Fascinated by royalty

February 12th, 2020

The path not taken

In January, Prince Harry and his American wife, Meghan Markle, announced that they would “step back” from their role as “ ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family.” Behind the restrained prose of their official statement roiled a drama touching on private personalities, public roles, family bonds and a media ecosystem hungry for even the smallest details about the lives and loves of the people who hold what are now strictly ceremonial offices.

Even Americans, who deliberately and violently threw off the rule of Harry’s great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, found a way to have strong opinions on what was hastily dubbed “Megxit.” Rod Dreher, a popular blogger at The American Conservative, wrote a blistering series of posts denouncing the “insecure, malignant narcissist” (Meghan) and her “henpecked” spouse (Harry). Others have been more sympathetic, citing a double standard in the way the media treats Markle and the way it has covered Kate Middleton, the wife of Harry’s older brother, William.

While there are real questions about familial and national loyalty at stake somewhere in all of this, a more fundamental question on this side of the ocean is why so many Americans care about the marriage and family of a man who is sixth in the line of succession to a crown that doesn’t rule us.

Americans have been fascinated by everything from the brief reign and abdication of King Edward VIII (who, like Harry, married an American) to the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and by seemingly every royal wedding since theirs in 1981. We watch The Crown on Netflix, the first three seasons of which cover the accession and first quarter-century of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. Even our more fantastical entertainment like Game of Thrones echoes our interest in kings and queens.

Many people find something appealing in all the signs and trappings of antiquity and hierarchy — the clothes, the symbols, the castles, the titles and the protocols. If nothing else, it has the fascination of a historical path not taken. Once on a trip to England, our guide to the Tower of London joked, “Just think: all of this history could have been yours.”

Democracy and its discontents

One function of the crown in a constitutional monarchy is to serve as a symbol of public life that’s above, or at least outside of, the wrangling of political parties. A memorable episode of The Crown shows a young Elizabeth being instructed in the two parts of the British system: “the efficient,” which makes policy and answers to voters, and “the dignified” — that is, the monarchy — which gives “significance and legitimacy” to the democratic order and answers only to God.

The queen invites the victor of parliamentary elections to form a government in her name, but she’s forbidden to express any public opinion on the question of who ought to win such an election. In this system, a monarch is supposed to represent not just a class or faction of the nation but the whole, and to do that, he or she needs to be scrupulously impartial.

In the American constitution, the head of state and head of government are combined in one person: the president. Both roles are filled by the winner of a high-stakes partisan contest. Nothing in our system stands above or outside of politics, which means that all the pomp and ceremony we sometimes need from our rulers — the “dignified” function mentioned earlier — gets attached to people many of us didn’t vote for, don’t like, and sometimes don’t even respect.

With all of this in mind, it’s perhaps no wonder that many Americans are curious or even enthusiastic about the role of a monarch in a modern government. It’s not just that people get impatient or frustrated with democratic politics and wish for a leader who can cut through gridlock and corruption. There may also be a genuine desire for a political order that isn’t so, well, political. When even the sports and entertainment realms we’ve often looked to for escape and cohesion feel politically loaded, people may find themselves more fascinated by an institution that’s by definition required to be nonpolitical. 

Mystery and legitimacy

Whenever a domestic crisis hits the royal family, it inevitably leads to questions about whether it could “bring down the monarchy.” The Crown frequently depicts events that could, if not properly managed by the queen or the royal family, undermine the legitimacy of the institution they represent. The whole concept rests on the shared belief and consent of the people, not on any actual power within the institution itself. Once people stop believing the monarchy is legitimate, it stops being legitimate.

Put another way, the legitimacy of a monarchy is a confidence game. Maintaining that confidence is a core responsibility of the people who hold the office. Too much innovation, such as Harry and Meghan’s stated desire to create a “progressive new role within this institution,” can pose a threat to an institution defined in part by its distance from short-term trends and the whims of public sentiment. Too little adaptation, on the other hand, threatens the public buy-in that a national symbol requires to function.

This is hardly a challenge unique to royalty. Our own monarch-less constitution faces the same concern; once we stop believing in it, the words themselves lose their power. Similarly, our clergy and religious leaders live and work in tension between stability and change, between familiarity and overexposure.

“Who wants transparency when you can have magic?” Elizabeth’s uncle explains while watching her coronation on The Crown. “Pull away the veil and what are you left with? An ordinary young woman of modest ability and little imagination. But wrap her up like this, anoint her with oil, and hey, presto, what do you have? A goddess.”

It’s human to want a ruler in a veil, human to want the veil pulled away, and human to be disappointed when we see what’s underneath. Ask any politician, any pastor, even any parent, and they can tell you that the people in their care want to know them, but only so well. Maybe we’re drawn to royal families, and attentive to their ups and downs, because their only job is to show us what we want to see and can’t quite have. 

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