The presidential election is over. In a few months, Donald Trump will take the reins from Barack Obama and become the 45th President of the United States.
That was a difficult sentence to type.
But this piece is not about my feelings on the outcome of the election, nor is it about Democrats vs. Republicans. This is a piece trying to make sense of how our nation unites after what has been widely considered the most divisive election in U.S. history.
A possible but all-too-unrealistic option would for the U.S. to extensively amend the Constitution and return to a system abandoned over 200 years ago: a constitutional monarchy.
Before you scoff and write this off as a ridiculous proposal, hear me out. I’m well aware that Americans aren’t exactly clawing for a monarchy of our own. In a 2012 CNN poll, only 13 percent of respondents thought that a royal family of our own would be a good thing.
But this proposal wouldn’t involve hand-picking one family to head our newly reformed state. Instead, we would go with the great-great-great granddaughter of the king we rebelled against all those years ago: Elizabeth II, whose current popularity in the U.S. hovers around 80 percent, according to the same 2012 CNN poll.
What are the arguments in favor of abandoning our divisive republican model of government?
Monarchies tend to be more stable and democratic than republics
With the head of state occupying the throne for life instead of a fixed, limited term, monarchies tend to lend more stability to a nation than does a republic with an elected president, especially when it comes to the transition of power. In addition, the characteristics of the British model of government makes those in power more accountable to the democratic electorate.
In the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth realms, the transition from monarch to monarch is smooth and instantaneous. Upon the death of the sovereign (called the demise of the Crown), her successor automatically becomes king or queen. There is no gap–a sovereign is always on the throne.
In stark contrast, the passing of power from one president to another can be a messy affair. Even in this election cycle, Donald Trump wouldn’t commit to accepting the results of the election if he lost.
Although we’ve avoided this potential disaster, it would have been an unprecedented mess in American constitutional politics. It would have likely precipitated a constitutional crisis, with great uncertainty of what to do in resolving whatever dispute that had arisen. This doesn’t happen in constitutional monarchies with well-established rules of succession–once the monarch dies or abdicates, the throne passes to the next in line.
In addition to the stable transfer of power between heads of state, constitutional monarchy can lead to more democratic governments.
A 2009 study by Oxford political scientists revealed that government is often more democratically accountable in constitutional monarchies than in republics (abstract here; article on the study here).
The study revealed that monarchies have higher incidences of events indicating democratic accountability: more early elections, less cabinet-shuffling.
In the British model of government, prime ministers are appointed by The Queen and serve as long as they command confidence of the lower house of Parliament. A quick summary of how the process works: General elections are held to choose members of the House of Commons, which is similar to our House of Representatives. The leader of the party which wins a majority of the seats is appointed prime minister, and can serve as long they have a majority of seats. (Things can get a bit tricky when no party wins a majority)
The prime minister forms a government from within the House of Commons by nominating cabinet ministers and other senior government functionaries. The government may be defeated on a successful motion of no confidence, which triggers the automatic resignation of the prime minister and, if a new government cannot be formed within two weeks, an early election.
The result is that these governments must be accountable to themselves and, ultimately, the electorate. Government accountability is a huge problem in the U.S., with only one in five Americans trusting the government. Additionally, members of Congress are much less accountable than British MPs because they aren’t faced with the possibility of early reelection bids–congressional terms are fixed by the Constitution and elections are scheduled on a fixed-term basis by federal law. The prospect of having to stand for election as a result of unpopular or dangerous lawmaking might well lead to increased accountability to the electorate on the part of members of Congress.
An apolitical monarch is a more popular, unifying head of state
Constitutional monarchs are, either by convention or by law, apolitical. The Queen never inserts herself into political controversies. She does not vote in elections. When she does exercise political power (such as dissolving the legislature or appointing a prime minister) she always does so either at the behest of her ministers or by constitutional convention.
As a result of a constitutional monarch’s never dirtying herself with politics, she becomes a national symbol everyone in the country can rally around. During WWII, George VI became a living symbol of British perseverance and unity, even as German bombs rained down on London.
“But presidents can serve as rallying symbols during times of crises, too!”
While absolutely true, the political nature of the American president means that such unity and popularity is often short-lived. George W. Bush’s approval rating skyrocketed to 90 percent in the aftermath of 9/11. By the time he left office, that number had sunk to around 35 percent.
Even now, the media are gobsmacked to find President Obama’s popularity at 56 percent as his second term is coming to an end. Such a high approval rating at this point in a president’s term has only been eclipsed once in modern presidential history–by Bill Clinton in 2000.
In contrast, support for the monarchy in the United Kingdom remains very high. A 2012 poll found that 68 percent of Britons thought the monarchy was good for the country. Only nine percent thought it bad, and 17 percent had no opinion. A poll from April of this year saw an increase in support, with 75 percent saying the monarchy has an important role in the future of Britain.
HM The Queen certainly hasn’t been immune to criticism and dips in popularity–as scandal embroiled the Royal Family during the 90s, republican sentiment in the United Kingdom increased.
