a republic government that can’t get anything done and this is explored a bit more in a few of the novels that have come out which are as cannon as the movies are now.
But – and you’ve got this external threat that’s – that like the government can’t figure out how to deal with and so Leia has no choice but to just head off on her own and create freedom fighters again that it seems like they just can’t learn from their mistakes and that maybe this is – one of the interesting things in one of the books is – in Bloodline is they talk about their thousands of planets and they’re fighting with each other and the split seems to be between basically freed traders and protectionists and they can’t figure it out and everyone has got an opinion. But then whenever they debate, there’s like six people debating because they can’t figure out how to get thousands debating at once.
So it seems like – it ultimately seems ambiguous. Like it’s because bureaucracy, the freedom that then creates – like everyone should have a voice. Democracy doesn’t seem to work. But they’re clearly – I mean some people think it’s pro-Palpatine but it’s probably not either. Is there – so out of this, is there kind of a system that seems to be like what Star Wars/George Lucas wants or is – it’s just kind of a throwing up your arms and saying stuff is ungovernable?
Cass Sunstein: That’s a great question. So I think Lucas and now Abrams and his colleagues, they’re extremely alert to the risks of an authoritarian system. So they’re clear in their heads about that. But more interestingly, they’re clear in their heads about the risk of a self-governing system where the risks are they can’t reach decisions. They bicker all the time and maybe they just don’t know what they’re doing.
So the latter seems to me more surprisingly interesting than the first two though all of them are relevant today. So the idea that you have people fighting over free trade who really don’t have a handle on how to think about that. That’s interesting and one thing that doesn’t have kind of a halo around it in the Star Wars world is the technocratic conception of government. In fact, it doesn’t even appear and I think Lucas’ rebel heart would be very suspicious of that.
But it is a view and you could think of like first order technocrats who would be trying to figure out free trade just by crunching a lot of numbers. They would be like the Council of Economic Advisers and they might bicker. But they would be bickering on the numbers and that’s a much narrow kind of bickering than what you’re describing or you could have second order technocrats who could say that there are areas which will fence off from the republic’s hands because they will screw it up and will have decentralization to either local authorities or the markets.
It’s interesting neither first order nor second order technocratic stuff appears in the Star Wars movies or so far as I can recall in the books. It wouldn’t make a great movie. It would be very challenging for tremendous directors to give that human resonance.
Trevor Burrus: Well, there is the Trade Federation in the beginning of Phantom Menace which is – they seem to be somewhat – the quasi-governmental entity but the whole thing begins with the trade dispute. Now I’m just thinking of Darth Trump and like him sending in his trade – this is how he’s going to get a better deal, by sending his trade negotiators to China. They blockade China like some – kill the Jedi on the way. A lot of things could begin as trade disputes, which is kind of …
Cass Sunstein: Completely. Aren’t the prequels and the terms we’re discussing – they are emerging as much more interesting than …
Trevor Burrus: They have more politics in them.
Cass Sunstein: Yeah. And the politics – you’re putting your finger on the fact that the fact – it starts with the trade dispute. That’s pretty clever. I mean it’s not a movie that people greatly admire. But that resonates and it resonates in 2016 much more clearly than it did in the 90s when it was released. Something very agile about that and with some of the things that Albert Hirschman talked about, about how powerful authoritarian governments extend their reach. It has a lot to do with trade.
Aaron Ross Powell: One of the things that struck me as I was writing up questions for our conversation now is this – looking at the current election in light of Star Wars and it’s – I mean it’s always a stretch when you’re doing things like that.
But one of the things that seems is that Palpatine was way too subtle. I mean if anything, like the Trump candidacy is like just come out and tell people you’re a Sith and …
Trevor Burrus: And you’re going to make everything better.
Aaron Ross Powell: Go for it. Like why hide it? That seems a more effective strategy.
Cass Sunstein: Great. Well, it’s risky to draw general lessons from an end of one. But I take your point. So what is Trump saying? He’s saying a lot of things. So one thing he’s saying is that in part because of trade deals, American workers and companies have been harmed greatly.
Now that’s not subtle. It’s not something that Palpatine himself said. It’s not something that is self-evidently evil or even wrong. You won’t be surprised to hear I’m not – I don’t expect to vote for Mr. Trump. But he’s connecting with something that both fits with people’s experience, they think, and also there’s some data suggesting that idea that for some American workers, the non-trivial number, the trade deals have been – have had an adverse effect on their jobs.
So there’s something there. Now the Palpatine thing has many different bits. You’re right. It’s very duplicitous and subtle and his ultimate appeal and this fits with some things in Nazi Germany is he’s going to exercise authority and that he accepted with apparent reluctance in the movies; though of course he relished it. That was what he’s after.
