Civic Imagination: The Final Frontier

The civic imagination, according to The Civic Imagination Project, is the “capacity to imagine alternatives to current cultural, social, political, or economic conditions;” it is necessary to imagine better futures to achieve them. 

It’s hard to think of a more visionary future than the one depicted in the various Star Trek series. 

The Original Series, which first aired in 1966, featured the a multiracial cast of characters, indirectly, addressed the Vietnam War and even worked as a proponent of reproductive rights. For its time, it was revolutionary. 

Widely regarded as the first interracial kiss on television. From “Plato’s Stepchildren” in The Original Series

The most recent Star Trek series, “Strange New Worlds”, which aired this year, is progressive in its own way, though it does not have the same cultural pervasiveness that the Original Series did. “Strange New Worlds” has an incredibly diverse cast, normalizes all types of relationships and actively works to remedy some of the gendered lines of the Original Series. 

Across all of its series, which are set from the mid-22nd century to the late 24th century, Star Trek imagines an interplanetary alliance centered on human rights and equality. Each of the 12 Star Trek series from the last 60 years are more or less set within the context of a United Federation of Planets. 

The United Federation of Planets is essentially, in today’s terms, a supranational organization that spans planets instead of nations. The Federation requires planets that want to join to share the organization’s “values of benevolence, peaceful co-existence and co-operation, the rule of law, justice, and equal rights and freedoms.”

The Federation’s exploratory (and more than occasionally defensive) arm, Starfleet, is one branch that is shared with all the planets in the Federation. In the Star Trek universe, money is obsolete in the name of equality. 

In the 1960s and today, there are plenty of supranational organizations that aim to keep the peace as Star Trek’s Federation does in the various series. The United Nations, for example, uses the tagline “peace, dignity, and equality on a healthy planet.” For a nation to join the UN, they must be a “peace-loving state.”

The United Nations flag in 2010. Photo by Mark Garten

What makes the supranational organization of the Federation distinct from what we see on Earth today, though, is the sweeping unification of the planets. Although the UN is designed to be a unified front, economic and political systems differ among nations. In the Federation, there is one economic system and one military branch. 

Is it feasible?

Star Trek used the tool of technology to explain the creation of a new, egalitarian political structure. In the Star Trek universe, planets that are part of the Federation must have warp-speed capabilities, meaning that they must have learned to travel faster than the speed of light. 

The Vulcans, one of the main groups that founded the Federation, waited to interact with humans until humanity developed warp-speed capabilities. The implication is that a massive technological development meant a species would be primed to accept the values of the Federation. 

In reality, achieving a political structure similar to the Federation on Earth wouldn’t necessarily require a technological change, but it would necessitate a systemic change in political and economic values. Rather than the capitalist and individualist political system and economic structure of the United States, the country would need to work more for the collective good. 

It’s important to note, though, that elements of the United Federation of Planets are clearly taken from the United States’ political system. In fact, the Federation has an executive, judiciary and legislative branches. 

When Star Trek first aired in the 1960s, episodes clearly opposed the Vietnam War, were blatantly anti-Nazi and challenged racial discrimination in a way that had never been seen on television. The series was used as a political and social tool for change, but it was also patriotic and pro-American.

I personally think the idea behind the Federation was inspired by American democracy, but was adjusted to account for the social inequities that the series fought against. I also think the Federation is a perfect exploration into the civic imagination. 

To imagine a better future for our world, we synthesize what works currently and create something even more beautiful to share with others. As seen from Star Trek’s sweeping cultural influence, ideas mean something to people, and sometimes what we see in media becomes a reality.

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