Home / Opinion / Views /  Demagogues, not monarchs, are the threat to democracy

Could constitutional monarchies be a bulwark against rising demagogues?

Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, a long reigning and popular monarch, there has been a lively debate on the continued relevance of lineal monarchy in our Age of Republics.

There appear to be two main camps.

The first points to the obsolescence of the institution, the fiscal burden it places on society for its upkeep , and the contradiction between the concept of lineal monarchy and the principles of human equality and elected mandates. Not only has the divine right of kings and their absolute powers long ceased to exist, they have also lost effective executive authority. The democracies in which they still survive are no different politically from republics except that formal authority is exercised in the name of the monarch because s/he is the formal head of state. The monarch’s role is now ceremonial and symbolic.

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The second camp follows the adage that it is counterproductive to ‘fix a system that ain’t broken’. It underscores the continuing popularity of lineal monarchs, and their uniting and stabilizing role in a political environment becoming increasingly fractious to the point that democracy itself is coming under threat even in longstanding democracies.

Monarchy, however, is a red herring, for it is not monarchy that is a threat to democracies today but demagogues. The far right periodically throws up charismatic figures who seek to assume absolute powers by leveraging the electoral system through their charisma to overthrow democratic institutions. They are reminiscent of the monarchs of yesteryear. This vulnerability of democracies to demagogues has been long known. It was flagged over two millennia ago by the ancient philosopher Plato based on a short-lived experiment with limited democracy in the Greco-Roman world. The makers of the US Constitution also agonized over this weakness and tried to incorporate checks and balances and separation of powers into its written text to guard against demagogues. Recent happenings in American politics indicate that this is easier said than done. Despite its antiquity, no enduring solution to the democratic conundrum has been found.

I present a stylized case for the second viewpoint in rhyming verse, with the suggestion that constitutional monarchies that have a king or queen rule in parliament, as opposed to being the king or queen of parliament that demagogues aspire to, can possibly be a bulwark against such democratic transgressions. The advantage that constitutional monarchies enjoy is their popularity and legitimacy, which can make them uniting and stabilizing forces in a democracy, rising above divisive politics. They are popular among the people, so may not be as easily set aside by demagogues as other institutions run by bureaucracies. The charismatic authority of the nouveau monarch would be pitted against the continuing legitimate authority and popularity of lineal monarchs. In such circumstances, the constitutional monarch would essentially be defending constitutional democracy.

There are of course caveats to the argument. For instance, constitutional lineal monarchs could lose their popularity and thus their legitimacy, in which case they serve no useful function, thereby warranting abolition of the institution. Just as a popularly elected democratic leader might jettison democracy on losing popularity, a constitutional monarch could also try and usurp power back from parliament, which would be to mimic the nouveau monarch instead of counteracting distortions of democracy. If this were to happen, the monarchy would need to be set aside. After all, it was for this reason that Charles I of England lost his head four centuries ago. Lineal monarchy cannot also be made to order, and so the argument is applicable only to select democracies where these still exist, such as Great Britain. America is excluded for the same reason.

Constitutional monarchy might not be the magic bullet that can slay the ages-old democratic conundrum, but it could well provide an additional institutional bulwark in democracies where the institution still exists.

Constitutional Monarch:

Privileged and to the palace born,

Why should we death of a Queen mourn?

For what place does royal lineage,

Have in our republican age?

For with the blood of monarchy,

On the blocks of equality,

Liberty and Fraternity,

Were built the Republics we see.

They brought with them democracy,

Governance through majority;

Rule by, for and of the people,

That made broad progress possible.

Electoral democracy

Also came with new tyranny:

Charismatic authority,

That can act like a monarchy.

This democratic conundrum,

Has from the time of Plato come;

For the charismatic leader,

Can make democracies flounder.

The charisma they generate,

Is based on division and hate;

Thus they can with the people’s will,

All neutral institutions kill.

Max Weber argued charisma,

Fades and cannot last forever;

Thus democracies can survive,

As old institutions revive.

But there can be no certainty,

Society will again be free;

For all institutions flounder,

With society torn asunder.

And herein is the irony:

A constitutional monarchy,

Can an effective bulwark be,

Against absolute monarchy.

The first is king in parliament,

The latter king of parliament;

The first defends democracy,

The other wants autocracy.

Lineal monarchs are popular,

Because they wield little power;

They can give a democracy,

Unity and stability.

For when a King or a Queen dies,

A new sovereign will arise;

It is the one institution,

The rising monarch cannot pin.

But should monarchs unpopular

be, or seek to usurp power;

That would be for democracies

Cue to abolish monarchies.

Alok Sheel is a retired Indian Administrative Service officer and former secretary, Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council.

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