This isn’t the Trump phenomenon at all. But what is the Trump phenomenon? It’s the idea that you will have someone who can actually do stuff and also someone who is going to create barriers, whether they’re physical walls or they’re trade things that will prevent the hollowing out so to speak of the nation. That’s a more particular thing than we observe in Star Wars.
I’m thinking whether the rise of powerful leaders, either of – you know, OK sort or an objectionable sort, frequently has that feature. I’m not seeing it. So that suggests that the Trump thing really is in its substance, a response to a very particular historical thing.
I will say something else about Trump connected with our earlier discussion. You could think of Trump as kind of an inevitable product of our culture now or you could think of Trump as like a song. It ends up taking off and it’s because of a lot of factors which if a butterfly had flapped its wings in a different point, the song wouldn’t have taken off.
Keep in mind that Trump of course he’s resonating. But he may be a little like let’s say a less good movie than Star Wars, meaning something that has some merit in terms of likely popularity, but which needed a lot of stuff to become the most successful movie of the year. You know, competing with a whole lot of people. He was the only one who had instant name recognition.
Because he was famous, he got a lot of publicity. In the early stages, at least of a primary, any publicity is good publicity. The people dropped out basically in just the order that was useful for them to drop out and then the idea would be that he’s not connecting fantastically with some big strain in American culture. He’s like the biggest hit of 2013. I don’t know what that was but …
Trevor Burrus: It may not be a timeless classic. Let’s put it that way.
Cass Sunstein: Exactly.
Trevor Burrus: It could be Sugar, Sugar by The Archies and that’s not a timeless classic. Well, it’s interesting because that’s the – going back to the beginning, we were talking about how – why this was big cascade effects and things like that, which you do compare to political campaigns in the book. But it is – it could be related to Israel Kirzner’s concept of entrepreneurship and political entrepreneurship is an entrepreneur finding a market that exists or is creating a market that didn’t exist and political entrepreneurship would be – we have one view where Trump – there was a huge market out there and people – and he found it or maybe he created it in some way.
Cass Sunstein: Right. The creating market is extremely interesting. I like to think more about that. So, one idea is that there’s a preexisting thing. People are very upset about immigration or about crime and the person that attacks that. Another idea is the second idea. It’s that there’s a – no publicly-articulated concern about the thing. But it’s gnawing at people and the publicly-articulated concerns would be we’re very worried about unemployment or we’re very worried about …
Trevor Burrus: Job loss, middle class, yeah.
Cass Sunstein: But what’s gnawing at people that they don’t articulate because they think it’s politically incorrect or that their view isn’t shared is immigrants or something about national pride being diminished. Then when someone talks about that, it’s not creating something that didn’t exist before. It’s just allowing people to give voice to something that they themselves had suppressed.
Then there’s a third thing, which is what you’re pointing to, which is creating something that wasn’t there before. That’s extremely interesting in connection with current politics. So the immigration issue, it’s unclear whether that is the second or the third, meaning something that people actually were concerned about, but they weren’t voicing. I think it’s plausible to say that this is something that has actually been created because most people’s experience of their lives – even I’m confident most Trump supporters, immigration from Mexico, et cetera, that isn’t a problem for them.
Trevor Burrus: They don’t walk down the street and see it all the time.
Cass Sunstein: Yeah. If they’re having struggles in the workplace, meaning getting a job or getting good wages, it’s not visibly and probably not in fact connected with the absence of a wall. It might be connected with trade deals. But in any individual case, certainly very speculative.
Aaron Ross Powell: I turn to rebellions. One of the points that you discussed at length in the book is this – that the rebel lines seem unexpected. The empire – why didn’t they see this coming and why didn’t they react to it stronger when they had the chance? So you go through the question of how – I mean at the beginning, we’ve got Lucas basically grumbling about – he doesn’t like the empire. But he’s not going to do anything about it. He has got the academy to get to and he has got farming to do …
Trevor Burrus: Well, the academy would be to join the empire too, right?
Aaron Ross Powell: Yes. But I mean he has got things. He has got a life. Like he has got a – he – he’s one person. What can he do? So that tipping point of how you shift from one person to I’ve got to do something and then from I’ve got to do something to we’ve got to do something and where that comes from. Can you go into …
Cass Sunstein: Yes, it’s fantastic and it connects with Arab Spring. I think it connects with the rise of political movements in the United States. It may have something to do with the apparently rising success of libertarianism in the United States these days.
There are few things – the movie I think is fantastic on this. One is if you have some external shock to your life that just looks – you know, somewhere between bad and intolerable. That can activate you politically. Now Luke loses his aunt and uncle. It can be less traumatic than that. You think, “I’m going to go for it.” It’s just unacceptable or without an external shock, it can be that in your set of associates, there’s a mounting sense that you’ve got to do something.
So there are some people who think with respect to rebellion. I’m just in for that and Leia as one. Then there are others who’s seeing Leia will go. There are others who need to see Leia and the people who see Leia – and the people who see Leia. Those all have to go before they go.
