Louis Menand’s literary approach to the era masks some analytical fuzziness.
A Queen’s Lesson for America
The unity that the death of Queen Elizabeth II brought to the United Kingdom last fall offers a provocative contrast to the division characteristic of American democracy as we head into a presidential election next year.
British electoral politics can be as vicious as ours. If ideological animosities within the Conservative Party are less sharp than those among Republicans today, the infighting is hardly less intense. Here the question is whether Donald Trump will again be the GOP nominee. There the question is how long Rishi Sunak will last after two Conservative prime ministers fell in 2022.
But the Queen stood outside of electoral politics. She was revered—not only in her own kingdom but by millions of Americans. Her reputation around the world outshone that of almost any elected leader. Is there still something to be said for monarchy, even in this democratic age?
The Queen was a symbol of the kingdom in a way that no party leader, here or in Britain, can be a symbol of the nation. Americans often rally to a president in times of emergency or of triumph, but normally the president is a figure of contention, and since the end of the Cold War the contention has only grown more acrimonious. As the country has become more culturally diverse—and integrated into a global economy—our politics has become less rooted in local custom, which in earlier eras complicated, if not counterbalanced, ideological zeal. The result is that our two major parties represent, in effect, two different countries, and talk of “national divorce” comes as no surprise.
The United Kingdom is not only a place where regionalism still matters; its constituent regions are also distinct nations. They might not remain united forever: although leadership turmoil in the Scottish National Party has lately hampered the movement for Caledonian independence, and Sunak seems to have mitigated the risk that Northern Ireland would break with Britain to remain with the European Union, the fissiparous forces of UK regional politics are not going away.
Whether the UK can ever again produce a monarch as widely beloved as Elizabeth II will have a great bearing on the prospects for sustaining the kingdom’s political unity. Without a sufficiently popular king or queen the feeling of a shared realm will diminish (even if Scotland envisions remaining in personal union with the British crown after independence). The advanced age at which Charles, seventy-four, has taken the throne does not help. Prince William in turn will not become king until he is sixty-two if Charles lives as long as Elizabeth did.
Elizabeth was just twenty-five when she became queen. She embodied a time as well as a place—she anchored these uncertain first decades of the twenty-first century in the travails that Britain overcame in the twentieth. Yet the other secret to the great esteem in which she was so widely held lies in the fact that she reigned but did not rule. The nigh perfect monarch is also an anarch.
The Queen’s insulation from the contaminations of hard politics—from the taint of the Iraq War especially—made her prestige all the greater. She illustrated the principle that Edmund Burke communicated through the image of Marie Antoinette. In Reflections on the Revolution in France the French queen was the symbol of that part of a regime which upholds order through affection rather than fear. In casting her down to the level of a mere woman, and reducing a woman to a mere animal in their philosophy, the French revolutionaries did not advance equality but only reduced government to force and terror.
There is a great deal of irony in progressive pleas for the American right to abide by “democratic norms” today, even as the left tears down the statues and memorials that once embodied beauty and chivalry in our communities. Having worked to destroy a sense of reverence and affection for the old America—a feeling best evoked by the human form in the context of a long tradition—the left is astonished to find that the public has little attachment to any pieties, including those of progressives. And the right, in the streets or in the halls of the Capitol, becomes fierce as any Jacobin when it’s forced to resort to politics without love.
In place of a queen like Elizabeth, American democracy has only its history: its Founders, its heroes, its links to a complex and harrowing past that has nevertheless imparted to us whatever virtues we have. Our elections will always be contentious, and to criticize our history is not lèse-majesté, no more than is criticizing the monarch in today’s United Kingdom. But just as there can be no monarchy without honor for a king or queen, there can be no republic without honor for its memory.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor in chief of Modern Age.
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