[Cross-posted from The Daystrom Research Institute, with some revisions.]
I see politics in Star Trek — thinking of politics broadly as the sphere of relationships involving power — as having two conflicting levels. On the one hand, the starship itself is a fairly authoritarian environment, characterized by a strict hierarchy of rank and command. Captains are open to deliberation by their senior officers, but they make the final decision. Sometimes this has bad effects, as when the captain is taken over by an alien, etc., but by my count, there are many more stories where we are expected to be very anxious or upset about the idea of the captain’s authority being usurped.
On the higher level, we are almost never given a reason to trust Starfleet admirals or the Federation as such. At the level of those larger organizations, it seems, there is a tendency toward entropy and corruption. Perhaps we’re to think that the absence of a clear, urgent mission allows people to indulge in empty careerism rather than sincerely using their skills to the best of their abilities.
When it comes to large-scale political events, then, most often it’s not the official leadership that is pushing things in a good direction. If we’re going to get a good outcome, it has to come from people “on the ground” (so to speak), often in defiance of their superiors. So we see Sisko coming to earth and almost immediately uncovering a conspiracy that had been unfolding for a while — presumably if he had not shown up, the “inside job” attack would have had its desired effect. Similarly, in Enterprise the foundation of the Federation seems to hang on the actions of Archer, T’Pol, and Shran, more than on their official leadership (who are feckless in Archer’s case and often malevolent in the latter two).
The ideal outcome, it seems, is for one of these authentic people to become the political leader — Archer becoming president of the Federation, the various “liberal” leaders who emerge out of the Dominion War, etc. — but it’s notable that we never actually see their leadership in action. Chancellor Martok is a happy ending, full stop, and we don’t have to see his inevitable compromises with the already existing factions that, while perhaps chastened, surely remain powerful in many ways.
The dark side of this reliance on “free agents” to counter institutional careerism and inertia is Section 31. On one level, we can ask why their acts of “going rogue” are supposed to be different and worse than the routine insubordination we see from captains — and the show certainly leaves things ambivalent, insofar as they “get results” despite their nefarious means. Perhaps we can say that the lovable rogue captains are embracing the ideals of the Federation while Section 31 is advocating its raw existence and political power — but aren’t the latter a condition of fulfilling the former? I don’t think we get a good answer to this question at the end of the day, and perhaps Star Trek’s general conception of politics (institutions suck, brave individuals are the ones who get things done) leaves it unequipped to do so.
In terms of real-world politics, it all seems hard to map onto our experience. The central concept that we’re going to get liberal outcomes (Federation ideals!) from authoritarian structures (quasi-military command structures!) is, to say the least, difficult to find evidence for in the real world. Institutional inertia and corruption are of course real, but so are transformative leaders, even if they are relatively rare. I chalk it up to an attempt to be all things to all people that leads Star Trek to embrace mutually contradictory ideals — but at the same time, I would wager that most of us embrace contradictory ideals at the end of the day, in some cases the very same contradictory ideals Star Trek does. Its very simplicity may thus make it a more useful tool to think with than the faux-sophisticated House of Cards, for instance.