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Ostensibly, the Royal Family Is Apolitical. That’s Why Americans Are Obsessed With It.

The monarchy offers a comforting fantasy of power without politics.

Chris Jackson/Pool/AFP/Getty
In May 2021, Queen Elizabeth II performed her ceremonial duty of informing Parliament about the government’s agenda for the coming year.

Queen Elizabeth had hardly been pronounced dead before the anxiety started to circulate. Not merely about the “end of an era” and the ascension of the largely unpopular Charles III, but specifically that the appointed heir may prove too politically inclined. In an obituary published by Foreign Policy, Owen Matthews noted that the queen’s popularity depended in large part on her “scrupulous impartiality” in public affairs: “Unlike Prince Charles, whose sometimes eccentrically conservative views on architecture as well as his progressive views on the environment have caused regular controversy, Elizabeth’s personal views on Brexit or the socialist prime ministers who served under her remained firmly private.” Similarly, in Politico, Emma Creamer argued that Charles’s forays into the messy world of politics would serve as a further liability for the notoriously charmless prince, whose decades of climate activism risked raising the ire of U.S. Republicans in particular.

The late queen’s adoring fans never tire of pointing to her decorum, stoicism, perseverance, and famed stiff upper lip as evidence of her greatness. Even amid the most riotous upheavals, she never entered the political fray or so much as hinted where her sympathies might lie. “On almost any issue, in her seven-decade reign, relatively little has been gleaned of the queen’s political views,” the historian James Vaughn said in a recent interview. Among her other domains, Queen Elizabeth reigned over the realm of small talk, nice talk, civil talk—talk that repels controversy and conceals the chaotic and often bloody conflicts that shape human affairs. Vaughn speculated that much of Americans’ peculiar fascination with the British monarchy stems from the queen’s fulfillment of the ideal of an apolitical leader, particularly given polling data that shows an appreciable distrust of U.S. politicians. (Only 20 percent of respondents trust the federal government to do the right thing, while 65 percent believe candidates for office are chiefly interested in personal gain.) The celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s supposedly apolitical reign—a logical absurdity par excellence—compels a question: Why are so many, not just in Britain but noticeably in the United States as well, so desirous of power without politics?

Beyond revealing much about the workings of contemporary celebrity culture and capitalist media, Americans’ demonstrable fixation on the late queen gestures at a deep and pervasive democratic crisis, a sense of exhaustion with the idea that government should be a space for substantive contests between competing ideas of the good. That fascination with the queen’s “apolitical reign” has intensified alongside growing levels of inequality and reduced social mobility cannot be a mere coincidence. For more than a half-century, neoliberalism has championed a depoliticized world in which capital would be insulated from democratic demands. This is most efficiently accomplished by transforming as many aspects of human affairs as possible—from education and health care to transportation and energy (the adverse effects of which are currently pummeling the British working class)—into market transactions. Only then can something like the price of prescription drugs exist beyond the realm of “politics”—that is, beyond the realm where deliberate decisions determine the distribution of social goods.

Given this context, perhaps we Americans are envious that the British have something as historically sturdy as the divine right of kings to legitimate vast, hereditary, and permanent inequality and enshrine its maintenance as a civic virtue. Our political theology, which attributes these degradations not to the divine will but to the invisible hand, is flimsy by comparison. 

Americans have long had a more complicated relationship with the monarchy than devotees of Lin Manuel Miranda might like to admit. As Frank Prochaska illustrates in his 2008 book, The Eagle and the Crown, “the Founding Fathers were not averse to kingship, at least of the undespotic, limited variety.” Support for republicanism was as much about pragmatism as principle, even if more radical voices like Thomas Paine advanced an association between monarchy and decadent, unearned privilege. Prochaska notes that nineteenth-century Americans were by no means immune to the monarchy’s charms; before Elizabeth II, Victoria was also dubbed “America’s queen.” When she died in 1901, mourning ceremonies occurred across the U.S., offering a somber counterpart to the celebrations held four years earlier to mark her Diamond Jubilee.

Still, fascination with the monarchy was a marginal part of American social life until the twentieth century, when two wars fought alongside Great Britain helped cement a sense of solidarity between the two countries. King George VI and Queen (Consort) Elizabeth visited the U.S. in June 1939 to shore up American support for their English “cousins” as war appeared on the horizon. At the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park, New York, they feasted on a deliberately chosen picnic of beer and hot dogs in an attempt to humanize the king and queen. Long before Us Weekly, the Roosevelts knew that showing the royals to be “just like us!” was key to engendering popular sympathies.

