Can anyone who has spent any time in Washington doubt the abundant good sense of this? To say nothing of the celebrity of royalty, the drawbacks of an elected head of state have long since become apparent. The imperial presidency has been a sorry fact of the American existence for decades now. How can it be otherwise when the mere mortal elected to the presidency is treated -- at least in terms of the expectations with which the office is lumbered -- as some kind of priest-king?
Not that it ends there in Washington. Congress has become a family business in which promotion is based on genes more than ability. The British House of Lords may be an anachronism, but at least it recognizes inherited power as, well, an anachronism. From the Kennedys to the Pauls via the Udalls, the Murkowskis, the Jacksons, and many others, political privilege in modern America often seems to have become a matter of inheritance.
More broadly, the elites are, in some respect, more completely isolated from the American mainstream than at any point in the nation's history. Witness, for example, the widespread sense on Wall Street that President Barack Obama was implacably hostile to America's super-rich. Witness too how much more ink is spilled debating affirmative action than contemplating legacy admissions to America's greatest universities. Anything that inconveniences the elite is, apparently, "class warfare" (albeit of a kind real class warriors might struggle to recognize).
The divide between the privileged and the rest has become disturbingly wide. Whatever its other strengths, the rise of the "meritocracy" also fosters the writing of rules and norms that sustain and protect those already happily advantaged. It is a form of regulatory capture that, amid much else, downplays the impact of dumb or otherwise unearned luck. As writers such as Ross Douthat and David Brooks have argued, if elites convince themselves their advantages are the product of nothing more than hard work, one might not expect them to be animated by an excess of old-fashioned, aristocratic noblesse oblige.
One need not be a hardcore leftist
to sometimes wonder if the fascination for foreign royalty (and other, lesser,
homegrown celebrities such as the Kardashians) is a means by which the common
people may be distracted from recognizing the reality of their own,
depressingly humdrum lives. Never mind any of that, look, there's a new and
shiny royal baby on the way!
And yet it is not just that. America's "elite" media institutions also devote extraordinary dollops of attention to the Windsor soap opera. I am not sure this is necessarily a mark of great cultural confidence. The New York Times will, it is true, occasionally mock the silliness of it all, but most of the time, it is just as willing as US Weekly to babble on about royal wedding menus, hairstyles, and Lord knows what other examples of cringe-inducing, space-filling guff.
True, the royals are an entertainment whose foreignness gives them just the right amount of exoticism but whose (English-speaking) familiarity makes them sufficiently accessible to command a mass audience. Perhaps it is merely harmless entertainment. Nevertheless, watching Americans coo over the latest royal "news" is always faintly disheartening.
It is one thing for Britons -- or
Canadians or Australians -- to take some interest in Kate's pregnancy. The
infant will, some distant day, be expected to be our -- and their -- monarch.
Americans have no such excuse. Is there not something mildly shameful,
something plausibly demeaning, about this excessive fascination with another
country's ruling dynasty? Aren't you supposed to be a bit better than this,
America? There is no need for overt hostility to the British royals; a studied,
even lofty, disinterest would surely be the most appropriate American attitude.
Benjamin Franklin's challenge to the new-born United States always carried a whiff of pessimism about it. "A Republic, if you can keep it," he warned. In truth, that kind of astringent republicanism perished long ago. Today, the goggle-eyed, breathless fascination with Kate Middleton's womb is perhaps but another reminder of the extent to which American exceptionalism, in this respect at least, is no longer quite as exceptional as once it was.