Monarchy: Good for the king, useless for the people

Count Nikolai Tolstoy, relative of the “War and Peace” author and head of the International Monarchist League, has argued that the United States should adopt a constitutional monarchy, similar to that in the United Kingdom. Tolstoy, and other monarchists, believe that monarchies are needed as unifying symbols for a country, and that countries with monarchs are generally more stable and prosperous than those that lack a monarchy. Monarchs, in the monarchist view, would wield primarily symbolic power, or very limited and specific legal powers, existing to preside over affairs of state and to serve more or less as a figurehead.

Even if someone knows these beliefs, they can easily dismiss monarchists’ arguments by calling monarchy inherently dangerous or saying that a noble, well-intentioned monarchy could devolve into something oppressive. However, even if we assume that a potential American monarchy could never become as full of corruption and intrigue as, say, the Saudi royal family, and even though the United States is undeniably tumultuous, perhaps more so than at any point in a century, the solution to the country’s turmoil is not to create a monarchy — whose establishment would be nigh impossible due to America’s history with monarchs, among other factors — but to make actual policy changes that address the specific problems present in the country.

Perhaps it should go without saying, but the very existence of the United States owes itself to a rebellion against the British monarchy. This basic historical fact means that, in many ways, anti-monarchism is at the core of what defines America. Indeed, a 2012 CNN poll showed that only 13 percent of Americans supported the idea of an American monarchy. With monarchy, at least in this country (the same poll showed 82 percent of Americans held favorable views of Queen Elizabeth), being such an unpopular possibility, there is no way that a monarchy of any kind could be established here without defying the democratic spirit that a constitutionally-limited monarchy is supposed to preserve.

A large part of the monarchist argument is that monarchies serve a symbolic purpose, even though they don’t really labor for the money they make. However, the idea that the “majesty” provided by a monarchy is worth creating a new monarchy over assumes that such majesty would exist spontaneously — which it wouldn’t. The British monarchy is, admittedly, a majestic institution, but its majesty is earned. The current ruling dynasty, the House of Windsor, has controlled the throne for a century, and the monarchy has existed in some form for many centuries more. Thus, there is an enormous history behind this monarchy, which lends it authority and legitimacy.

A newly established monarchy in the United States, on the other hand, would have none of this history, and indeed would be of questionable legitimacy, regardless of how legally it was formed. It is impossible to state with any certainty how long it would take for an American monarchy to become truly accepted, but odds are it would take many decades, because the idea of supporting a royal family is simply unprecedented in American history; until it reached legitimacy, any American monarchy would be very easy to write off as an expensive waste of time and money.

Speaking of wasting money, it is likely that, on an economic basis, many people would object to the cost of starting a monarchy from scratch, in terms of paying for miscellaneous institutions, ceremonies, and physical sites associated with monarchy, not to mention the amount paid into the personal wealth of the royal family. The British monarchy cost taxpayers a sizeable $48 million in 2016 (out of the total $368 million price tag) just to maintain its precious symbols. Now, while the British monarchy arguably pays for itself by generating tourism and its accompanying revenue, this tourism is predicated on the aforementioned prestige and history of the monarchy, which would be absent for years in a new American monarchy. In the meantime, that royal family would be an expensive burden on American taxpayers, and in an age when many are (rightfully) outraged by the costs of supporting a president who takes expensive trips to his personal resort (similar to what an American monarch would do), that’s a tab few are going to want to pick up.

The question of who exactly would become America’s first monarch also creates enough trouble to negate any value in having royalty around in the first place. If a random, anonymous family is chosen by lottery to become the royal family out of nowhere, there is a definite chance that the monarch would be unfit in some capacity to rule, to be the figurehead that represents the American people. They could be undiplomatic (e.g. crude, unmannered and uncooperative with people), politically problematic (e.g. loudly and unabashedly conservative in a time when conservative values are unpopular), or physically or mentally unfit for the duties they must fill. The same possibilities also arise if an election is held to determine the monarch, with the further problem that the viable candidates are almost certainly limited to those with a certain amount of celebrity already, denying the average American a chance to become royalty.

Unlike with unpopular or bad presidents, any poor quality monarch could not be voted out of office, which means an embarrassing symbol of the country could be in charge for decades. In addition, it would be next to impossible to choose one family, tasked with serving as symbolic rulers for ages, that truly represents all the diverse and changing aspects of America, in terms of race, region, culture and economic status. All these factors mean that there will absolutely be people displeased with the choice of monarch, and they will be unable to act in that displeasure. The reigning monarch would exist not as a symbol of America’s stability or majesty, but of its being fixed at one point in time, unable to change by the very nature of the institution.

Perhaps the most foolish thought behind creating an American monarchy is thinking that all the issues America has to deal with — immigration, race relations, economic inequality, gender inequality, etc. — will magically evaporate if Americans have someone regal to look up to. How would an American royal palace eliminate police brutality? What can crown jewels do about North Korea? And how does a ruler who, by definition, is essentially powerless manage to achieve anything meaningful? Paying someone to smile and wave for a crowd from the comfort of their throne won’t solve anything; we need lawmakers to act to resolve these problems, and these lawmakers need to be elected by and answerable to the people of the United States.

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