Like any good American, I have long enjoyed a chuckle at the expense of the British for keeping around an archaic monarchy, even while respecting some of the individual royals, especially Queen Elizabeth. The American popular fascination with the British royals is itself a kind of pining for our own monarchy, and can’t be separated from our longstanding British heritage and ties of culture and language. After all, there are also royal families in Spain, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands, to say nothing of small principalities and states outside Europe. Yet, the only other royal family that ever really captured a comparable share of American attention was the royal family of Monaco during and immediately after the years that Grace Kelly, an iconic, A-list American movie star, was the wife of the monarch.
So the latest flurry of enthusiasm over the birth of Prince William and Duchess Kate’s third child and the impending marriage of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle, a minor American TV star (best known as a member of the ensemble cast of a show on the USA Network) should, by all rights, be viewed with some amusement. But in an era of reality TV, we are long past being able to look down on the creation of celebrities who serve no other function than to be objects of public attention and gossip. And in an era of progressively less healthy American governing institutions, maybe there is something to be said for the wisdom of a ceremonial monarchy.
Look at our presidential politics. We have just — for now, at least — passed out of an era of political dynasties, in which three members of the Bush family ran presidential campaigns six times between 1980 and 2016, and were on the national ticket six times, and the two Clintons ran presidential campaigns four times between 1992 and 2016, and headed the national ticket three times. Before that, three different Kennedys ran in 1960, 1968, and 1980, to say nothing of the campaigns of political scions and spouses such as Al Gore, Mitt Romney, Jerry Brown, Rand Paul, and Elizabeth Dole. And the reaction to that era gave us two consecutive presidents who came to office with a lot of celebrity glamour and symbolism, and not much in the way of professional qualifications for the job. Donald Trump, like Barack Obama before him, is well-suited to the job of a celebrity figurehead and hobnobber, and not so much suited to running the executive branch of a republican government. But both men inspire ferocious loyalty among a segment of the population that enjoys living vicariously through their icons.
Moreover, tribal politicians like Trump and Obama don’t even make very good national figureheads, because their forays into hard-edged culture war battles make them despised by a chunk of the country with as much fire as they are loved. While our glasses are increasingly rose-tinted already in looking back at the Clintons and the Bushes (especially in the aftermath of the passing of Barbara Bush), there is little doubt that this dynamic has gotten even worse over the past decade. Trump inspires such baroque displays of opposition that he has been unable to perform many of the presidency’s ceremonial, non-partisan function without boycotts and controversy by artists, athletes, and others who in past years were willing to smile and gladhand with politicians they disliked. Partly that’s a symptom of the corrosive nature of the “woke” life of politicizing everything, but Trump’s gleeful divisiveness has certainly exacerbated it.
In short, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the usefulness, even (and maybe especially) in the 21st century, of a nation employing dynastic figureheads who carry themselves with dignity, live an idealized lifestyle, endure a certain measure of public prying and gossip, and perform ceremonies of national unity that remain separate from tribal politics. Maybe the impulse to have a king or queen — one even the Lord couldn’t deter the Israelites from embracing when they grew dissatisfied with rule by prophets and judges — can’t be totally eradicated, and continues under other guises in our politics in ways that are increasingly harmful to us. Americans have gone too far down the republican road to turn back, but the British haven’t, and maybe their reasons for keeping up with the Windsors are not such bad reasons after all.
God Save the Queen.