But then once there are so many people in, then the – it can be maybe the quiet 30 percent or so who are trying to live their lives but who don’t want to be what creeps or left out or in a way, collaborators with the regime, even through inaction.
Probably that was the American Revolution that a lot of people ended up joining because they didn’t want to be collaborators with the regime. It’s not like they left an aunt and uncle and not to join the American Revolution was a form of collaboration.
So what’s I think great about this in the sense of instructive is that I at least – before thinking about this in connection with Star Wars and other things – thought that rebellions and big social movements involved independent judgments by people who are just really fed up. But it’s more like a wave than a – than a burst thing of independent judgments. Like a wave in a stadium where people are joining others. But it’s more complicated in the wave because it depends on the volume of the wave, which grows as people continue to join it.
Trevor Burrus: There is the interpretation which you talk about a little bit, the jihadi Luke interpretation, which is relevant in the sense that he was radicalized by the act of a large central government, the blowback in killing – them killing his family and he joins a small group of scrappy rebels and takes down a huge thing.
Cass Sunstein: Completely. The idea that Luke was involved in some sort of religious mission, which is entangled with the rebellion, that’s actually true. Now he’s in favor of peace and justice and he’s against an empire. But George Lucas – it hurts me to say this because I’m just a fan of his. But he thought in A New Hope that the empire was kind of like the United States and the rebellion was like the Vietcong. I say this – it makes me suffer to say this because I feel the United States has – the republic and the empires, the Soviet Union or authoritarian system. But he thought that which fits with the at least potential reading of many forms of rebellion including those that we rightly abhor as having the self-image of we’re fighting the empire. There’s no question that some of America’s worst enemies are recruiting people through a religious/political effort including on social media. That has some of the features of what we can see in these movies.
Aaron Ross Powell: How much that – those features the rebellion would have? I mean one of the questions – watching these things is – the rebellion is pretty small and why it seems to be as small as it is given how overwhelmingly awful we’re told the empire is. I wonder how much of it is that – from the perspective of someone in the existing system looking out at this.
You’ve got a group of people who seem motivated by weird mysticism because even though they’re not all Jedis, they use – they mention the force all the time and “May the force be with you,” is kind of their standard thing and B, that they instituted this terrorist attack against a space station that killed hundreds of thousands. Well, I don’t know. I mean lots and lots and lots of imperials and it has that neat little like – they’ve blown this thing up and so now two movies later, we have to rebuild it or else they will have one.
So I wonder how much those features played into the longevity of the empire.
Cass Sunstein: It’s a very good question. I mean my association is with Gordon Wood’s book on The Radicalism of the American Revolution where he talks about how in a certain time in the United States people would doff their caps when they saw the rich people walking by and there was a system of hierarchy, respect for authority that no one ever questioned. It was just part of their lives and Wood’s view was that the radicalism of the American republic is that culture of deference was – solved it and that made the American Revolution possible. It kind of defined its commitment to equal liberty, let’s call it. The reason I have that association is you could imagine people living under a terribly authoritarian regime, which unless the foot is in your face all the time, in which case I get the foot out of my face, you think this is just what life is like.
Probably under the iron curtain, there were a number of people who thought this is what life was like and the state would have to get very aggressive in intruding on people’s admittedly dismal lives. Otherwise – I figure it’s pretty aggressive by arresting people and they did plenty of that in order to foment a sense, you know, “I’m going to put my life on the line” or something.
So when there’s quiescence, it might be – as you were saying about Luke, a sense there’s just nothing you can do or it might be terror. The terror explanation is consistent with some of the scenes in Star Wars. But I think the other is more interesting.
Trevor Burrus: Well, the interesting – so the revolution or Luke’s rebellion begins on Tatooine, which is a frontier planet. Now frontier planets are always interesting to me. It’s always a part of like a lot of – sci-fi in general. The frontier planet is where the government ends and as libertarian, I’m interesting – that’s what makes the frontier the frontier. They don’t seem that interested in putting the boot. It seems like Luke maybe has never seen a storm trooper before on Tatooine and they don’t really keep law and order in Mos Eisley or anything like this.
So it’s a pretty free place. He hasn’t really seen much. So in that sense, you can have – outside of government, you can have this kind of rebellion things grow. But it does seem like an ideological revolution, like the American Revolution was, as opposed to a – I don’t know. What’s happening in Venezuela right now for – just everyone is starving an oppressed and you just have to rebel against the government to survive. But to get people on board with this rebellion, you need to preach the legitimacy or the illegitimacy of the governmental power in place and they remember the republic. It’s all very interesting. I think it is more like the ideological revolution as you were saying.
