Wednesday, September 29, 2010


I recently saw an article in The Remnant—one of those publications that I don’t read but of which I hear on a semi-regular basis—advocating monarchism. The author, undoubtedly correctly, observes that monarchism possesses a “prestige just a tiny bit better than fascism, but not nearly as respectable as being Amish.” At the same time, I continue to find it, monarchism, that is, strikingly popular in the circles in which I run—actually, a correction: the circles in which I read. I doubt whether a man who could think of only a single personal friend to invite to the baptism of his first child can be said to “run” in any circle, at least of the social kind. Of course, regardless of who exactly these monarchists are, there are plenty of reasons for them being such.

Catholics have been monarchists for a long time. English Cavaliers and Jacobites, Carlists, aristocrazia nera, Hapsburg retainers, the scourged survivors of the Vendée, these and others were the counter-revolutionaries from nearly every land in the West who had fought against some despotism or another that had threatened Holy Mother Church and a political system friendly to Her. Ireland, in fact, seems to be the only European land in which Catholic intransigence has identified itself with republicanism—but that must be a story for another day. The internet has done wonders for these scattered discontents, allowing their names and sentiments to creep out of the small chapels and drawing rooms in which their adherents have gathered for generations. So, like the traditional devotions of the Faith, monarchism, which played such a large role in the social views and traditions of our forebears, has attracted a small collection of converts.

The monarchist faces his chief problem in his need to critique the prevailing alternative, electoral democracy. And like any comprehensive critic, he runs the risk of becoming a crank. Now, some might point to mere disagreeability or biliousness as the sine qua non of crank status. But in reality a person can be perfectly disagreeable without stooping so low. Rather, a crank must be grumpy, in the minority, and wrong about something—not wrong in conclusions, for then crank merely becomes a moniker for “one with whom I disagree,” but wrong in premises. The crank argues that he is correct based on suppositions that are not so.

It is in this vein, then, that the poor Remnant correspondent toys with crankdom. He writes, “I suspect that if there were a real choice on the ballot, such as a box marked ‘none of the above,’ turnout would be higher, and this last choice the consistent winner.” He clearly believes that ballots in electoral democracies do not feature such an option. Sadly, he is mistaken. The state of Nevada provides such an option on every state-wide and national ballot:

Every ballot upon which appears the names of candidates for any statewide office or for President and Vice President of the United States shall contain for each office an additional line equivalent to the lines on which the candidates' names appear and placed at the end of the group of lines containing the names of the candidates for that office. Each additional line shall contain a square in which the voter may express a choice of that line in the same manner as the voter would express a choice of a candidate, and the line shall read “None of these candidates.”

Nevada Revised Statutes § 293.269(1). If one believes Wikipedia, Ukraine, Spain, France, Columbia, and at one time Russia all have such ballot options. Of course, admittedly the influence of Nevada’s option is limited by subsection (2) of the same statute, which requires that elections be decided without consideration of the none-of-these votes, making these non-votes rather like abstentions in the House of Lords. (At least the Lords as it once was; who knows what the rules there are now after the umpteenth reform act.) So it is manifestly untrue that the continuation of business as usual in electoral democracies can be blamed on the invariable absence of enough options on ballots.

The author’s oversight in that regard—his failure to do even rudimentary research before making a rather sweeping claim in an article—is all the more unfortunate because his more substantive criticisms, or at least his wider thesis, have substantial merit. The history of electoral government has not been consistently edifying and its trajectory has taken a substantially southerly appearance. Society has long since realized that they can “vote itself largesse out of the public treasury.” But society has learned that lesson before: surely the Romans developed the art of doing so to a high level indeed. At the same time, however, critics of modern democracy—a class, I should be clear, from which I by no means exclude myself—at times look too uncritically upon its flaws and upon the benefits of monarchy.

The Remnant criticizes modern democracy for its tendencies toward corporate oligarchy: elections require vast sums of money, which sums are supplied by magnates and businesses, with the invariable result that governments are composed almost entirely of men amenable in some way or other to magnates and businesses. The government thus represents not the will of the people broadly speaking, but only of a narrow elite of businesses and the wealthy. To an extent, that criticism is quite valid. But on the other hand, it perhaps overly ignores the degree to which businesses and other associations—take the NRA—are groups of people, communities in themselves, rather than merely monolithic forces opposed to individuals, a rather distastefully Marxist hermeneutic.

At the same time, those who have gone full-bore for monarchism often overlook the nasty oligarchical tendencies of that system as well. The powerful and wealthy gain access to the elected representative through the campaign process. But the same powerful and wealthy gain access to a monarch through the administrative process. For a monarchy, at least a functioning as opposed to a mere decorative monarchy, limits functionality in its concentration of power. The king---or really, I have always preferred a grand duke---makes decisions, but he has the capacity neither to accumulate for himself the vast quantity of data on which such decisions must rest nor personally to administer the decisions he makes. Thus, the functioning monarchy has always found itself dependent on small armies of ministers and attendants to bring information into the crown and direct authority out from it. Some nations have structured those administrative functions well, while others have done so poorly. A history professor of mine once assigned a book by John Brewer, The Sinews of Power, that blamed the clumsy design of France's administrative institutions for the Bourbons' decline in the struggles with England and the eventual implosion of the former in the revolucion. Alternatively, one might look to the last of the old European autocracies, the Russian Empire, to see the discord created by an entrenched oligarchy of incompetent ministers. A crown minister may not need wealth and popularity in the same manner an elected politician needs these things, be he will certainly be as willing to trade his services for them as any Congressman.

What these sorts of considerations reveal is not so much that monarchy, compared to republicanism, is or is not a good idea, or even preferable. The larger difficulty lies in the fact that the American Catholic---always, to a certain extent, and certainly since the Second World War---is irretrievably detached from the cultural context that shaped the political views of his ancestors in the old country. The bugbears and the very real threats to social stability, be they Masons, Jacobins, garibaldists, Hussites, or whomever, simply never took a place in American life as they did in European. Yes, we all know the Framers were largely Masonic deists---all the worse for them. But American Masons, as much as they may have kept Catholics out of trade unions or said inane things about the pope, have never been the anarchist mob laying siege to the Lateran. In part, the distance between American and European Catholicism in this regard results merely from our status here as a perpetual minority: we cannot sing, "Mary's prayers will win our country back to Thee," because the United States has from the beginning been in partibus infidelium.

So when Americans go becoming monarchists---not merely supporting a Bourbon or a Hapsburg restoration, but an advocate of monarchy per se---we almost invariably wade into unknown waters. The monarchist, no less than the republican, possesses the American's unique capacity for historical myopia. There was once more of this essay in my head, but it never got written; I think it will do for now as is.