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Academic Research Against Interest

[ 51 ] November 17, 2010 |

As a child of a constitutional democracy, I would first of all like to dissociate myself from Matt’s claim that “[w]e [what do you mean we, white man? --ed.] follow the royal family with fascination” — myself, I find the monarchy as utterly uninteresting as similar famous-for-being-famous families as the Kardashians, whose case for taxpayer-funded lavish lifestyles and status titles isn’t much more compelling. I’m also extremely skeptical that having a constitutional monarch makes any real difference in how political leaders are perceived. As far as I can tell, Canadian Prime Ministers are treated by the public pretty much the was American presidents are treated.

In spite of my small-r republicanism, however, I am compelled to note Eileen McDonagh’s paper arguing that constitutional monarchy increases women’s political representation. I’m still not sure I buy the causal logic, but the case is surprisingly plausible.

…in fairness, I think I might have more interest in the royal wedding than in who wins Dancing With What We’ll Charitably Call “Stars.”

Comments (51)

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  1. dSquib says:

    What of the claim that an unelected head of state, albeit with ceremonial powers in theory, provides a constitutional check against the potential of a runaway, tyrannical executive?

    That is, so long as the monarch is assumed to be supportive of democracy.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      What of the claim that an unelected head of state, albeit with ceremonial powers in theory, provides a constitutional check against the potential of a runaway, tyrannical executive?

      I am extremely confident that a constitutional monarch would not be a barrier to a leader otherwise willing and capable of establishing a tyranny. (Cf. Germany 1933.)

      • dSquib says:

        I would agree. What about tyranny by degrees?

      • Malaclypse says:

        I think you have a date wrong.

        Beyond that, wasn’t Hindenburg an elected head of state?

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          [Date corrected] Yes, true, but my point is that public officials without coercive authority are unlikely to provide much of a barrier to authoritarian leaders with coercive authority.

          • John says:

            Hindenburg had plenty of ability to prevent Hitler from coming to power. He chose not to use it because he thought Hitler was a lesser threat than communism, and could be tamed and used as a tool for right wing political interests.

            That doesn’t necessarily speak well for constitutional monarchy, of course. In the twentieth century, at least, monarchs have tended to approximate Hindenburg’s political viewpoint, and have often collaborated in establishing right-wing dictatorships, as in Spain, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Romania.

            Also worth noting that Hindenburg absolutely had coercive power. The military was loyal to Hindenburg, not to Hitler.

      • ajay says:

        Er, Germany 1933 was a state without a constitutional monarch. This is like saying “I am confident that there is no barrier to a woman becoming president of the United States. Cf. George W Bush, 2001.”

        my point is that public officials without coercive authority are unlikely to provide much of a barrier to authoritarian leaders with coercive authority.

        The case of Spain suggests otherwise (though the situtation isn’t quite parallel). And the case of Thailand 2005-6 suggests that a monarch with no coercive authority can still exert a significant amount of clout, even facing a mildly authoritarian elected leader like Shinawatra.

        • djw says:

          I was thinking of the Thai case as a possible counterexample. Bhumibol’s is sometimes given credit for using his influence to prevent some coup d’etats in the 80s, and was said to have a positive role in the democratization of the 90′s. (Of course, he’s given tacit approval to other Coup d’etats over the course of his reign). I think, though, that the potential for Bhumibol to intervene against encroaching tyranny is a function of the kind of legitimacy that he personally and the Monarchy more generally hold in Thai politics and culture. His capacity to put the brakes on encroaching tyranny is most likely a function of the knowledge amongst aspiring tyrants that their rule would likely be unstable and short-lived if it was widely believed that the King did not approve. This sort of attitude toward the Monarchy couldn’t be replicated in Europe, nor should it be.

        • ajay says:

          Or the Pope, for heaven’s sake.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          Or Italy in 1922

          Yes, that’s really the example I should have cited.

          • ajay says:

            I’ll grant you Italy 1922, but you must accept that history is absolutely riddled with examples of public figures with no coercive power causing significant problems for authoritarian regimes. Cardinal Mindszenty. Arguably, Gandhi. Martin Luther King. Etc, etc.

            The fact that public figures of this kind haven’t always succeeded in opposing a tyranny doesn’t mean it can’t happen. By definition, any tyranny that exists is going to do so because public figures failed to oppose it successfully.

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              Right, but as your examples suggest whether there’s a figurehead monarch is unlikely to be anything more than a trivial variable — certainly, it’s neither a necessary nor sufficient condition.

