I just finished watching the second season of “The Crown,” the Netflix series about the career of the current Queen Elizabeth. Given the timing, I doubt the series was conceived in response to the American crisis of leadership. But in a year in which the overarching headline has been “country coming apart at the seams,” I’m probably not the only viewer to wonder about the possible usefulness of a king or queen.
As if to explain to Americans, for whom monarchy seems a ridiculously expensive vestigial organ, “The Crown” makes a big point of emphasizing the monarchy’s function as the part of government by definition above party politics, an institution whose express purpose is to demonstrate that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Couldn’t we use something like that about now?
In theory the American presidency itself is supposed to serve that function. We have the word “presidential” to suggest exactly that quality: an above- the-fray, statesmanlike leadership of all the people.
In 1963 I was not conscious of any particular veneration for the presidency. But when JFK was shot, atheist though I was, I likened the deep shock of it to the rending of the flesh of God . It seemed a transcendent wound to our whole country.
Few presidents achieve the status of “presidential.” But a year of Trumpocracy has taught us that much of the dignity and decency of the highest office in the land has been custom, not law. The current occupant seem to take delight in trashing the expectations of many of us. (Why should a savvy businessman have to divest himself of financial conflicts? Why shouldn’t he , just like any other jerk, act repulsively toward women?)
Now that the presidency is the last place to look for the symbol and embodiment of wholeness, we are left looking around for what else in our culture might play the role. The founding documents? In theory, but they don’t seem to be getting the job done. Ditto Old Glory or the Star-Spangled Banner.
The Supreme Court, which long seemed an august institution of solemn responsibility to the whole nation, is now widely seen as no more above politics than Congress.
What about architecture? The impressive public buildings and monuments of our capital are a very solid and apolitical embodiment of the whole, I would think.
The New York Times? Nah. The former highly respected “paper-of-record” for the nation is now “fake news” to millions.
How about “institutions of higher learning,” that “higher” suggesting transcendence? But for a lot of Trump supporters those institutions are also coming to seem “fake news.”
I’m not sure I’m quite ready for monarchy. For one thing, how would we go about it? Lacking ancient royal families, we’d have to turn to celebrities. Walter Cronkite was once, I think, voted the “most trusted person in the world” or some such. He would have been good. Or our beloved Oprah; but now there’s talk of her running for president. Hollywood could supply Morgan Freeman, who has the “presidential” thing down. Or Meryl Streep, who can play anything. But there would be something missing.
Maybe not monarchy itself. But in the current context there is a certain appeal and logic to what monarchy tries to do.
Most of the entertaining stories of “The Crown” are about the difficulty of maintaining the monarchy’s high and vital function, given the all-too-fallible material of designated royal human beings. So you might argue that the monarchy is not in that sense any different from our presidency. But according to polls, a big majority of the English agree that an institution that exists only to symbolize the country itself as a whole is worth the expense and trouble.
It has been suggested that if we asked nicely, QE2 might be willing to extend her queenship to include the former colony.