Saturday, April 30, 2011

Heads of State and Heads of Government; Or, Where's Mommy?

Yesterday it was almost impossible to get away from the news about the royal wedding. Even NPR, which can normally be relied upon for substance, devoted too much time to it (admittedly, five minutes would have been too much, in my opinion). It was a particularly egregious manifestation of celebrity worship, except that unlike (for example) Justin Bieber, who actually did something to become famous, William and Kate have done nothing (unless you count being born as doing something).

Earlier this week on On Point, Tom Ashbrook devoted an hour to discussing why any nations still have royal families (at least on the part that I heard, they didn't come up with an answer). Over at the Daily Dish, British-born Andrew Sullivan makes the case for the useful role a monarch plays as a symbol of the nation. Like many other countries (e.g., France, Ireland, Sweden), Britain makes the (to us) foreign distinction between the head of state and the head of government. In Britain, Spain, and other constitutional monarchies, the monarch is the head of state. In republics such as France and Ireland, an elected president is the head of state. Head of state is a largely ceremonial post, but in the case of some republics the president has limited discretionary powers. The head of state's real purpose is to be a figure of national unity, or a national parental figure, if you will. In such monarchies and republics, it's the prime minister who actually runs the country, with all the difficulty and dirtiness that such work involves. The head of state is theoretically above all that.

In the United States, for good or ill, the head of state and head of government are the same person. To many (mostly older) Americans, the president is supposed to be almost a living embodiment of the nation. This partly explains the intensity of the national grief when Kennedy was assassinated--and the disgust of many Americans at Bill Clinton's messy private life. It also helps explain why so many white Americans are outraged that we have a black man with a foreign-sounding name in the Oval Office. He embodies a demographic change that terrifies a lot of people who miss a picket-fence, white-bread America that never actually existed.

Very few men have had the personal prestige to successfully fulfill the symbolic promise of the presidency: George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt and Eisenhower come to mind, but not many others. In the unlikely event that our constitution were amended to make head of state a separate office, I can't imagine we could find anyone seen as sufficiently above the fray of politics to be a symbol of national unity.

In the United Kingdom, Elizabeth II is possibly the last member of her family capable of being a figure the entire country can rally around. As Jonathan Freedland points out in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, she's one of the last living links to the most glorious hour in modern British history: when the nation stood alone against Hitler. I don't see how her lily-white descendants will come to be as seen as anything other than an anachronism in an increasingly multiracial Britain.

Of course, all this begs the question, why do people need symbols of national unity? Are peoples around the world really that infantile that we all need some national parental figure or physical representative of a national ideal?

Apparently so.

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