The Slatest

Why Do Republican Senators Keep Saying Democrats Want America to Look Like Star Wars?

Top: Aliens are depicted in the foreground against a vertical backdrop on which other aliens are standing on various balconies. Bottom: Aliens crowd around a bar.
Top: the Galactic Senate. Bottom: the Mos Eisley Spaceport Cantina. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Twentieth Century Fox.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is currently meeting to consider the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. During Monday’s hearing, Republican Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy characterized the contentious 2018 confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as resembling “the cantina bar scene out of Star Wars.” On Tuesday, Republican Utah Sen. Mike Lee said that if Democrats added seats to the Supreme Court, the institution could end up looking like “the Senate from Star Wars.”

What do they mean by these things?

The scene Kennedy is referring to is part of the original 1977 Star Wars. In the film, protagonist Luke Skywalker and his newfound mentor Obi-Wan “Old Ben” Kenobi go to a bar at the “Mos Eisley Spaceport,” where they meet with the smuggler Han Solo and ask about using his spaceship. The bar is filled with a diverse variety of aliens, humanoid and nonhumanoid, engaging in both revelry and the clandestine discussion of activities prohibited by the Galactic Empire.

The setting Lee is referring to is introduced in the 1999 Star Wars “prequel,” The Phantom Menace. In the film, one of the most infamous cultural disappointments of our era, the “Galactic Senate” meets to discuss some topic or another; I have not and do not plan to dignify the movie by looking up what that topic is. The Senate chamber is a steep, conical space whose walls are lined by hundreds of pods occupied by representatives of different space species.

On the most literal level, Kennedy could mean that the Kavanaugh hearing was chaotic, and Lee could mean that a Supreme Court subject to “court packing” would be very large. The references could also have more pejorative connotations, though. Right-wing figures like Kimberly Guilfoyle (a Trump campaign surrogate) and Peter Thiel (a major Trump donor) have in the past referred derisively to the cantina scene as a metaphor for the uncomfortably diverse and disorderly society they believe liberals and Democrats would cultivate if not kept in check by conservatism. The Galactic Senate, moreover, is an egalitarian democratic body that, in the Star Wars timeline, is eventually disbanded by the autocratic Emperor Palpatine, whose Galactic Empire was explicitly designed, by Star Wars creator George Lucas, to evoke Nazism.

Are Kennedy and Lee aware of these connotations? Kennedy said specifically on Monday that he believed the Kavanaugh hearing to have been a “freak show” and he did not want Barrett’s to end up the same way. The only difference between the Barrett hearing and the Kavanaugh hearings is that, during Kavanaugh’s, predominantly women activists crowded the Capitol to highlight the nominee’s alleged history of sexual assaults. Lee, meanwhile, has recently been engaged in a pseudo-intellectual campaign to argue that the United States should not aspire to be a “democracy.”

Is Kennedy, an older white man, implying that a generally young, diverse group of politically active citizens was as ridiculous and offensive to him as a movie scene involving colorful and lawless aliens? Is Lee, a leading public defender of ethnically homogenous minority rule, consciously or subconsciously endorsing a film series’ depiction of ethnically homogenous minority rule?

Yes, probably!