Beyond wartime alliances, new technology enabled new forms of parasocial relations between Americans and the royal family. Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 was the first to be televised, creating a global spectacle that brought the monarchy into living rooms for the first time. (My mother was 10 years old at the time and still fondly recalls getting a day off school to watch the ceremony.) Television transformed the royal family into media commodities that could be consumed from the comfort of one’s own home. Still, Gallup polling from the time showed that 61 percent of Americans reported no interest in Elizabeth’s coronation ceremonies, even though most (66 percent) thought well of her.

The launch of cable news networks and social media accelerated these dynamics, already evident in the reportedly 750 million people who tuned in worldwide to see Charles wed Diana Spencer in 1981. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 22 million and 29 million people watched the royal weddings of William to Kate Middleton and Harry to Meghan Markle, in 2011 and 2018, respectively. The young royals have merged seamlessly with celebrity culture in the U.S., with news of their vacation plans, shopping habits, and family rifts a constant feature of checkout-lane publications. Clare Malone, a staff writer at The New Yorker, has suggested that the intensification of royal family coverage in the U.S. stems at least in part from the consistency of the royals’ public appearances. Unlike homegrown celebrities who have grown wary of tabloid gossip and shameless paparazzi, the royal family can never really retreat from view.

The media’s obsession with all things royal reveals capitalism and desire wrapped in a tight embrace, so symbiotic that it is impossible to tell which is primary: public fascination with the monarchy or the profit motive of news channels and tabloids. With the passing of Queen Elizabeth, the media machine went into overdrive. Outlets redirected their reporting and programming resources away from historic floods in Pakistan, the war in Ukraine, and a looming energy crisis in the U.K. to fixate on the rituals of mourning: the casket’s national tour and myriad processions; the military regalia donned by members of the royal family; the symbolism conveyed by varied flags, scepters, crowns, and wreaths. It was a visceral reminder that monarchy is an aesthetic mode as much as a state institution, at once reflecting and shaping public sensibilities. Even the vocabulary that circulates around the monarchy’s pomp and circumstance is telling: mystique, aura, magic, tradition, mystery, enchantment, majesty. The continual reach to a transcendental language underscores the truth that royal rituals are political theology in its most essential form. Steeped in pageantry, sanctifying the distance between sovereign and subject, the mourning rituals for Queen Elizabeth suggest nothing short of divine adoration. In death we discover that our most revered star is not just like us after all.

It is often said that the British monarchy must somehow serve the interests of the people, otherwise they would have thrown it off generations ago. Two justifications are typically offered. The first is that, by supposedly residing above the political fray, the monarchy unifies the people across partisan, ethnic, cultural, and religious lines. The British journalist Walter Bagehot gave voice to this sentiment in his 1873 essays on the English constitution: “The nation is divided into parties, but the Crown is of no party. Its apparent separation from business is that which removes it both from enmities and from desecration, which preserves its mystery, which enables it to combine the affection of conflicting parties—to be a visible symbol of unity.”

Almost a century and a half later, one finds no shortage of commentators who echo Bagehot’s views. British monarchists have even taken to advising their younger cousin across the pond on the wisdom of their system, if not on the basis of principle then at least on that of track record. “Indeed, the modern history of Europe has shown that those countries fortunate enough to enjoy a king or queen as head of state tend to be more stable and better governed than most of the Continent’s republican states,” declaimed one Brit in a recent opinion column in The New York Times. “By the same token, demagogic dictators have proved unremittingly hostile to monarchy because the institution represents a dangerously venerated alternative to their ambitions.” In this view, the monarchy offers stability, unity, and consistency, helping to orient people amid the tumults of democracy.