But even as the scandals pass and republicanism sporadically spikes, The Queen and the monarchy as an institution remain extremely popular. This consistently strong support would be unheard of in our system, where the president is a political figure and nearly half the country will disapprove at any given moment.
An American Queen would heal the divisiveness of presidential politics by serving as a national symbol of pride and a source of unity for all Americans, regardless of political stripe, to identify with in times of crisis and in celebration.
Monarchy can better for the economy
Fairly recent evidence suggests that constitutional monarchy is good for business and the economy as a whole.
A 2007 Dutch study indicates that the presence of a royal family accounts for about one percent of additional growth in the national GDP. In 2006, this “monarchy bonus” added between four and five billion euros to the Netherlands’ GDP.
In the United Kingdom, much ado has been made about the finances of the Royal Family, who cost the government about £35.7 million per year.
While the cost seems unjustifiably high for a hereditary head of state and her family, for every pound spent on the monarchy, the British economy receives about £14 in return as a result of tourism alone.
While the U.S. won’t likely see this magnitude of return (for reasons discussed later), even distant royals can provide an economic boost. In September, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited Victoria, Australia–another country where Elizabeth II is head of state. Royal visits can have huge positive effects on the local economy, mostly via the flocks of tourists who come to get a glimpse of the royals in person.
What system do you propose?
The new federal government
I propose a model of federal government based on that of the United Kingdom and currently practiced in the Commonwealth realms, the former Dominions of the British Empire which have retained Elizabeth II as head of state.
Congress would be reformed into an American parliament, with a dominant lower house in the House of Representatives and a chamber of “sober second thought” in the Senate. The House would dominate the legislative process, producing prime ministers and forming governments.
The Senate would act mainly as a revising chamber, scrutinizing and revising legislation. In an ideal model, it would be modeled after the Canadian Senate, in which members are appointed on recommendation of the prime minister and can serve until the age of 75. A nonpartisan commission would recommend appointments not based on politics, but instead on the merits and accomplishments of extraordinary Americans.
The presidency would be abolished, with executive departments and functions being headed by ministers appointed from the House of Representatives. The Queen takes the role of head of state.
But wait! The Queen mainly resides in the UK–who will carry out her duties while she’s away?
Thankfully, this question was answered over 100 years ago. A governor-general, appointed by The Queen on recommendation of the prime minister, would be Her Majesty’s representative, carrying out her official and ceremonial duties in her absence. This position is, like the monarchy itself, strictly apolitical and bound by constitutional convention and law. The governor-general serves as a de facto head of state, since The Queen would be gone from the U.S. far more than she would be present. Most of the recent governors-general of Canada and Australia have been highly respected countrymen representing all walks of life, including authors, professors, journalists, and military officers.
With respect to the federal judiciary, it would remain largely unchanged–the only major difference is that judges and justices would be appointed by The Queen (really the governor-general) on recommendation of the prime minister. To solve the potential problem of partisanship in judicial appointments, a nonpartisan commission would be formed to recommend qualified appointees to the prime minister, who would be bound to act accordingly.
The state governments
With respect to the states, government would be modeled on the federal system, but operate on a smaller scale and with some different nomenclature.
Legislatures could remain bicameral or abolish their upper houses to become unicameral (Canadian provincial legislatures are all unicameral), with the sole house retaining the powers of the lower house in this model.
Instead of a prime minister, a premier is appointed as head of the state government and exercises the powers of the prime minister at the state level.
The Queen’s representative in each state is the lieutenant governor, who exercises her powers in the state during periods of absence. As with the governor-general, the lieutenant governor remains strictly apolitical and is a noteworthy individual from that state, appointed on recommendation of the state’s premier.
How would we implement this system?
It would be extremely difficult to implement this system while preserving our current Constitution. Such extraordinary change would require massive changes to the document, such as the near-total repeal of Article II, which outlines the presidency.
Yes, we’d likely have to start from scratch. Fortunately, other countries with these systems have done much of the heavy lifting when it comes to crafting constitutions. The Constitution of Australia outlines such a system, and is a unified document containing most of the applicable constitutional provisions.
Other legislative enactments would likely be necessary, such as settling the line of succession or attempting to better define the royal prerogative. It would be an immense process, but one that might well be worth it given the long-term benefits of this system.
How likely are we to implement this system?
We aren’t likely to. Despite The Queen and the Royal Family being very popular in the U.S., support for a monarchy of our own remains low.
That being said, if there’s any time to make the case for constitutional monarchy in America, it’s now. Gallup polls indicate that confidence in American institutions is historically low, with only 36 percent confidence in the presidency and the Supreme Court, and a dismal 9 percent confidence in Congress.
Distrust and lack of confidence in the fundamental institutions of the Republic could leave some Americans looking for other options when it comes to government.
This piece is by no means an exhaustive thesis on the pros and cons of our current system and the proposal I advance. But extraordinary political times call for extraordinary proposals, and this has been an interesting thought experiment of how we could reform our government for the better and restore national unity.
What do you think?