Let us imagine circumstances in which space stations, habs, or orbital constellations might become effectively self-governing - thus, belatedly, filling in the starting point for this discussion thread.
It need not be the familiar Revolt of the Colonies. It could even happen without anyone quite noticing at the time. Suppose that major stations, following the prototype of the ISS, are typically joint enterprises, whether of states, corporations or other entities, or a mix. That in itself confers an element of administrative autonomy, since no single earthside sponsor has full sway.
If the station, like the Port Authority of New York, has its own income stream, it gains further autonomy. On the one hand, it has less need to keep Earthside sponsors happy, since they control no purse strings. On the other hand, keeping sponsors happy is easy, because it isn't hitting them up for money.
This could go on for decades, for generations, with the sponsoring authorities Earthside being 'honored but not obeyed, for they gave no commands.' a variation of obedezco pero non cumplo. In the end, everyone could simply agree to redraw the legal framework to reflect long established practice.
For story purposes, we probably want something more dramatic.
But set aside for a moment relations between nascent space cities and Earth, and concentrate on their internal politics. The most basic fact about space stations and habitats, of whatever size, is that they are spacecraft, and in most respects very little different from large 'ships.' Indeed the distinction may often be blurred, with ships in parking orbits providing station-type services, and stations being built where the building cages are, and flown out to their service destinations.
This implies an onboard command structure to assign watch bills, see to necessary operations and maintenance, and take charge in emergencies. For 'ships' this is entirely taken for granted. Even writers of libertarian stripe, from Heinlein on, have waxed lyrical about the Captain's authority.
Heinlein also had no doubt that the same applied to habitats. 'Sam Anderson' was speaking of domed colonies on a planet, not orbiting habs, when he told Max Jones that they have 'more rules than a girls' school,' but the principle is unchanged.
This is pretty stark stuff. For one thing it makes a steaming bowl of irony hash out of the deep rooted connection, at least in 'Murrican culture, between space travel and libertarianism. Yes, with a suitable array of oscillating hands you can have singleships and the like, but it would be far easier to have self-sufficient condos on the upper slopes of Everest or a continental shelf somewhere.
Other things being equal, outer space is not an environment for rugged individualists, or high tech counterparts of Jeffersonian yeoman farmers. [spelling corrected] For that you pretty much need habitable planets. (And for much else as well, a discussion I'll take up in another post.) Space, at Plausible [TM] midfuture techlevels, is an environment that calls for a high level of human cooperation.
It is, unfortunately, all too possible to achieve such cooperation in a dystopian, authoritarian system, but it is hardly necessary.
For one thing, whoever takes command in emergencies is not necessarily the final authority. Indeed, at the beginning they certainly are not: Station commanders are appointed by the station authority, itself initially established by Earthside sponsors.
In the scenario I outlined above, it is the this civil station authority that gradually establishes its autonomy, and indeed a key stage in asserting that autonomy would be appointing and if need be removing the operational commander.
Institutionally this whole process is not unlike the evolution of corporate governance since the 19th century, with the board of directors answering not at all to shareholders in most circumstances, and itself choosing both the company president and ultimately its own succession.
A space station is in very different circumstances from a business, and it is easy to imagine that the rather colorless role of administrative authority being subsumed by the station commander. From that point the story writes itself, and Old Nick Machiavelli provided all the plot tips you need in everyone's favorite work of political porn, The Prince.
But Nick wrote another book, the Discourses, which offered an alternate model of station governance - where the final administrative authority resides collectively in the stationers, exercised through something like a city council. In short, a republic.
A large space station is potentially fertile ground for republican institutions. Its population has a wide range of skills, and is accustomed in everyday life to working in teams where they rely on one another's expertise.
Nor it it hard to see how republican institutions might arise out of the circumstances I sketched above. When station administrators are first stretching their boundaries with respect to their Earthside sponsors, the stationers are their natural allies, while any internal disorder in the station slows the drift toward autonomy, inviting or even requiring Earthside sponsors to step in and clean up the mess.
A station-republic would still have pervasive government and constrained personal freedom by contemporary Anglosphere standards, 'more regulations than a girls' school' being a necessary fact of station life. But many restrictions will be irrelevant to stationers in any case; you can't have a backyard barbeque when you have no back yards. And there is a profound difference between having a say in the regulations that govern your life as against having them imposed from above.
Among other things, station-republics would be laboratories for studying what exactly freedom means.
The image is a detail from The Effects of Good Government, by Ambrogio Lorenzetti: a 14th century fresco in the Siena city hall.
Related posts: teamwork in space, and spacers.