              • ajay says:

                I think we’re dealing with too small a sample set here to be flinging around sciencey-sounding words like ‘variable’. The number of authoritarian governments arising in previously non-authoritarian states with constitutional monarchs is, as far as I can tell, 1 (Italy) – plus a lot of others where the authoritarian government was the result of being invaded by the Wehrmacht.

                On the other hand, the number of authoritarian governments arising in other states is considerably higher. Germany, Russia, Thailand, Japan, any number of caudillo states in Latin America. If you run the numbers, you’d probably find that most authoritarian states in modern times arise from democratic states with severe imbalances of wealth and a powerful elected president…

              • partisan says:

                You could argue that Victor Emmanuel III and Hirohito weren’t really constitutional monarchs, and neither were the rulers of Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Thailand. (Germany and Finland were the only members of the Axis that were republics. Even the puppet state of Croatia got a monarch.) I don’t think this is convincing. For a start Hirohito’s defenders claim, rather implausibly, that it was his status as constitutional monarch that made it impossible for him to do anything as his empire became a profoundly vicious dictatorship. Moreover there is a certain non-sequitur involved. A country that has ensured that its monarch is a cipher, tends to be the kind of country where democratic values are so entrenched that they can’t be easily subverted.

                I haven’t read the paper whose abstract you linked to, but I don’t find it convincing. The key movement for women’s suffrage was in the 1910s: that’s when Russia (1917), Britain (1918), Germany (1918), Netherlands (1919), Canada (partially in 1917) won it. If you look at the outliers, you find New Zealand, a frontier state, and Finland, a country undergoing a revolution with a socialist majority. On the other side of the divide you find late suffrage in overthrown monarchies like Spain (1931), Italy (1946) or neutered like Japan (1946). So that leaves Switzerland and France as the republican outliers.

                I’m not sure about Switzerland, but I suspect it has soemthing to do with the way women’s suffrage tends to be introduced (a) during war or (b) when suffrage and political arrangments are being openly debated. Switzerland didn’t fight a war last century, and I believe it obtained universal male suffrage in the mid 19th century, ie before the women’s suffrage movement really started making headway.

                As for France, I think we’re dealing with two factors. One is a political culture where the Left and Centre feared women would support Catholic parties, whereas the Right’s lack of enthusiasm for democracy meant they didn’t push for women’s suffrage hard enough. The result was a situtation where the lower house supported women’s suffrage, but the Senate blocked it.

                A comparison with the United States is in order, where ratification only narrowily passed. But there was a different dynamic here. Once women’s suffrage moved beyond a small number of western states after 1915, the likelihood that it would spread weakened opposition to it. Moreover, whatever politicans thought about women’s suffrage before it passed, they had a vested interest in supporting it once it did. So unlike the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, which would not have passed without large Republican majorities, I suspect a failure to ratify the 19th amendment would have only been temporary. Non-southern Democrats would have been pressed to push the Southern holdouts to change their mind.

  2. David Sucher says:

    In general I agree — at least indifference to royalty and probably not such a good idea as it reinforces gene-based hierarchy.

    But what fascinates me about the current British Royals — actually Prince Charles in particular — is how anyone can continue to believe that he will ever become King.

    He is so rooted and so active in his environmental beliefs — with which I largely agree — that I doubt that he would give them up, and he would surely have to give them up as the King. (Which would be unfortunate — he is worth more as a Prince than as a King.)

    That suggests some sort of abdication or at least a generation-skipping transition.

  3. ajay says:

    myself, I find the monarchy as utterly uninteresting as similar famous-for-being-famous families as the Kardashians

    The fact that you find extremely famous people rather uninteresting emphasises the fact that you’re in a small and unrepresentative minority. Not that that’s a bad thing necessarily.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Indeed, although note that I didn’t say I find all famous people uninteresting, but that I find people who are famous for no independent reason uninteresting. (And, BTW, is fascination with the royal family actually a majority interest in this country? I have my doubts…)

      • ajay says:

        True – but I would guess that a majority of Americans find people who are famous for no real reason interesting. That, after all, is why they’re famous.

        is fascination with the royal family actually a majority interest in this country? I have my doubts…

        Prince William’s engagement and Diana’s death both got a fair amount of news coverage in the US. That doesn’t happen to people that viewers aren’t interested in.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          Majority is a lot of people. You can be very famous without generating interest among the vast majority of people. The Jersey Shore cast are famous — but if the ratings are accurate only a small minority of Americans watches the show.

