Legend of Korra is about politics. It’s about other things too, of course, but the exploration of different political ideologies and structures forms a core theme of the show, running from beginning to end. This is in contrast to its predecessor show, Avatar: The Last Airbender, where Aang spends the entirety of the show engaged in the relatively simple tasks of stopping the expansion of a militaristic empire and ending a war. The thorny questions of post-war recovery are relegated to later. When the series ends, the Air Nomads and Southern Water Tribe have been irrevocably shattered, and most of the Earth Kingdom has been under a military occupation for nearly a century. Merely ending the Hundred Years War doesn’t repair the damage. Many of those unresolved problems show up here. In Legend, Korra spends each season engaging with and ultimately rejecting a form of radical political ideology. In Book One, she faces some form of what could be deemed utopian communism. In Book Two……theocracy? Book Two is very confusing. Books Three and Four, however, fit together well, exposing Korra to anarchism and fascism back to back. In each season, the show teaches us that resort to radicalism is harmful and unnecessary, preaching reliance on…..what? And there lies the central flaw in an otherwise excellent show. Legend of Korra never provides a real alternative to any of the philosophies it defeats, instead putting forward nothing more than a handful of vague slogans and half-formed ideas.
When the series starts, Republic City is ruled by an appointed council, with representatives from each Nation. There is of course a great irony in a country called the United Republic being ruled by an unelected government. It becomes even more ridiculous when one considers the utter disparity in representation: the millions of subjects of the Earth Kingdom rate the same number of representatives as the Air Nomads, who, at this time, consist of Tenzien and his extended family. But putting aside the irregularity of a man holding a 1/5th of the council’s votes in the name of nothing but his clan, the council is not very effective at governing the City. Before long, it becomes dominated by the nefarious Tarrlock, one of the season’s villains, who swiftly bends it to his will. The show is quick to condemn the actions of Tarrlock. This is unsurprising. He is a corrupt and brutal politician, who violates many laws and twists others to his advantage. Similarly, Amon’s terrorist campaign to establish total equality is harshly criticized, again, for obvious reasons. But the show never gives us a reason to think the council is any better. Or for that matter, any worse! Expecting critiques of power structures may be asking a little much for most cartoons, but when a show places attacks on political radicalism at the center of its narrative arcs (as Korra undoubtedly does), I do not think it is out of place. Already, we are seeing the dominant philosophy of the show: the radical communistic policies of Ammon are harshly critiqued, but nothing is really offered up as an alternative.
There is an attempt to change this at the beginning of Book Two: it is all of a sudden declared that the Council had been replaced by an elected President. In theory, this is progress, with the show declaring the primacy of liberal democracy over the technocracy of the old council. Except that in practice, there is no difference between how the council operated and the presidency operated. Republic City seems to have transitioned from an appointed dictatorship to an elected one. If that was the message, that democracy is not a cure-all, that would be fine! But instead, President Raiko is presented as ‘bad’ when he operates against the interests of our heroes and ‘good’ when he accedes to their requests and aids their journey. While the structural flaws of our villain’s systems are discussed, the government we are supposed to be rooting for is never defined in any real way. We are told to support democracy, but never shown why this is a good thing (the show barely presents it as such), and absent details, the word ‘democracy’ is vague to the point of meaninglessness.
The political critiques of the show become much more sophisticated in Books Three and Four, which really fit together smoothly to form a single storyline. A problematic form of government is presented, namely the corrupt and brutal absolute monarchy of the Earth Kingdom. In Book Three, Earth Queen Hou-Ting is assassinated by the anarchists of the Red Lotus. This leads to a collapse of the Earth Kingdom’s central government and the rise of Kuvira’s fascist dictatorship. Though Kuvira’s rule seems like a viable alternative to either chaotic anarchy of a government-less Kingdom, or the return of the incompetent and decadent dynasty. However, Kuvira’s rule, in addition to being authoritarian, is also revealed to be irredentist and racist. This entire story cycle is extremely sophisticated, rather accurately rendering the path many revolutions take. One is reminded of Revolutionary France, and how the radical Jacobin’s destruction of the Ancien Régime paved the way for the modern tyranny of Napoleon. Zaheer’s destruction of dynastic rule in the Earth Kingdom seemed like the just overthrow of a monstrous dictator, but in unleashing all the passions of a nation with no plan for transition to a new government, the Red Lotus merely brought about years of chaos and death, followed by a far more tyrannical rule then they ever could have imagined. This is an astute observation on the failings of radical politics and their inability to foresee the consequences of their actions. This, however, makes the conclusion of the story cycle more infuriating: after two Books detailing the travails of the Earth Kingdom, it’s fate is dealt with offhandedly, with Prince Wu, the Earth Kingdom’s new ruler, declaring that he will abolish both the monarchy and the central government in one fell swoop, leaving the individual states to decide their own fates. In theory, this is a workable solution. But after two whole seasons about the failed attempts to solve the problems of the Earth Kingdom, merely declaring that ‘democracy’ has been instituted is madness! Once again, the show has spent a great deal of time exploring the failings of radical, extra-legal solutions to societal problems. But instead of mounting a defense of liberal democracy, or Burkean conservativism, or anything really, Korra just assumes that the word ‘democracy’, repeated enough times, amounts to a viable political philosophy.
None of this is to say that Legend of Korra is a bad show, or a reactionary show. It’s critiques of revolutionary politics are generally on point and it presents a sophisticated view of politics rarely seen in cartoons. The message that the show seems to be trying for is that, while marginalized and oppressed groups should be listened to and respected, grievances can best be addressed through the existing democratic system. This is an eminently defensible philosophy, but it must be defended. When the Red Lotus proclaims ‘freedom’, or the Earth Empire declares ‘order’, these are not taken at face value, but are unpacked and discussed. The same is not ever done for the United Republic’s claims of ‘democracy’, even when they are eminently flawed or not true. When Karl Marx was discussing the way nations would be changed after the coming of the communist revolution he proclaimed that “This question can only be answered scientifically, and one does not get a flea-hop nearer to the problem by a thousandfold combination of the word ‘people’ with the word ‘state’.” The same holds true in this case.
Nathan Goldwag is a senior at Brandeis University with a fascination with fictional political systems and histories. He may or may not be Emperor of the Universe.