Just when it’s most relevant — with a wedding freshly concluded — Andrew Sullivan, and others, attempt to make a case for the continuance of the British monarchy. The argument is that distinguishing the head of government and the head of state makes it easier to be anti-government, without being anti-state; with reference made to the despicable “America: love it or leave it rhetoric” that plagued the early Bush years. England, we imagine, endured no such trial, because one could evince patriotism by honoring the Queen, without also honoring Blair.
That’s probably wrong. True, the leveraging of patriotism to squelch dissent is a peculiarly American (really, a peculiarly Republican) phenomenon, at least among modern first world countries, but only as to the argument’s frequency, and its sway. Political scientists document the “rally ’round the flag” effect in all democracies, and the Republican trick of casting dissent as unpatriotic represents little more than a weaponization of that basic instinct. To explain its existence, we don’t need to invent some notion of British exceptionalism. It’s much more simple than that. Like Homer Simpson, some of us are just jerks (YouTube).
But they’re on to something. The valuable prize Sullivan and the original poster are getting at is the monarch’s ability to model certain values, conspicuously and at the highest levels of government, without ever having to act on them. We expect the President to be the pinnacle of American honor, but that’s a hard role to live up to, when the real work of governing so often requires moral compromise. For the British, their head of state faces no such liability. The best king or queen can, though subject to human failures (and tabloid-worthy drama) remain a constant sign of the integrity of the British state, and the British identity.
As a steady-state institution, the monarchy does its job. But an institution doesn’t have to take that form to do that job. Our Constitution accomplishes a very similar task, by reflecting specific and pre-committed values, and acting as a constant moral reference point. (Sanford Levinson’s view of the Constitution, as a civil religion, seems about right.) Like the monarchy, the Constitution is bound up with the human tale of the Republic, and is subject, too, to the human failings of each era. Scott v. Sanford, and Lochner v. New York, both speak to mistakes we’ve made, and how we’ve grown. And whenever the head of government goes awry, he is always measured against the Constitution… often erroneously, and subject to a potentially undesirable adversarial quality. But like the British, we, too, can take comfort in an identity at least partially external to politics.
…which is one reason why constitutional arguments, when made haphazardly, in bad faith, and as commonly as the tea party, are particularly damaging.