As the presidential election nears and political divisions heighten, one thing remains clear in the world of science fiction: Long life and prosperity are not partisan values, as Star Trek fans may be swayed more by a drive for freedom than by typical democratic-republican partisanship, experts said.
Trying to find political value in the Star Trek television series and movies remains a tricky move in itself, however, because of the very nuts-and-bolts of the franchise.
The TV show and movies take place in the now not-so-far future, when humans have found a way to travel at speeds faster than the speed of light, according to memory-alpha.org, a Wiki for Trek fans.
Humans who become space explorers interact with other species and eventually form the United Federation of Planets (AKA the Federation), an “interstellar federal republic, composed of planetary governments that agreed to exist semi-autonomously under a single central government and to share their knowledge and resources in peaceful cooperation and space exploration.”
For TV some, though, the pacifism and cooperation embodied by the Federation is just a veneer, making an understanding of Trek politics – especially foreign policy – a pain.
“It’s a military organization that kills lots of people every week. It’s a hierarchy, there’s one person in charge of every ship,” said Sumana Harihareswara, who taught a course called Politics and Modern Science Fiction at the University of California-Berkeley.
“For some reason, even though scarcity is dead and everyone has enough to eat, there’s still money, and one wonders why that is. The more that one pokes at the architecture of the Federation, the more one tries to figure out how is this working, why it is,” she said, explaining that in the Federation, nobody needs money to survive on Star Trek, but that the presence of currency persists.
Harihareswara said a key theme in Star Trek is the relationship between technology and government, but that the way the theme plays out in the end doesn’t advocate one political viewpoint or another.
“There is still an ongoing debate and there probably will be for some time of whether technology is more an enabler of government or more of a destroyer of state institutions,” she said. “I think that the political stance most applicable to what you usually see in Star Trek is hard to put into any one spot on the left-right spectrum.”
One aspect of the show that’s particularly hard to characterize politically is Star Trek‘s militarism: Armed forces are a constant player in the show, but at the same time, gratuitous military buildup or nationalism is not always advocated.
“You see members of one organization that combines military and exploration goals and it is run by a government, and some of the encounters that they have with ‘the Other,'” she said. But in these encounters with the other – species and cultures other than humans, that is – some are friendly and others are hostile.
Harihareswara made reference to a particular story line in Star Trek: Enterprise that was produced after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in which an alien attack on earth was meant as a metaphor for the attacks.
“There were moments when the story was a jingoist military vehicle about destroying the enemy and there were moments when it was about the costs, the moral costs, of wrongheaded violence. There were scenes about some third party, that was, it turns out, duping both Earth and its enemy into attacking each other.”
For Harihareswara, also, the way the conflict is developed in Star Trek series and episodes also conveys a political viewpoint – how humans value other cultures.
“In Star Trek: The Next Generation and in some other science fiction stories also, the characters are switching from planet to planet and they get to enter and leave situations every week. They can leave behind the changes that they’ve made. They can leave behind the situations that they’ve entered and the consequences of their actions, whereas on (Star Trek) Deep Space 9, they’re in one place and they’re dealing with history,” she said. “Depending upon the way that you look at the world is going to affect your political stance, whether or not you think it’s important to understand and work with people who see the world differently from you, people with different histories.”
Don Taylor, self-proclaimed Trekkie and top salesman at Greenshift Music & Comics, a Tampa store that also sells Star Trek memorabilia, said he thinks Trek fans may sway toward the democratic side of politics, but recognized the difficulty of such an assessment, considering the role of the military in the show.
“I’m not saying Republicans are war mongers or anything like that. A lot of times, you know, we had to fight against the Romulans and the Klingons, it wasn’t all a piece of cake,” he said. “Captain Kirk, you know, he was not really a pacifist. He fired the photon torpedoes quite a few times. They cooked quite a few people. They had their phasers set on kill quite a few times. (But) I think you have to live with a little bit of that concept, that sometimes it’s them or us.”
Taylor also spoke of the progressive political climate of the movie industry as perhaps reflecting Star Trek, but thought that the threat of alien attacks bars it from being described purely as democratic – especially in the context of how the show handles pre-emptive war.
