The barrage of coverage in our media of the engagement of Will and Kate, the future king and queen of England, is easy to explain. It’s the latest news event for our celebrity-drenched culture.
What I had a harder time understanding, before I lived in Europe, was the appeal of a monarchy within a democracy like Britain, or Spain, or the Netherlands, in the 21st century. Could any institution be more anachronistic? Why do some people still put up with having, even paying taxes to maintain, a king or queen?
The answer I finally settled on, after getting to know natives of those and other countries with royalty, transcends mere tradition. It goes something like this: We are theirs, but they are also ours.
The royal rush this past week — and the irony of American fascination with the heir to the British crown in this age of the tea party — got me to thinking about how that sentiment went missing in the relationship between American “commoners” and our own elites.
Ask people of any political persuasion what’s wrong with this country, and you repeatedly will hear some version of We are theirs, but they have spun out of our control.
You see it in many areas of American life: in anger at fat-cat CEOs and Wall Street bailouts, in frustration at the mainstream media and its biases, in contempt for Hollywood liberals as well as organized religion. It is clearest in relation to politics.
There is populism across the political spectrum; see the left’s constant assaults on “the rich.” But the most potent brand of people power today belongs to the tea party.
Tea-party populism is sometimes described as anti-elitism, even anti-intellectualism when the subject expands to include the cultural and academic elite. The labels are mistaken.
“Fairness” and equality of outcomes (as opposed to equality of opportunity), the great leveling of society by whittling away at the top, are not the tea partiers’ preoccupations.
They don’t resent people who are successful or intelligent. What they resent is those people who believe success or intelligence comes with the right to tell everyone else what to do. The tea partiers believe not only that the “elites” don’t necessarily know what is good for the rest of us but, worse, that they don’t even bother to ask.
There’s a difference between tea-party populism and the way it is depicted. But while the left and right argue about that, it’s becoming clear that vast caste in the middle, the independents, are buying what the tea party is selling — for now, and only up to a point.
We have seen the political pendulum set land-speed records as it swings from one party to the other and back again. Come January, the balance of power in the House of Representatives will have gone from Republicans +31, to Democrats +78, to Republicans +51, in a span of just six years.
The mantra of the independent voters pushing the pendulum back and forth seems to be: We can’t trust either party past the next election.
As long as the middle remains in that mind-set, the attraction of limited government will only get stronger. The challenge for the newly elected members of our political elite is to make good on their promises — and to go about that in an orderly, sober, well-explained fashion.
Do that, and the claims of rampant “anti-elitism” will become an anachronism, too.