Newspaper front pages are showing pictures of a royal baby and preparation for a royal wedding in one of the world’s oldest democracies while pertinent questions are being raised about the decline of democracy in Poland, Hungary, Austria and other countries. Why are people so fascinated by the birth of Louis Arthur and the marriage of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry in Great Britain at the same time we bemoan the rise of autocratic rule around the world?
Is there a relationship between fascination with royalty and the decline of democracy?
(Full disclosure: I have not been invited to the royal wedding or reception.)
In many ways the answer is yes. Royalty and autocrats reduce the image of a country to a central figure. Rather than the messiness of rule by the people – never really knowing who is in charge – the royals and autocrats symbolize a much neater definitive rule. Although it is politically correct to say that a country is ruled by the people, that they are the sovereign, there is an innate longing for something more parsimonious. People are secure specifically knowing who is in charge.
For example, when the government of Great Britain is in turmoil over Brexit and the weaknesses of Prime Minister Theresa May and her Conservative government, the royalty represents a glamorous return to a noble tradition. Although the king or queen has little political power these days, there is security in knowing exactly who is next in line to the throne. It is much more exciting to talk about what Meghan will wear to the wedding or why Sarah Ferguson has been snubbed at the reception than to figure out what Amber Rudd’s successor as Home Secretary will do about the Windrush scandal and immigration in general.
The British fascination with royalty is in direct contradiction to a democratic culture that dates to the Magna Carta of 1215, at least. But this is not just a British problem. Fascination with individuals who represent power is part of the current decline of democracy which is linked to radical changes brought on by globalization.
In times of insecurity, dominant rulers and symbols of authority provide security. The rise of fascism after World War I was directly linked to the insecurity of the Great Depression. The rise of autocratic rulers and the current fascination with royalty are tied to the insecurity from globalization. What better time to exalt over a royal baby and royal wedding than when Great Britain’s future and the future of the European Union are being called into question? What better way to ignore the trials and tribulations of instability than to burrow into the lives of the glamorous new generation of future monarchs?
The situation in Hungary, Poland and Austria are somewhat similar. People have elected strong leaders in the face of overwhelming migration challenges. And the European Union has not turned out to be the answer at the supranational level. The EU remains a faceless bureaucracy with no symbolic leader in charge. The devolution of power among its members not only causes confusion about who is in charge, but it is necessarily slow and inefficient, just the qualities people reject in times of radical dislocation. With rapid change, simple solutions fulfil the public’s need for security.
“We want our freedom and we want it now,” John Lewis demanded for African-Americans at the March on Washington in August 1963. Ironically, the rise of autocrats and the overwhelming interest in royal babies and weddings seems to be demanding just the opposite. “We want to be secure with strong leaders,” voted the people of Poland, Hungary and Austria in recent elections. As for the British, their fascination with the royal family has pushed Brexit and immigration off the front pages. But for how long?
It is not the autocratic rulers or royal families who are the heart of the today’s problem for democracies. The problem for democracies is when people feel insecure and turn to others for answers. For the people to be sovereign, they must understand and promote their sovereignty, not the rule of others.