Monarchy is the natural order of things, which is why, as Ben Franklin grasped, the tricky bit about a republic is keeping it. Franklin didn’t live to see how that panned out. He died in 1790, a year after the first inauguration, back when John Adams was proposing that George Washington be addressed as “Your Most Benign Highness.” Instead, America gave a word to the world — the now-standard designation for a non-monarchical head of state: “President.”
Many presidencies are monarchical in all but name — Putin is known to his subjects as “Tsar,” and Mubarak was “Pharaoh” — and some are even hereditary — the Kims in North Korea, the Assads in Syria. For those citizens looking for a lighter touch from their rulers, there are Europe’s non-executive presidents — the heads of state of Austria, Germany, Portugal, Italy that nobody beyond the borders can name but that seem to suit post-imperial powers in search of a quiet life: A republic is the phase that comes after dreams of national greatness have flown and the world stage has been abandoned to others.
And then there’s His Royal Highness Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge, third in line to the thrones of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Belize, Tuvalu, and most of the other prime monarchical real estate. I kept my royal-baby fever in check — name-wise, I was hoping for Prince Trayvon Carlos Danger Windsor — but I confess that, passing a TV set tuned to BBC World, I did stop to enjoy an in-depth report on how in far-flung parts of the Commonwealth many people were reacting with total indifference to the regal newborn. You’d be surprised how long the man in the street is prepared to stop and chat about how he couldn’t be less interested in the new princeling.
Such are the joys monarchy affords in a democratic age: For every loyal subject enjoying a frisson of pleasure at the blessed event, there’s another getting just as much pleasure bitching to his mates down the pub about what a bunch of useless parasites they are. And, unlike the president of the United States, divisive royals are a bargain. Obama’s last Christmas vacation in Hawaii cost some $7 million — or almost exactly the same as a year’s air travel around the planet for the entire royal family (£4.7 million). My daughter and I chanced to be in Scotland at the same time as the Queen last summer, and went along to see her in Glasgow: Her limo had a car in front and a car behind. The royal couple got out and walked around the square greeting jubilee well-wishers. My thrilled teenybopper came within a foot of Her Majesty without having to go through a body search or a background check. Try doing that on Martha’s Vineyard as the 40-car motorcade conveys President Obama to an ice-cream parlor and the surrounding streets are closed and vacuumed of all non-credentialed persons. The citizen-executive has become His Mostly Benign Highness: a distant, all-powerful sovereign — but kindly, and generous with his food stamps, if merciless with his IRS audits.
In Fleet Street, the (small-“r”) republicans of the columnar crowd advanced an argument that would have sounded bizarre a generation or three back: They attacked not so much the royal family as a citizenry stupid enough to dote on them. “The Royal Baby shows how far we’ve fallen back into our forelock-tugging habits,” scoffed Viv Groskop in the Independent. Tugging his forelock was what the hatless working man once did to the local squire, but chippy republicans revived the archaism sufficiently to earn it a busy Twitter hashtag in the days around the royal birth. Surveying the “Hadrian’s Wall of Kate Baby Special Editions” on every newsstand, another columnar naysayer, Grace Dent, unconsciously channeled Pauline Kael re Nixon: Nobody she knew was interested in the royal bairn. The Guardian’s Catherine Bennett peered out of her drawing-room window to watch in horror the masses below “drool over royal and demi-royal hotness.”
This is republicanism as class marker: Apparently, the only argument against an anachronistic, out-of-touch hereditary family ruling by divine right is that they’re way too popular. I remember, years ago, being told by a Hampstead intellectual that the problem with the Queen was that she was too middle class. Today, for Britain’s elites, monarchy is simply too, too common.
America’s elites, on the other hand, are happy to drool over Barack and Michelle’s neo-royal hotness. Shortly before his death, the sociologist Michael Young, the man who coined the term “meritocracy” for a satirical fantasy he wrote in 1958, wrote that Britain’s Blairite meritocrats “can be insufferably smug, much more so than the people who knew they had achieved advancement not on their own merit but because they were, as somebody’s son or daughter, the beneficiaries of nepotism.” As Young had foreseen a half-century ago, a cult of (pseudo-)meritocracy absolves a ruling class from guilt. They assume not, as princes of old did, that they were destined to rule, but that they deserve to. Which is wonderfully liberating — as one sees all around, from Barack Obama’s neo-monarchical selectivity on which laws he’ll enforce to Anthony Weiner’s industrial-scale exercising of his Tweet du seigneur. Both men have bet that the public crave Their Most Benign Hotness.
If it’s any consolation to Ben Franklin, they kept it longer than you might expect. Every so often, I take my children across the Connecticut River and down to Plymouth Notch, Vt., where a citizen-president lies buried on a hardscrabble hillside under a headstone no different from the seven generations before him. But Coolidge is more alien to today’s presidency than George III is.
Oh, well. Maybe republican virtue will be restored in the 2016 election. Jeb vs. Hillary?
– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (www.steynonline.com).