Conventional wisdom regarding America’s relationship with royalty goes something like this: Americans have no time for monarchy as a political concept but can’t get enough of the British royal family. The American media’s round-the-clock coverage of the recent royal wedding certainly seems ample evidence of the latter assertion, but how do we test the strength of the former? A fascinating new poll sheds light on what Americans really think about royalty, and the results, alas, are not so tidily coherent.
In the lead-up to Prince Harry’s nuptials, the French polling firm Ipsos surveyed opinion in more than two-dozen countries on a broad range of questions about the British royal family specifically, and constitutional monarchy as a political system more generally.
On the matter of England’s monarchy, Americans are global moderates. When asked how Britain’s royal family makes them regard the United Kingdom, 62 percent of Americans say it “makes no difference.” 22 percent say the royal family makes them feel “more positive” about the U.K., a moderate number compared, for example, with the 38 percent of Indians and Romanians who say the same. Yet Americans are also among the people least likely to say royalty makes them feel “more negative” about the U.K. — only 6 percent of them agree with that statement, compared with 10 percent in France, 11 percent in Sweden, 15 percent in Spain, and 24 percent in Turkey.
Americans are similarly ambivalent about whether the British monarchy should be abolished. While only 15 percent say Britain would be “worse” for ditching the royals — for reference, that number is 32 percent in Australia, 36 percent in Poland, and 46 percent in Britain itself — only 12 percent of Americans think the country would be “better” if the Windsors were put out to pasture. Americans are not only more hesitant in endorsing the abolition of Britain’s monarchy than South Koreans (18 percent), Mexicans (28 percent), or Argentines (35 percent), their support for a British republic is actually lower than in Britain, where 15 percent say the U.K. would be “better” if it weren’t a kingdom.
The poll’s most surprising results come from the question “Do you think it would be better or worse for your country in the future if it had a constitutional monarchy like Britain instead of an elected Head of State?” Only 36 percent of Americans felt comfortable answering “worse” to that, while 11 percent said “better.” Compare that hesitancy with the confidence with which Americans routinely answer other surveys — 62 percent of them, for instance, were sure Iran was cheating on the nuclear deal.
Assuming the Ipsos numbers are accurate, they must be conceded as revealing republicanism to be a far less central component of American ideological identity than much of our civic-constitutional culture is premised on believing. Americans may be radical outliers in the court of global opinion on any number of issues, but an allergy to monarchy is not one. To anyone who takes republicanism seriously, this demands an uncomfortable reckoning.
There is a persistent royalist temptation in America. Not in the sense of any tangible movement to enthrone a king, of course, but in a more subtle and psychological sense. A pernicious impression, spread by a certain sort of cosmopolitan type, holds that the monarchy question was something the Founders simply got wrong in 1776 — along with the Electoral College, the Second Amendment, etc. — cursing Americans to a lifetime of envy of more “enlightened” nations.
The old saw dusted off every time Britain’s royals enjoy a burst of positive press holds that monarchies have something over America because under a monarchist system the “head of state” and “head of government” are different people while in America they’re fused. The nominal head of the British state is Queen Elizabeth, and the government head is the elected prime minister. This, advocates say, provides the public good of having one leader who is attractively aloof and ceremonial to compensate for the other, who is common and political. In the United States, by contrast, everything is concentrated in the single acrimonious person of the president.
It is possible to take seriously the criticisms of American royalists without flattering monarchy as the only plausible alternative.
Yet even if we accept this premise (which takes for granted that the United States government is “headed” by any single person — a parliamentary shibboleth that ignores America’s separation of powers), the presence of a royal family doesn’t actually legitimize a government in any measurable way but rather introduces a fresh way to delegitimize it: the monarchy-versus-republic debate.
As some of the Ipsos numbers show, citizens of monarchies do not all blindly fawn over their royal families — many spend a great deal of time arguing whether the royal family should exist at all. They debate monarchy’s cost to taxpayers, and whether subsidizing it entrenches grotesque feudalistic ideas in national life. They argue over the degree to which, and under what circumstances, the monarch has a right to intervene in politics and whether such interventions can ever be justified in a democracy.
This is perhaps the most obvious explanation for why Americans poll as “monarchist” as they do. Not living under a monarchy but being constantly subjected to the slick PR of the world’s best-managed one offers the privilege of being able to fantasize about that system’s seemingly endless positives while remaining insulated from any of its negatives.
That said, it is possible to take seriously the criticisms of American royalists without flattering monarchy as the only plausible alternative.
A strong case can be made, and was recently made by John Dickerson in The Atlantic, that the modern presidency has become overburdened with expectations of public ritual and emotional performance that distract from the president’s constitutional duties, and that it is, as a result, increasingly ineffective at both. Yet the cure for an imperial presidency is not a king but a return to a properly republican presidency. Perhaps some of the president’s de facto royal functions should be delegated elsewhere.
Conservatives often get uppity when stars of stage and screen assert their presence in civic life. Fair enough — their politics are often obnoxious. But the megawatt nature of American celebrity culture can also be a national asset, to the degree that it offers citizens an inspiring opportunity to see their nation personified by men and women whose fame is (mostly) meritocratic, rather than aristocratic. If the masses want their national pomp and circumstance to be performed by someone other than politicians, then perhaps we should let the president take a break and start looking to America’s athletes, actors, pop stars, and the like to start handing out paper towels at hurricane shelters or emceeing the Easter egg roll.
Republic or not, there’s no shortage of “American royalty.” Why not make better use of it?