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The Political Science of Battlestar Galactica

- June 13, 2013

We welcome another guest post from Stephen Benedict Dyson.  His previous post on the political science of Star Trek is here.


Battlestar Galactica, a science fiction drama, was an extended allegory of war on terror-era American politics. As President Obama tries unsuccessfully to move beyond the perpetual conflicts and roiling liberty-security debates of these years, this is a good chance to reflect upon one of the more profound cultural artifacts of the period. I should begin, though, by pointing out one major difference between this fiction and our reality: the civilization in Battlestar, fearing the downside of big data, had the good sense to give up computer networks and wireless telephones many years prior to the events depicted in the series.

Debated at the United Nations and honored as the best show on television, Battlestar offers several rich points of analysis. I focus here on the remarkable portrait of a political leader operating in a time of crisis, President Laura Roslin. The political history of the Roslin administration allows us to reflect upon leadership in wartime, the malleability of constitutional forms in radically changed circumstances, and the role of faith in guiding our leaders. As with my earlier analysis of the politics of Star Trek, I discuss significant plot points and so those who have yet to watch the show may wish to come back to this post after having done so.

Roslin’s presidency begins with a near-extinction event for her civilization. At the time of the surprise attack Roslin is secretary of education in the administration of President Adar, a Clintonesque figure high on charm and of flexible principle. Roslin survives the attack through serendipitous means – she was visiting the obsolete Battlestar Galactica (essentially an aircraft carrier-in-space) on the day of its decommissioning. Roslin, 43rd in the line of succession, is sworn in as president when it becomes clear that the existing political structure has been obliterated. The creator of the show was an avid student of political history, and deliberately reconstructed the iconic scene of Lyndon B. Johnson taking the oath of office after the assassination of President Kennedy.

President Roslin’s early decisions mirror those made by the U.S. leadership on 9/11. Whilst the attack is still underway, she has to make sense of the situation. She does so more effectively than the military authority figure, the commanding officer of the Galactica William Adama, who is determined to launch a futile counter-attack. Roslin accurately appraises the situation: “I don’t know why I have to keep telling you this,” She says to Adama. “The war is over. We lost.” Her leadership in convincing Adama to run rather than fight allows a rump remnant of colonial civilization – 50,000 or so souls – to survive.

Roslin has to quickly learn how to lead in this perpetual crisis, and her growth into the office is a prime feature of the series. In the first days of flight she is faced with an incomprehensible dilemma. A passenger airliner carrying several hundred people, lost in the chaos, suddenly reappears and approaches the fleet. Unable to establish contact and suspecting the airliner has been commandeered by the enemy, Adama recommends to the president that it be shot down. Roslin has seconds to decide, mirroring the situation faced by Vice President Dick Cheney on 9/11.

Roslin’s presidency often involved ad hoc judgments on major matters of constitutional interpretation, and a recurrent theme is the tension between the system of laws that existed prior to the attack and the new realities. Battlestar Galactica portrayed its characters as flawed and the decisions they made as complex mixtures of good and bad motives, judgment, and luck. The storytelling challenged us to reconsider simple verities and to see people we admire making decisions we abhor, an experience uncomfortably familiar to liberals considering President Obama’s drone policies. Adama, the military commander, turns out to be far more committed to civil liberties than the president, who develops a policy of eliminating enemy agents by tossing them out of an airlock.

Roslin is an unelected president serving the final months of her predecessor’s term. When a challenger emerges in the person of Tom Zarek, an imprisoned utopian revolutionary reminiscent of Vladimir Lenin, Roslin argues that holding an election runs counter to the core mission of survival. Roslin’s fears are at the core of the most compelling arc of the series. She is eventually opposed for the presidency not by Zarek but by Gaius Baltar, a celebrated yet narcissistic public intellectual. Baltar’s campaign is opportunistic. The president, bowing to demographic realities and overturning a lifetime of pro-choice commitment, had banned abortion, a decision Baltar cynically exploits. Then, in the midst of the campaign, there is a universe-sized October surprise – the discovery of a planet that could offer a permanent safe haven. Roslin believes the planet to be unsafe. Baltar offers disingenuous assurances to the public, and surges ahead in the polls.

Tragedy follows. Roslin, convinced that a Baltar victory would be disastrous, has her operatives rig the vote. Only at the last moment, under sad counsel from Admiral Adama, does she back away from the scheme. Baltar is elected president and proceeds with settlement on the planet, whereupon the enemy returns and begins an occupation. Roslin becomes the leader of an insurgency, showing American audiences sympathetic figures making unconscionable choices in the course of resisting an occupying power. Baltar remains as a Quisling president, and challenges Roslin on her use of suicide bombers. It is a quintessentially Battlestar exchange, as both human beings are simultaneously right and wrong, operating from necessity and from a position of deep moral ambiguity. Baltar, a collaborationist president with blood on his hands, challenges Roslin, an insurgent leader sending young people to their deaths, to look him in the eye and say that she endorses suicide bombings.

In later seasons, Roslin’s presidency becomes inseparable from her faith, a situation not unprecedented in the politics of our world. She becomes less of a secular figure and more of a charismatic leader. Suffering from cancer, she is driven by a sense of destiny and by religious visions. Roslin’s faith is dealt with sympathetically in the show. Her great interlocutor, Adama, does not believe and is teased as “Admiral Atheist” by the president. As the final season progresses the storytelling becomes increasingly metaphorical and poetic. Adama’s secularism and Roslin’s faith are portrayed as unresolvable projections of human needs and negotiations. Toward the end of the series we see a dying Roslin experiencing what could be a preview of the afterlife or just a side-effect of medication. It is moving and beautiful, and represents the effective end of her presidency.

Whereas Star Trek offered an optimistic vision about human nature evolving in a progressive direction, Battlestar Galactica portrayed a flawed species doomed to repeating cycles of violence and self-destruction. This was a hard-sell to TV audiences. The intricacy of the storytelling made it difficult for casual viewers to begin watching halfway through, and the dark profundity of the themes was not to all tastes. These very features, though, magnified the show’s ability to tackle complex political issues and to offer a comprehensive and nuanced representation of executive leadership in a time of crisis.