“If you’ve got a Klingon vessel in front of you that’s powering up and ready to fire, you’ve got a choice to make. It’s like anything in life, I guess. You know, at what point in life do you pre-emptively strike – it’s a tough question.”
Though categorizing Star Trek in general left-right terms remains difficult, several agree that the show exhibits libertarian-leaning characteristics.
Harihareswara spoke of a particular cultural phenomena called “cyber-libertarianism” that’s more frequently exhibited among Trek fans.
“It’s a particular kind of libertarianism that tends to pop up among programmers and geeks of all stripes,” she said. “A particular kind of personality that’s attracted to little micro-worlds where everything makes sense and you can master everything.”
Several tenets of cyber-libertarianism, as described by Paulina Borsook in her book Cyberselfish, include meritocracy and the idea that human interaction can be reduced to a contract, Harihareswara said.
Still, a tendency toward cyber-libertarianism precludes adherence to a particular party or candidate, Harihareswara said.
“It’s not just going to be about individual candidates,” she said. “It’s a way of looking at the world that says ‘I can master this,’ like one can master a computer program or the details of a series of science-fiction novels, she said.
Though it would come down to an individual fan, a cyber-libertarian’s attraction to a scientific, rational worldview would make him or her select the candidate with the most sensible platform, she said.
Susan MacManus, distinguished professor of political science, said she could also see a libertarian tendency in Star Trek.
“I suspect that a lot of them would be anti-establishment,” she said. “More libertarian, that would be my guess, just off the cuff.”
She said the show may exhibit a sort of “I don’t want government in my face,” attitude, and that it’s “just futuristic, no limitations, imagination is the only limit.”
Is Star Trek apolitical and just for fun?Some – including many fans – doubt Star Trek reflects any political leaning whatsoever.
Mary Jo Weaver, a professor emeritus of religion at the University of Indiana who taught the course Star Trek and Religion is one such person.
“That’s the wrong question to bring to a TV show,” she wrote in an e-mail, responding to whether she thought Star Trek reflects any particular political ideology. “It is entertainment. It is also science fiction, which means it uses the supposed future to interrogate the present.”
Likewise, Weaver doesn’t think fans swing a certain way politically.
“Is there a certain way American Idol fans would vote? Or Wheel of Fortune fans?” she stated. “No – those shows attract all kinds of people and take no overt political stands. Same is true with Trek – (it) attracts all kinds of folks and takes no avert political views. People are sexually active without marriage on Trek, but that is not a religious position.”
On a Trek fan message board at startrek.com, most fans agreed that Star Trek fans didn’t sway one way politically.
“All sides of all issues are represented and hotly defended by Trek fans,” wrote a user named Rab24. “The people here that have the closest opinions to my own in regards to Star Trek are polar opposites to me in regards to political issues.”
Another fan, Saavikcom, agreed and attributed the trend to the very motto of Star Trek.
“We can’t even all agree on the various Star Trek topics … except perhaps IDIC [Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations]!!!!!!,” wrote Saavikcom.
A user named Dr. Gojira offered a unique approach to the question, albeit one that expressed disinterest in politics.
“Trek fans vary in their voting,” Gojira wrote. “Some will vote for Worf in the election, some for Spock.”
Does the political character of Star Trek, or lack of it, say something about Science Fiction?
Star Trek‘s political characteristics also involve general theories about politics and science fiction, said James Gunn, professor emeritus of English and director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas.
Gunn, named a Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America, said that science fiction, including Star Trek, tended to be more liberal because the genre emphasized forward thinking.
“I think the science fiction reader tends to make decisions on the basis of how they will work out in the future,” he said. “I think the conservative viewpoint tends to look at how they have been done in the past.”
Adam Frisch, president of the Science Fiction Research Association and chair of the department of English and writing at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa, said that Star Trek‘s politics reflected basic political tenets of science fiction.
He thinks Star Trek fans’ political views may follow suit.
“I would suspect that they would tend to be, obviously, more cutting edge by the fact that they’re watching Star Trek,” he said. “That being the case, given our political definitions in our country, (they) would be more liberal than conservative.”
Frisch recognized that Trek fans may ultimately differ on political subtleties, however.
“Whatever our political persuasions, I think most science fiction fans are progressive and want to see how we can use our technological tools to make a better world,” he said. “And they have different approaches politically to make those tools make use of our technology as best they can.”