But what is the nature of this oft-mentioned unity and stability? What monarchal mystery so enraptures the masses? Matthews’s obituary for Queen Elizabeth hints, however unintentionally, at the practical and ideological functions of the monarchy today: “The queen and her family resisted the scaling down that most of Europe’s monarchies went through. They continued to live in fairy-tale splendor in their many palaces and castles.… Rather than alienating her people, the queen’s distance and dignity helped preserve the mystique the monarchy rests on.” As in life, so in death the royal family has eschewed the path of modesty. The grandiose proportions of the official mourning period and funeral gave rise to a question heard around the kingdom, in public murmurs and online shouts: Does one person really need so much? The canceled medical appointments, the shuttered shops and children home from school, the closed food pantries in a country facing an acute cost-of-living crisis—the acts of “respect” that only grew more absurd in the days leading up to the funeral, included suspended weather forecasting (spoiler: 55 and cloudy with a chance of rain), closed bike racks, and the four-mile queue. The dignity and respect afforded the queen appears in a grotesque light when considered alongside the masses who are continually denied the same, as if they should live vicariously through her adoration.

Does one person really need so much, of either dignity or any material good? In answering this question in the affirmative, supporters of the monarchy double down on the principles of heredity, hierarchy, and inequality as fundamental to a functioning society. Not only do the royals need much more than you or me, both in life and in death, but on account of their acts of public service they deserve it. Defenders of America’s own billionaire class cannot make a parallel claim and must therefore grasp for less durable justifications for their continued existence: the claim that increased taxation will squash the entrepreneurial spirit, for instance, or that impinging on an individual’s liberty to own a yacht on every continent constitutes a slippery slope toward totalitarian rule. We might speculate that the contemporary American fixation on the monarchy at this time reveals a longing to attribute our own Gilded Age to something with a more hallowed pedigree than mere greed.

The second defense of monarchy, particularly within democratic states, hinges on the assertion that royals are mere figureheads with no real power to govern. This discipled practice of noninterference is precisely what Queen Elizabeth so perfectly embodied, just as Charles’s prior forays into the land of “politics” generate anxiety that he may prove a “meddling monarch.” Leaving aside the question of how the monarchs may subtly influence day-to-day politics through audiences with the prime minister or raised eyebrows, why do taxpayers fund the lavish lifestyle of figureheads who are definitionally impotent? What is the practical use of a monarch who demands unwavering respect even though—and indeed because—they possess no authority to rule?

One hundred years ago, the German jurist Carl Schmitt argued that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” The notion of an omnipotent God in the heavens became the omnipotent lawgiver here on earth, a figure best embodied by medieval monarchs. The scientific revolution and enlightenment philosophy advanced a more deist understanding of God as the creator of laws of nature rather than an active manager of human affairs. Schmitt argued that this depersonalized notion of sovereignty—no longer dependent on either God or an individual monarch—paralleled the rise of democracy and the division of sovereign power into several parts. It reached its apex in the scientific management of not just manufacturing and commerce but politics and social life in the early twentieth century. It was this world of impersonal bureaucracy that Max Weber famously associated with disenchantment, though perhaps the continued veneration of the British monarchy should compel us to revisit this thesis.

The idea of an apolitical head of state may be a logical absurdity, but it corresponds perfectly to that of a remote divine sovereign, dignified and composed, surveying but never intervening in the chaos of human affairs. In playing this role, the modern monarch offers reassurance in the secular realm that so many desire in the cosmic one: the alluring notion that some dignitary presides over this grand mess, bearing witness to our suffering, no matter how removed they might be in practice. This particular political theology assumes a new and even more ghastly shape when considered against the backdrop of the neoliberal project. The fact that the royals are celebrated for their inability to interfere in politics echoes our own demobilization in uncanny ways. Living with an almost-overwhelming sense of futility in the face of crises that go well beyond the individual’s capacity to solve—from war and climate catastrophes to police violence and a political system that has been bought and paid for by the wealthiest—who among us has not felt the comforting tug of despair? The monarchy serves as the ultimate “thoughts and prayers” for a society convinced that, regardless the horrors, nothing can really be done to change what produces them. The royals specialize in offering consolation for the world as it is, and for this reason they are revered most by those who are certain it can never be anything else.

Of course, it is the people of Great Britain and the Commonwealth who will have to decide the future of their monarchy. We foreign observers can nevertheless note that, however peculiar the crown remains as an institution, its mode of “apolitical” power embodies a potent ideological brew that is currently being sipped the world over. Americans now relate to a foreign country’s royal family not with mere fascination but with love and adoration—the fact testifies to something rotten at the core of the republican project. Those interested in a more just and equitable social and political order must never stop insisting it can be otherwise.