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January 03, 2014 3:58 PM Does America Need Royals?

By Ed Kilgore

Gotta admit that when I first encountered Michael Auslin’s piece in Politico Magazine suggesting—to all appearances, seriously—that America needs a monarchy to create some symbol of national unity, I didn’t immediately start guffawing like Esquire’s Charlie Pierce did. If we could somehow import Britain’s system, with not only a figurehead monarch but a parliamentary system, I’d be all for it, given all the recent illustrations of the dysfunctions associated with our own system in a period of closely contested partisan and ideological conflicts. Another factor is the tendency of Americans to want their leaders to look and act like Royals; I used to joke that maybe we could ask the Kennedys (perhaps alternating with the Buckleys) to serve as a Royal Family so that the president and other leaders could be smaller than life. The same impulse once led the late Hunter Thompson—hardly a High Broderist—to suggest something a lot more radical: a national “city manager” who would keep the country going while the politicians “beat on each other with big sticks.”

But I’m totally with Pierce in terms of Auslin’s own rationale for Royals (or as he suggests at the end of his piece, a “First Citizen” with royal-like symbolic power only): that having a national figurehead would somehow heal the political wounds that divide Americans.

Auslin treats us to a veritable banquet of false equivalency assertions in making his case that both parties and both ideological tendencies have reduced politics to mindless savagery, and that as a result Americans have lost all trust in government. A brief sample:

[T]he invective is endless and entire groups are labeled. Democrats accused citizens attending Tea Party rallies of being racists, without a shred of evidence. President Obama has repeatedly referred to his Republican congressional opponents as hostage takers, while supposedly serious commentators call them “political terrorists,” a vicious label in a country fighting a decade-plus-long war on terrorism. The advent of 24/7 cable news has driven political debate to hitherto unimagined depths, with political operatives and ideologues from both sides shouting epithets at each other. Liberals regularly assert that Republicans hate minorities and the poor, while right-wingers question Obama’s citizenship and claim that progressives are socialists.

Come to think of it, passages like that don’t represent false “equivalency,” but aggressive blame-shifting, though I suppose Auslin’s affiliation with AEI makes that inevitable.

But this and all the similar outbreaks of hand-wringing over “polarization” miss something other than the fairly plain responsibility of a Republican Party captured by a radicalized conservative movement for the unforgiving mood: ideological differences represent real choices facing the country that merit all the passion they command. The way I’d actually formulate it is that the GOP has come to stand for a rigid ideology that seeks to overthrow much of the bipartisan twentieth-century policy legacy of the country, intensified (among many Republicans, at least) by an identification of that ideology with the Founding Design and even the Divine Will. Democrats are less ideological as a whole, but do by and large resist the proposed counter-revolution stubbornly and sometimes fanatically. But wherever you lay the blame, such questions as the existence of a social safety net, the legitimacy of government regulation of the private sector, the right to vote and to control one’s own body, and the positioning of the United States in a fractious world, are not trivial issues that have been blown out of proportion by cynical pols who could return us to the good old days of bipartisanship if only they so wished—or if unhappy citizens had a rallying point like a First Citizen.

So in the end, Charlie’s right: the position Auslin’s calling for is a cipher “who will unite us, and who will summon into perfect harmony the better angels of our nature, and who will do card tricks and make balloon animals and be available for children’s parties, as far as I can tell.”

If we’re going to have a national figurehead with zero power or responsibility, by all means let’s go all in and have a Royal Family with weddings and scandals and plenty of distractions for the tabloids. Or maybe we could let Hollywood fill the bill with an officially designated National Celebrity. But don’t pretend it would make a bit of difference in anything that mattered.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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