Nov 1 2012 2:00pm

Why Battlestar Galactica’s President Roslin Defies Political Stereotypes

Why Battlestar Galactica’s President Roslin Defies Political Stereotypes

Four years ago, a historic election rocked America...but 2008 was also the year Battlestar Galactica went off the air, to the dismay of fans everywhere. The story of our distant human relatives forever in conflict with their robot creations—The Cylons—was not only super entertaining, full of real drama and some of the best sci-fi television ever; it was also politically charged in surprising and unexpected ways. BSG was a show where the good guys waterboarded the bad guys, and the lines between terrorist, political idealistic, freedom fighter, religious zealot and more were all blurred and discussed in a big, messy, outer space opera.

With the U.S. Presidential election approaching, I'd like to take a break from all the current political divisiveness to talk about my favorite president—Laura Roslin—and her fascinating ideological shifts throughout the long road to a planet called Earth.

How Laura Roslin initially becomes President of the Twelve Colonies is one of those great conceits that—even without all the spaceship/robot stuff—could have been a TV show all on its own. Every single person in line to become president ahead of Roslin had been killed by a nuclear attack, making her—the Secretary of Education—the legal successor to the office. Even if this story took place on regular Earth, it’s a wonderful premise! Immediately, Commander Adama is screaming at poor Lee Adama that he’s “taking orders from a school teacher!” From the first episode of Battlestar Galactica, Laura Roslin is portrayed as a nurturer, a teacher, and someone certainly on the political left. Meanwhile, Bill Adama, the de facto military leader of the entirety of humankind, is depicted as a conservative, militaristic person, not only in contrast with Laura but also with his own son, Lee, who is also a member of the military.

Throughout most of the first season, Adama reluctantly agrees to let Roslin do her liberal stuff: preserving freedoms, organizing elections, caring about people’s rights. But it’s not portrayed as black and white: though a mutual respect starts to develop between the two characters, the easy classification of liberalism versus conservativism comes crashing down in the episode “Flesh and Bone.”

In this episode, the humans capture a Cylon agent and Kara “Starbuck” Thrace uses Guantanamo-style techniques to torture him for information. It’s disturbing in and of itself because Starbuck is one of the good guys. But things get even more intense when President Roslin comes to shut down the whole operation. Roslin is disgusted, as if she's just walked in on a murder-in-progress, and clearly annoyed by the fact that Starbuck is obviously torturing the Cylon. She takes the more liberal approach of to trying to reason with Lebeon, getting him to tell the truth about the supposed bomb that’s been placed somewhere in their vast space fleet. In a way, echoes of Captain Kirk refusing to kill a hissing lizard-man are evoked here. “No!” Roslin seems to be saying, “I won’t kill today!” But then Lebeon grabs her, tells her Adama is a Cylon, and a switch flips. Suddenly, Roslin becomes more hardcore and conservative than Adama, and anyone else in the military, particularly Starbuck, who is standing right there.

“Put this thing out the airlock,” Roslin tells the guards, “You don’t keep a dangerous machine laying around. You get. Rid. Of. It.” And she kills Lebeon, just like that.

From this point on, you can’t really call Laura Roslin a bleeding heart liberal anymore. Sure, she is certainly more compassionate on the surface than Adama, but possibly not in practice. The end of the first season involves a major disagreement between Adama and Roslin as to the direction the fleet should take. Adama decides he’s had enough of her and that it’s time for martial law. Sending Col. Tigh and his son Lee over to arrest her was probably a pretty bad move, because the very liberal Lee Adama (easily the most liberal character on the show) stands up for the President and gets himself locked up. Of course, all of this goes to hell when Commander Adama gets shot by sleeper agent Boomer right in the middle of everything.

Though these dire situations resolve themselves somewhat in a few episodes during the second season, everything about Laura Roslin’s political tendencies are in flux. If she thought Bill Adama was a hardcore, militaristic and conservative guy, he’s nothing compared to Admiral Cain of the Battlestar Pegasus. Cain is ruthless to a fault, a by-any-means-necessary military leader with little or no concern for civilians or the collateral damage her decisions may cause. Sure, none of the characters on Battlestar Galactica are in an ideal situation to have idealistic political opinions. Characters are frequently motivated by extreme events pressuring them into certain political straightjackets. It is clear that these are things people would never do if they lived in a regular political climate. When Roslin suggests to Adama that he has to assassinate the power-hungry Admiral Cain, it gives one pause—what would any political leader do in an environment with dwindling numbers of people, beset by killer robots hidden in plain sight?

The most heartbreaking issue President Roslin is forced to deal with is whether abortion should still be legal, considering that human beings are becoming an endangered species. I’m fairly confident the writers of BSG were all fairly liberal people, and I’d be willing to bet, that like me, they’re totally pro-choice.

But, it takes guts to imagine a scenario where someone who is pro-choice would be forced to think about her ideals differently. In this moment, Roslin’s ideals and Roslin’s politics become two separate things. As events continue onward she also adopts a religion that she had never considered before coming aboard Galatica. But she doesn’t impose it on people, even though many worry she is simply by making decisions based on her newfound faith.

