The Ostensibly Apolitical Nature of the Royals Explains Americans' ObsessionRoundup
tags: British history, British Empire, Queen Elizabeth II, Royal Family
Suzanne Schneider is deputy director and core faculty at Brooklyn Institute.
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.