So on the revolution, that’s a good time to get into – since the one – the chapter in the book that deals with what I do here, constitutional law. You have a chapter on constitutional originalism and how it relates to Star Wars. So we get the revolution and then the constitution comes out of revolution. Then you say why Star Wars is like – helps argue why you shouldn’t be an originalist. Our last guest was actually Randy Barnett. So you can like follow this right up with – going against Randy’s view with this.
Cass Sunstein: OK. So that’s great. So I have a lot of admiration for Randy and I don’t think anything in Star Wars should make him think, “Oh, I’m wrong.”
Trevor Burrus: That would be weird. But …
Cass Sunstein: So …
Trevor Burrus: It’s an analogy, yes.
Cass Sunstein: Let’s sneak up at originalism. We will consider – treat originalism as the empire and we’re going to do a sneak attack. The sneak attack has the following form. If you look at how our constitutional tradition actually works, this may be something to be sad about and Randy is. But if you look at how it actually works, it’s episode creation by the Supreme Court.
So if the Supreme Court is dealing with let’s say the question of sex equality in the 1970s, there’s – I think it’s very hard to argue that the equal protection clause forbids sex discrimination. That’s really hard. I mean the irrational sex discrimination maybe but sex discrimination that has let’s say an empirical justification like saying women spouses are more likely dependent on their husbands than husband spouses, than husbands are on their wives economically. That’s at least in the 70s. That was a fully rational assumption that helped the Supreme Court strike down the laws. I think what the court is doing in equal protection cases and is doing in the free speech area too is it’s saying – we have a background of episodes. You may say that the founding is episode one and it has a kind of pride of place.
So maybe you can fool around a little bit with Return of the Jedi but A New Hope, that’s sacrosanct. But A New Hope is followed by The Empire Strikes Back, which maybe doesn’t have quite the status and maybe it’s a decision like Marbury against Madison or something or McCulloch against Maryland where you can construe both Marbury and McCulloch and people do, including Randy on McCulloch in particular in a way that is faithful to it.
But in the case of the necessary and proper clause, Randy would give that clause a narrower reading that is now conventional and he wants to write new episodes. Now he I think wants to return peace and justice to the galaxy. So he wants something that is more intrusive on existing precedence than most participants at least in the development of constitutional law. So what I guess I would say to him and Justice Scalia – and Scalia is maybe a bit more with me than appears–at least for much of his career he was. It’s that there are episodes being written, which owe a duty of fidelity to those things that have come before, but which involve a creative feature.
You’re making best sense of them rather than following them. So Brown against Board of Education I think is an example of an “I’m your father” moment. It also repudiated some precedence. But it’s trying to make the unfolding constitutional narrative really awesome rather than bad. I think that’s what Brown against Board of Education does.
Now on one view, some originalists say that they’re doing exactly that. They’re trying to maintain faith with our tradition writ large and they like to say they can preserve a lot of the stuff, that they can preserve more episodes than the non-originalists think.
The fact that that’s an ongoing debate, I think that’s intriguing where the non-originalists often say – I’ve said it myself. That a problem with originalism is that it forces jettisoning of so much of our tradition and that’s kind of a problem.
Now originalists have two possible responses to that. One is, well, we’re jettisoning things that are illegitimate. So fine. The more interesting response in terms of what we’re now talking about is the original – oh, we don’t have to jettison Brown against Board of Education or freedom of speech. Those by our – you might have to rewrite the opinion a bit but by –
Trevor Burrus: You just have to retcon the Constitution.
Cass Sunstein: Exactly, exactly. And so all I want to say is that what George Lucas and now the Disney team is doing is unfolding the narrative in ways that make it both coherent and as good as it can be. That’s what constitutional law is like. Originalists have to struggle a little bit more than non-originalists to acknowledge that. But many of them venture in that struggle.
Aaron Ross Powell: So we’re coming up to the end and I wanted to ask the – one of the popular questions among people discussing Star Wars, in part because I think I disagree with you on this one. You have a higher opinion of the prequels than I do. So which of the – of these seven movies we’ve got now, what do you think the best say three are? And then which one is the worst?
Cass Sunstein: OK. So the very best is The Empire Strikes Back and since I work for President Obama, I’ve broken with him on nothing. That’s not what a former government employee does is – certainly while the president is sitting, say, you know, you’re wrong. But I’m going to break with him on this. He has said publicly A New Hope is the best of the Star Wars – President Obama made a colossal blunder there.
Trevor Burrus: That’s impeachment. I would have impeached him…
Cass Sunstein: It may not be “high crime or misdemeanor” but The Empire Strikes Back is number one. A New Hope is number two and Return of the Jedi is number three. Those are two world historically great movies and one excellent movie. There is no worst Star Wars movie because they’re also amazing and fantastic. There might be a least good Star Wars movie and I would say The Phantom Menace is the least good Star Wars movie.
Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed today’s show, please take a moment to rate us on iTunes. Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more, find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.