A “faith-based” president who orders assassinations of her own people, and is occasionally anti-choice, certainly doesn’t sound like it fits into the familiar definitions of liberal or conservative. Regardless of any of our own political affiliations, the story of Laura Roslin is illuminating because it demonstrates just how dependent on context certain political viewpoints can be. By the end of Battlestar Galactica, you could argue that Adama becomes much more of a liberal than he was at the start, possibly because he and Roslin exchanged some kind of political ideological energy. It reminds one of a conversation taking place in another galaxy, far, far away, populated by alien humans, in which Obi-Wan tells Luke Skywalker that “many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our point of view.”

In Battlestar Galactica, for Laura Roslin, the political truths she clings to depend greatly on humanity’s chance for survival. And in space, with Cylons all around, no one cares if your spaceship is a red spaceship or a blue spaceship.

Ryan Britt is a staff writer for He doesn't understand what was meant by “grab your gun and bring in the cat” and really thinks the writers were drunk with power on that one.

1. juliemw
Awesome article, thank you. It just reminds me of the depth and all the inner conflict drama in Battlestar Galactica. What a wonderful series.
2. Eugene R.
A "faith-based" president who orders assassinations of her own people, and is occasionally anti-choice ...
Hmm, we elected one like that in 2008, I recall. Just shows how "real-life" Battlestar Galactica could be (a trait that even the mainstream reviewers caught with the show's handling of the torture and security/paranoia themes).
Chris Long
3. radynski
All of the conflicts arising from the spaceship of prisoners was very interesting to me as well.
4. Gerry__Quinn
I'm curious as to your definition of "conservative" and "liberal". Apparently the former embodies ruthless violence, torture, and murder, whereas the latter is defined not just by compassion for all (barring the inconvenient unborn), but also by concern for legality and democracy. Seems like a definition from 'The Progressive's Cartoon Guide to Schools of Political Thought" rather than any more conventional interpretation.
Ethan Glasser-Camp
6. glasserc
I do not like Santiago. I've always thought that a leader should have a strong chin. He has no chin, and his vice president has several. This to me is not a good combination.
-- Lt. Commander Ivanova
Ben Goodman
7. goodben
Strictly speaking, a conservative is someone who absent an obvious or assured benefit is opposed to change and a progressive is someone who absent an obvious or assured benefit would rather change. A classical liberal is someone who favors individual liberty for the betterment of all individually and an authoritarian is someone who favors strong central authority for the betterment of all collectively (if you give them the benefit of the doubt).

In the US, liberal is used when they really mean progressive. In current politics, both the progressive and the conservative movements tend toward the authoritartian side, albeit in different manners and with some outliers. So most major "liberal" politicians are really progressive authoritarians.

What it sound like Roslin did was move from a classical liberal to authoritarian rather than form progressive to conservative.
8. wiredog
Every single person in line to become president ahead of Roslin had been
killed by a nuclear attack, making her—the Secretary of Education—the legal successor to the office.
Isn't that the case in "Alas, Babylon"?
9. passos
One tiny personal knock I've always hated about this spectacular show was the insance press conferences that constantly were used on the show. Not really that big a deal - but this column made me recall that it always was an issue for me.

If I recall the numbers, there were about 50,000 total humans spread across the entire fleet of 30+ ships. Even in terms of a modern society with a healthy press corp and respect for freedom of speech, the number of reports at each press briefing was crazy, at least 10-20. Factor in that many were living in squalor as the equivalent of refugees with minimal electronic communications, how much press did they actually need? Was a White House style press briefing to a full team really necessary? Was there really that big a press, assuming each represented its own news organization, were there really 10+ separate and distinct news organizations operating in the fleet? I know its a small nit pick - but it always annoyed me.
10. AlanMorlock
Small note, didn't galactica end in 2009?
11. wolfkin
an utterly interesting read that makes me want to see how BSG finishes out (stopped after S2)
12. Fuzzy Bottom
I think this is what the show is about. The journey the characters make and the changes they go through.

Laura Roslin becomes bitter, her hatred for Baltar almost consumes her. I begin to wonder if Adama is just humoring her when he agrees with her. She steps on all her precious ideals when it suites her.

Baltar is also going on a major journey. He is a terrible person. But all in all, the only terrible thing he did was give the nuke to the Six, who eventually blows up a ship. This is on Baltar. Sure he screwed up the security system by giving another Six access, but he couldn't have known. Baltar is an easy person to feel sorry for. He makes few decisions for himself. He has almost no control over his own life. He is used by many. He's like a leaf caught in the wind. It blows him here and then there. He can occasionally make a small change, but it almost always goes bad and blows up in his face. I want to hate him, but mostly I feel sorry for him.

There are few real heros in this show.
13. Spice Girl
"A "faith-based" president who orders assassinations of her own people, and is occasionally anti-choice ..."
"Hmm, we elected one like that in 2008, I recall."
Bush did the same thing. He wasn't the first US president to do so. Americans should learn some of their own history. And it should be pointed out that all US presidents have been "faith based". You don't get to be President of the USA unless your Christian.

So I wonder why the 2008 president is singled out for things other presidents have done? Poor knowledge of history, or perhaps the issue is a little more black and white.

BTW, this is one of the reasons why I dislike the Laura Roslin character. She's such a hypocrite. She hates Baltar for things she herself has done and for things he couldn't have known.
Just as Starbuck berated fellow pilot and ex criminal for being involved in smuggling cylons, even as Starbuck, Adama and the rest of the fleet "harboured" cylons like Boomer.

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