It’s been 246 years since America declared its independence from Britain. It took two wars and multiple skirmishes to secure a stable friendship that evolved into an oft cited “special relationship,” a cousins once removed sort of thing. Through two world wars, the Cold War, and a handful of other conflicts, we have grown closer than ever, albeit the former colonies a great power, and Britain much diminished. So I suppose it’s not surprising that America is in a time of corporate mourning over the death of Queen Elizabeth II, hopeful anxiety over the ascension of Charles III, and speculation whether William and Harry will mend their breach. Americans can’t seem to get enough of British dramas, books, actors, and royal family gossip.
It could be all for entertainment value but I think there is something else going on more closely related to the divisions and dissensions we have endured over the last twenty or so years. Our intense interest may have been brought to a head by our country’s four years with a corrupt, incompetent would be ruler who tried to overturn an election and finally resorted to invoking insurrection in order to stay in power. His plans didn’t work but served to inspire others down two dangerous paths. One would have an authoritarian president ruling over a compliant Congress and court system. The other would establish a new confederacy of independent states governed by a small, powerless federal government. Both tracks would allow oligarchs of one kind or another to dictate laws and policies.
Our democracy survived with the election of a new president, but the turmoil remains. Upcoming elections suggest Congress may again become impotent and openly hostile to rights, freedoms, and the most precious elements of our democracy. The climate is seeking its revenge on the abuse we’ve heaped on to this earth, our fragile, island home. The pandemic upended our complacent way of life. Resurgent old diseases and new ones remind us that good heath can’t be taken for granted. After WWII the U.S. dominated the world’s economy as the only advanced nation that had not been bombed into smithereens. Still the largest, its near equals are the E.U. and China, meaning we can no longer exert dominance at will.
What does all of this have to do with our fascination with the news of the Queen’s death and the ascension of Charles III?
From the early18th century, the British monarchy has been the symbol of continuity and stability with many prime ministers, battling parliaments, economic hard times, empire and its loss, devastating wars, and a diminished role on the world stage. Yet Britain has muddled through finding new ways to remain strong, making the most out of whatever condition it found itself in. Dukes and Barons have become innkeepers. Knighthood goes to entertainers. Rural and urban communities are at odds with each other. Immigration has changed the color palette of the nation. The Scots can’t decide if they want to stay or go. The Welsh speak Welsh. On a public stage, the royal family engages in all the ordinary foibles of ordinary people. And Brexit, who knows how that will turn out? Through it all, the monarchy has been a symbol of dependable continuity and national pride with the powerful demonstration of a seamless transition from one monarch to the next. The week long ceremonies of pomp, mourning, worship, and celebration engages the British nation as nothing else could.
America is engaged as well not only for the entertainment value, but rather subconsciously feeling a need to adopt it as our own to symbolize continuity and national stability. From the end of George Washington’s term to the end of Barak Obama’s, the office of president has been peacefully transferred from one to the next. True in times of assassination, untimely deaths, forced resignations, and even that of the only unelected president, Gerald Ford. The last twenty years have seen the rise of agents for a more authoritarian government headed by a “unitary” executive. With considerable skill and political manipulation, they created an emotionally driven movement of popular distrust in a government that gave us the Trump era. Trump’s term ended in a humiliating defeat at the polls, followed by a deceitful battle to overturn the election by claiming election fraud. When the courts threw out cases for lack of evidence, his people attempted an insurrection while he threatened to remain in the White House no matter what. It didn’t work, but it shook the nation. How could such a thing happen in a democracy like ours? Our symbols of stability and continuity were shattered.To where could we turn?
Perhaps through vicarious participation in the British monarchy’s traditions being covered hour by hour on American cable news, and on the front pages of every major newspaper, our nation will be able to regain hope and trust in our own traditions. Traditions that Trump & Co. could rattle but not destroy.
© Steven E. Woolley