          • ajay says:

            Well, it would be tricky to get a definitive answer to that – but I suspect that if you told 100 Americans “Prince William just got engaged!” you’d get more people showing interest than not.

            • L2P says:

              I don’t think the question was whether you could get a vague “Oh, that’s kind of interesting” response, but whether people followed the royal family “with fascination.”

              The Kardashians, the royal family, and all that sort of stuff is important to a vanishingly small number of Americans. The Kardashians got ~4 million viewers for the Odom wedding – and Odom would have got that for marrying ANYONE on a prime-time show. If you flash them on a random gossip site, people won’t turn it off, but I don’t normally think of that as being “important.”

              If it is, there’s a vast range of “important” topics: orange juice, who won Bud Bowl, which bachelerette gets the rose. I don’t think that’s really what we’re talking about.

          • bh says:

            As someone who’s seen a lot of TV ratings and associated market research silliness in consulting jobs… Scott has this right.

            Ajay’s asserted majorities do not exist. He’s confusing ‘majority’ with ‘popular enough to be profitable in a big country.’ Name recognition, let alone professed interest, for those sorts of figures is never as high as people imagine.

            BTW… re: the Kardashians… a friend works for on of the bigger tabloids. As she explains it, like a lot of recent media trends, their rise is a factor of ease and cost than popularity. Actual celebrities don’t like tabloids, and try to avoid their reporters, so there are costs putting together stories with uncooperative subjects. Whereas the Kardashians will show up for photoshoots, answer questions, call the reporters back, etc.

            The places where these people are featured — basic cable shows, tabloids, the Internet — don’t have high access costs. So it isn’t necessary for these people to inspire passionate devotion. They just have be titillating enough to induce a certain number of people to cross a fairly low barrier to entry.

  4. mds says:

    my point is that public officials without coercive authority are unlikely to provide much of a barrier to authoritarian leaders with coercive authority.

    Indeed, aren’t you originally the child of a constitutional democracy where the current prime minister has determined that he can tell the constitutional monarch to go pound sand? Harper’s second parliamentary prorogation was breezily asserted in a short phone call to the Governor General, who famously failed to use her legal authority and/or bully pulpit to stop an out-of-control PM from a pattern of assuming that his rule doesn’t require a parliament. And at least part of the reason why she failed to do so is that it probably still wouldn’t have stopped him. How many divisions does Canada’s Governor General have?

    On the other hand, I would certainly trade our equivalent of out-of-touch unaccountable royalty for the British royal family, since our royals are apparently the Bushes and the Palins.

    • Emma says:

      In another example, the elected government of Australia was dismissed in 1975 by the Governor-General, the Queen’s representative in Australia. The ousted Prime Minister contacted the Palace to ask the Queen to redress this outrageously undemocratic move, and the Palace refused to interfere. Said ex-Pm still had the confidence of the House of Representatives, but the House was prorogued immediately by the putative new PM without a vote. So there’s that. I don’t think there’s any evidence that the royals are a brake on anything whatsoever.

      • John says:

        Wouldn’t it have been far more outrageous for a British monarch to interfere in Australian domestic politics against the judgment of the (Australian) governor-general? That was a no-win situation if ever there was one.

        • dave says:

          Indeed, in that situation the G-G is the monarch, for constitutional-procedural purposes.

          • Emma in Sydney says:

            That’s right. And neither of them are anything but undemocratic to the core and ought to be abolished. Which was my point, in agreement with Scott above.

      • Pithlord says:

        This isn’t how I’ve heard it, although there is no conclusive documentation one way or the other. My understanding is that Her Majesty has let it be known that she would have dismissed Kerr if Whitlam had asked for it, but Whitlam never did. Whitlam never said he asked for Kerr’s dismissal.

        I’d try to find some links, but I really should be doing something else anyway.

    • Pithlord says:

      The Prime Minister’s constitutional right to the second prorogation isn’t in serious dispute. It’s perfectly fair to criticize Harper for asking for it, but it isn’t fair at all to criticize Jean for giving it to him.

      The first prorogation was constitutionally iffy, because there was real evidence that there was an alternative ministry with the confidence of the House. You can reasonably criticize Jean for that call.

  5. Murc says:

    Okay, I’d like to bring up a point here that always seems to get lost in discussions of this type; what family could we possibly, POSSIBLY hate enough to subject them to become a British-style Royal family?

    I’m dead serious. Those people end up deeply fucked up, almost by design, because of the hothouse they live in. They’re forced to accept constraints on their lifestyle and violations of their privacy that, were they foisted on any of us, would have us reaching for shotguns, as a basic fact of their being. Moreover, because in most cases their financial well-being is dependent on the state and they don’t really have any useful skills, walking away isn’t really an option.

