Hey all. Let’s hop to it.
I did a column for The Guardian on Biden’s now-infamous democracy speech and how to run on the issue in the midterms and beyond:
[T]rumpism is the Republican Party’s mainstream. In suggesting otherwise, Biden intends to send the American people a partially defensible message — that support for democracy and the rule of law are principles that should transcend our political affiliations. And they should. But democracy and the rule of law aren’t just abstract ideals — they’re the means by which we solve our material problems.
Republican efforts to usurp and delegitimize the electoral process should trouble us not just because they’re unfair and destabilizing, but because they advance the interests of the wealthy and powerful, who benefit from the conservative policy agenda. By attacking our elections and the right to vote, conservatives hope to rob us of opportunities to shore up and empower working class Americans on issues from health care to labor rights. And this is the point Democrats should emphasize — especially given that the pivotal constituencies in the electorate, swing and Trump-curious voters, are clearly ambivalent about, or willing to overlook, Republican violations of democratic norms.
Like the rest of you, I’ve been following — mostly against my will — all of the hullabaloo across the pond over the death of Queen Elizabeth. Harper’s summed up the last few days pretty well in their newsletter, which I enjoyed working on when I interned there some years ago.
Isaac Chotiner’s just done a predictably good and clarifying interview with the British historian Simon Schama on the royals. As Schama says, it really does seem like many in the UK feel as though a dear grandmother or aunt has just died — a grandmother or an aunt that just so happens to have embodied and rescued the British monarchy as an institution. “Her uncle abdicated, and her father was stricken by shyness,” he tells Chotiner. “He upped his chain-smoking during the war and afterward, and was dead of lung cancer. And so I kind of remember the transition from this relatively young but utterly wasted and collapsed father to this young woman who had to remake the institution all over again.”
The standard contrarian arguments for constitutional monarchy have been trotted out. Undoubtedly, it’s provided the British people with a unifying outlet for national fervor outside the actual political system. But the UK’s policy gains relative to our presidential system probably have less to do with that than with the general advantages of a parliamentary system. And it seems a little ridiculous to suppose a country as culturally rich as the UK would have little to bind them without their taxpayer-financed Kings, Queens, and hip hip hoorays.
What’s more, it’s not really true, as often as it's said, that Elizabeth left actual policy alone.
As Hari Kunzru wrote for The New York Times, Charles is already more openly opinionated and marred by scandal:
Despite his pledge to continue his mother’s legacy, the new King Charles III will struggle to be such a blank screen for the projections of his people.
He is widely disliked because of his treatment of his wife Diana. Unlike his mother, he is known to be a man of opinions. His “black spider” memos, handwritten letters and notes given to government ministers on topics from agriculture to architecture, have led to concerns that, as a ruler, he will be tempted to overstep the strict constitutional bounds of the monarchy and dabble in politics. He ascends the throne in an age of unprecedented media scrutiny, and his private life has been fodder for decades of public gossip. And he, unlike his mother, does not represent unbroken continuity with Empire.
His ascension really just reinforces what ought to be obvious to us Americans already — monarchism is rule by the roll of a die. The fact that Elizabeth’s reign was unifying and politically uncontroversial owed less to the intrinsic features of the system than to Elizabeth’s particular disposition and personality. They lucked out! If she’d been insane or as taken with fascism as her uncle Edward VIII had been, the mood would be quite different right now.
Instead, Elizabeth tried to preserve her image as a political nonentity, even when her government was doing things that cried out for a response. While she can’t really be held directly responsible for British domestic policy during her tenure and the existence of the empire that finally crumbled away under her watch, she did refuse to use her platform, and the grandest stage imaginable, to condemn horrors that were being done, literally, in her name.
Here’s one example. My father was born a colonial subject of the British Empire under Elizabeth, two years after she took the throne. In 1967, seven years after Nigeria was granted independence, a civil war broke out that really defies brief explanation. In short, there were coup attempts, people of our tribe were targeted in pogroms and tried to secede, and Nigeria, with military support from the British government, quashed the rebellion with a blockade that killed perhaps as many as 1-2 million people through famine and disease. My father fought in the war as a teen. He doesn’t really talk about it. I don’t really ask him about it. So I know about as much about it as anyone else who’s heard of the conflict does — it scrambled the Cold War’s ideological lines, essentially launched modern international humanitarianism, and was first among the reasons John Lennon gave back his MBE. To my knowledge, the British government has never apologized for its role in the war. Neither did Elizabeth. To do so, the defenders of constitutional monarchy argue, would have corrupted an institution that usefully transcends politics.
Beyond turning a blind eye to national atrocities, achieving transcendence also involves the stuff of the society pages — marrying “well,” and publicly living better and more beautifully than those who ought to look up to you and learn from your example. Conservatives have always found these aspects of the monarchy appealing, and they’re fundamental components of the symbolism that anti-anti-royalist contrarians want to reduce to a matter of patriotism and anti-partisanship. I imagine Meghan Markle understands this quite well now. So does Stephen Miller:
The mystique of the monarchy doesn’t really hold a candle, though, to the mystique of democracy. “The people” as an entity making their singular “will” known; the divination of their fickle intentions by appointed soothsayers; the pageantry of elections and inaugurations; the drama of action in the streets; the idea that the public, not literally present in the halls of Congress or our statehouses, is still there somehow, embodied in individuals we expect to act as we would and feel or even look like we collectively do — all of this sits on a higher abstract plane than the grubby business of hereditary succession and getting the right people to have sex.
This is a plug for the book I'm working on, of course; I spend a good portion of it trying to make democracy’s mysteries less mysterious. But if it’s true that the public needs mysteries and myths, I think it’s worth asking ourselves why the defenders of constitutional monarchy think democracy’s won’t do on their own. It’s a stance rooted in the distrust of ordinary people — the idea that politics works best when we feel small, dazzled and tamed by people and forces beyond ourselves. To be a democrat, by contrast, is to believe that grace, dignity, beauty, and the sublime are best found closer to ground.
I am a democrat. No more kings.
“No More Kings” — Pavement (1996)
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