Thursday, April 28, 2011

In Praise of Monarchy

I appreciate the small-r republican ardor with which Mark Oppenheimer assails America’s royal wedding obsessives, but he’s fighting a losing battle. “Americans are supposed to loathe and reject monarchs,” he writes, but it’s telling that all his examples of that loathing (“In the earliest years of English settlement, this land was a proud haven for king killers … [we] fought a bloody war for the privilege to ignore the king of England … Anti-monarchism was then written into our Constitution …”) are centuries old, dating from a time when republicanism was an exciting cause rather than a somewhat-ossified assumption. Since those days, we’ve regressed to the (very human) mean: We’re fascinated by the royal family that we once overthrew, we have our own hereditary dynasties (and the slobbering coverage to match), and we’ve gradually turned our presidency into a quasi-imperial office, complete with coronations and cultic devotions and all the rest. True, by the standards of modern history, with its parade of strongmen and caudillos and presidents-for-life, our republican institutions have been impressively resilient. But even the American experience suggests that the anti-monarchical temper Oppenheimer invokes is ultimately artificial and unnatural, a triumph of theory over instinct and idealism over human nature. In their hearts, most people want a king and queen.

The resilience of this impulse, even in a democratic age, is probably the best case for the constitutional monarchies of Europe, their silliness and stuffiness and frequent tackiness notwithstanding. Toasting Prince William and his soon-to-be princess this week, the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens made a fine Burkean case for the British crown: “Royalty is the most venerable embodiment of British tradition, tradition is the lifeblood of identity, identity generates social cohesion without resort to force, and social cohesion is the sine qua non of a viable polity.” But I think it’s that “without resort to force” that’s the most important part of the argument. Whatever their customs and traditions, even the most modern polities often find themselves yearning, like the Israelites of old, for a kinglike authority. And the existence of a largely-powerless royal family can be a useful hedge against the perpetual temptation to invest ordinary politicians with quasi-royal powers, and then (almost inevitably) watch them run amok. (The experience of post-Franco Spain suggests that the restoration of a hereditary monarchy after a long period of dictatorship can play a similar stabilizing role.) Having a monarch as the symbolic head of state keeps elected officials in their place, provides an apolitical outlet for popular hero worship and the cults of celebrity, and satisfies the human hunger for ceremonial authority. If it’s an affront to democratic sensibilities, it’s also a safeguard for democratic institutions. Better a real king, crowned and powerless, than the many pseudo-kings who have strutted (and still strut) so destructively across the modern stage.

There has been a great deal of online monarchist bashing of late. Thought I'd throw this out.

Anyone who favors an elected politician as a head of state over an hereditary monarch hasn't met very many politicians.

- Margaret Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven


Rebecca said...

That statement about the human need for "ceremonial authority" is particularly interesting. I find it particularly intriguing as we (Americans) devolve culturally -- Protestant churches become less and less ceremonial, less things are "sacred" in the public square, morality is increasingly optional/relative -- but our interest in the British monarchy does not completely wane.

Could it be in our hearts we know we're supposed to bow to something? To honor something?

rabidgandhi said...

I had the same thought after a recent trip to the Capital. Funny how the enlightenment state seeks to demolish liturgy in the realm of faith and supplant it with liturgy in the realm of state.

Owen White said...

I had a friend, Mark, who was a Welsh Catholic. He died 11 years ago. Anyway, he was a member of the Welsh nationalist party which, despite the name was a socialist party and not at all akin to the right wing BNP. I had a conversation with Mark around the time the House of Lords was being "reformed" by the Blair government, so as to take away the old peerage rules and make most of the "Lords" in the House of Lords political appointees instead of actual members of the peerage. I was absolutely shocked when Mark told me he was against the Blair changes. Why? Because the old peers were free to have hold their own opinions on matters, and in the midst of the Thatcher government, were generally considerably to the left of the House of Commons. Small constituencies could often get a hearing in the House of Lords when they could not in the Commons. Mark was no big fan of Aristocracy, but when given the choice between the old peerage and the new Blair oligarchy, he choice the former. Most of the folks buying up Welsh properties for vacation homes and thus driving up property values were Blair supporting nouveau riche. That angered Mark.