    See here and here; the first link is a little out of date, being written eight years ago, but the second is still pretty golden. Hell, basically anything Johann Hari writes on the subject, or his excellent book, really.

    • ajay says:

      Moreover, because in most cases their financial well-being is dependent on the state and they don’t really have any useful skills, walking away isn’t really an option.

      Common misconception: all the male royals, for example, have served or are serving in the armed forces. Flying Sea Kings counts as a skill. Also, the amount of the royal family’s wealth which is their own rather than the monarchy’s is uncertain, but there’s certainly some significant personal wealth there that they’d keep in the event of (say) abolition. Walking away is certainly a real option and has happened, within living memory – Edward VIII.

      • Murc says:

        There’s some evidence to suggest that Prince Charles’ naval and educational ‘credentials’ are basically nonexistent. And my understanding is that the bulk of Charles’ income comes form the List and from his status as Duke of Cornwall; while he would certainly not be poor in the theoretical event of abolition, his exact status would be uncertain.

        (This is not the case with William and Henry, both of whom have access to their mothers fortunes absolutely free and clear of their status as Windsors.)

        As for Edward VIII, my understanding is he was dependent on his family supporting him after he left, cutting him loose with a generous stipend.

        Even, arguendo, if I’m completely 100% wrong about the money thing, I would think that undercuts my larger point only slightly.

        • dave says:

          The royal family’s personal wealth and landed/investment income substantially exceeds what they get from the state – a ring-fenced sum spent on the performance of their public duties. These are facts.

          “The Crown Estate is now a statutory corporation run on commercial lines by the Crown Estate Commissioners and generates revenue of around £190 million for HM Treasury every year, greatly exceeding the costs of the Civil List.[1] For example, it owns much of Regent Street in London.

          “In 2000, a £35.3 million reserve was carried over from the 1990-2000 Civil List. The reserve was created from surpluses caused by low inflation and the efforts of the Queen and her staff to make the palace more efficient. For the period of 2000 – 2010, the Civil List has continued to be fixed at £7,900,000 annually, the same as was established during 1990. The accumulated reserves of the Civil List are to be exhausted by 2012.[2]

          Only the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh receive funding from the Civil List. The Duke receives £359,000 per year. The state duties and staff of other members of the Royal Family are funded from a Parliamentary Annuity, the amount of which is repaid by the Queen from the monies put into the Privy Purse from income from the Duchy of Lancaster. The money repaid by the Queen can be claimed against her personal tax bill however. Money from the Privy Purse also goes towards royal charities, including the Chapel Royal. Private personal expenditure is met from private sources of income.”

          Dontcha love Wikipedia?

        • ajay says:

          There’s some evidence to suggest that Prince Charles’ naval and educational ‘credentials’ are basically nonexistent.

          Oh, well, in that case he’d just have to run for President.

      • MPAVictoria says:

        True enough ajay but Edwards abdication occurred during a time period where he could expect to be given a governor generalship somewhere as a matter of course. It is a bit different now.
        /For the record I am a Canadian supporter of the monarchy for both historical reasons and because I believe that there are benefits from separating your head of state from your head of government.

  6. [...] They don’t love you like I love you: — Constitutional monarchy is good for women’s equality. [...]

  7. Vox Populi says:

    I think a case can be made for a monarch position in parliamentary democracies organized along the Westminster model.

    I think the Canadian “constitutional crisis” of a few years ago is a good example. In such a situation, where your belief of what should happen (let a new government form/prorogue parliament/hold new elections) will be a product of your political affiliations, it makes a certain sense to have the decider be someone holding a ceremonial, apolitical decision. Paradoxically, the very fact that such a person has no constituency, and no electoral legitimacy bolsters her credentials in resolving such political disputes.

    An elected ceremonial president (like in Israel) would be of much less value. Imagine if a similar crisis arose now in Israel. Would anybody accept that Peres (formerly of Labor, elected by a Kadima coalition) would be impartial between Netanyahu and Livni?

    • Pithlord says:

      I think this is right, but it is problematic that the Governor General is effectively appointed by the Prime Minister. Better to have a mediocre family of German immigrants.

  8. [...] had a debate recently about whether my lack of interest in the royal family/wedding (or other famous people with an equal [...]

  9. [...] had a debate recently about either my miss of seductiveness in a stately family/wedding (or other famous-for-being famous [...]

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