Before a lunch of pigs’ feet and pickled eggs in Montgomery, Alabama, I was asked to bless the table. The request had come after my hostess’s passionate plea to put more God in the schools and her praise for Britain, where an established church ensured that everybody got some kind of religious education. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that although those lessons were compulsory, they were also considered something of a joke and that I now consider myself a lapsed agnostic (I used to not know, but then I just stopped caring), so I smiled and nodded. But when the call for a blessing received no response my cover was blown.
“I don’t know how,” I told her.
Treating me as an object of extreme pity, she said, “If that’s all school prayer taught you, smart as you are, then I guess we can do without it.”
There are some things about British life that bear translation to Americans. How the National Health Service works and (to right-wingers) why it is so popular; how a game like cricket can last five days and stop for tea; and the relationship of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to the United Kingdom—these are no more obvious in the United States than the appeal of American football and the Second Amendment is to the British.
But the one thing I thought I’d never have to explain is why the monarchy is a bad idea. That, after all, is the whole point of everything the United States claims to be about. The New World. The American Revolution. The end of inherited entitlement. The home of reinvention, class fluidity and social mobility. The myths that underpin this country’s founding credo, for liberals and conservatives (albeit in different ways), are all informed by the overthrow of monarchy. That’s why the president is called “Mr. President”—for all the trappings of office and power, he’s supposed to have the same title as everybody else.
So when Americans fawn over the forthcoming royal wedding, paying it more attention and apparently regarding it with more reverence than they would the nuptials of a president’s daughter, I’m compelled to do a double take. When liberals and leftists ask me what I think of Prince William marrying Kate Middleton, I assume they are asking about the huge sums of public money being spent at a time of swingeing cuts or the volumes of ink spilled about her dress and the guest list while revolutions upend regions and economies implode. If I discover that what they really mean is, what do I think of him marrying a commoner and do I think it will last, my eyes roll and my blood pressure rises.
Don’t get me wrong. As much as I think about them at all, which is rarely, I wish William and Kate well as a couple. As one of a select few who subscribe to both The Nation and People, I’m not precious. I don’t let my politics get in the way of my trash interest. But what Americans consume as a celebrity wedding is something far more insidious: it is an affair of state.
It’s been almost 250 years since Americans last had to debate the question of the monarchy seriously, so it should be no surprise that some would be a little rusty. Here’s a refresher. Having a royal family establishes inherited privilege at the heart of your system of government and embeds patronage at the center of your politics. Our upper chamber is still the House of Lords. People pay taxes to “Her Majesty’s Revenue”; if you win an election, you become “Her Majesty’s Government”; if you go to court, you face not the “people” but the Crown. All of this is of course primarily symbolic. The trouble is, it’s symbolic of something quite terrible—the notion that our head of state gains the position not by merit or election but by birth. In Britain, no matter how aspirant a parent is, nobody buys their kid a T-shirt that boasts Next King of England because the job is never up for grabs.
If this were a mere anachronism—the performance of tradition and the exercise of heritage—then one might argue that it doesn’t matter. But it’s not. The British class system has proved to be incredibly robust. More than half the cabinet went to private school—three went to Eton, as did Princes William and Harry, their maternal uncle and their grandfather. Meanwhile, most studies show that social mobility in Britain has stalled over the past two decades.
Republicanism is by no means a majority view in the United Kingdom. Opposition to the monarchy there rarely tops 18 percent and support for it never dips below 70 percent. British people like the idea. Americans, I assumed, knew better. But whatever the patriotic mythology when it comes to power, the United States also seems to draw from a tiny gene puddle. Until recently George Bush, Richard Daley and Martin Luther King Jr. all had not only the same names but the same positions as did their fathers. Jimmy Hoffa still runs the Teamsters; a Landrieu is back in the mayor’s office in New Orleans.
This hereditary reflex within the political class mirrors the increasingly sclerotic nature of social class in general. More than 40 percent of Americans born in the bottom quintile of earners will remain there as adults. Intergenerational mobility in the United States and in the United Kingdom remains mired at levels below those in most of Western Europe and Canada.
With real wages stagnating and prices rising, many Americans feel they are going backward. But there’s no need to go all the way back to 1775. So when the bells are chiming and the bride blushing, let’s wish the individuals well and the institution ill. The royals are a class act. And that is precisely the problem.