Opinion | Why Are American Conservatives Siding With the Royal Family?March 9, 2021
As Meghan and Harry spun their tale of royal woe to Oprah Winfrey on Sunday night—the racially tinged comments, the fatherly cold shoulders, the rescue chickens—a strange thing happened on my Twitter feed: It split in two, down political lines. Among liberals, the comments were fully pro-Duke-and-Duchess-of-Sussex; many praised Meghan Markle for her honesty about her mental health struggles, raged along with Winfrey about the cruelty of the British press, and declared that two women of color were singlehandedly dismantling a centuries-old institution.
But among conservatives, there was a distinct lack of sympathy—and even some concern for the strain this must be putting on the poor dears in the monarchy. “This is a lot of discussion about a stressful week and flower girl dresses,” wrote Fox News host Dana Perino, prompting responses like, “she was speaking as if she had no idea what she was going into ahead of time” and “I feel really badly for the Queen.”
On the face of it, the contrast is surprising. If there’s one idea the plebeian citizens of a former British colony should be able to unite around—the ultimate bipartisan issue—it’s a willingness to stick it to the monarchy. Wasn’t this what the founders fought a war for in the first place?
But there’s a good reason why the royal rift in England has prompted a political divide across the pond. The warring takes on Meghan and Harry mirror a difference in worldview that has governed domestic politics for years: between the left, with its focus on systemic change, and the right, with its emphasis on individual responsibility.
To liberals, Meghan Markle was the victim of a problem much broader than her own life. Her marriage to Prince Harry was undertaken either with ignorance about how the royal family works—because it’s hard to see cold reality through a romantic fairy tale, or because your in-laws always put on a friendly face at the start—or with a hope that an antiquated institution was ready for the real change she represented. The disaster that resulted, according to this view, is the fault of the institution—and the rigid inside players who set the rules of what Markle referred to as “the Firm.” The monarchy was never ready to change. And someone like Markle, idealistic and well-meaning, never had a chance against that antiquated power.
For one, she was an outsider, an innocent American, stepping into an arcane and ultra-stratified system, unaware not just of how to curtsy before the queen but of the need to curtsy in the first place, outside the glaring eyes of the public. Add to that the fact that she is a woman of color, perhaps the first to be introduced to the lily-white Windsors. (Though Netflix’s Bridgerton perpetuates the theory that Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, was of African descent.) Oprah’s eyes nearly popped out of their sockets when Markle revealed that some unnamed member of the royal family had fretted about their baby’s skin tone. Yet the story rang true: many white Americans have had to cringe at relatives’ casual racism, or drag a recalcitrant uncle into modern sensibilities.
But many American conservatives had a different point of view: That Meghan should have known exactly what she was getting into—and, in fact, should have been thankful for the astounding privilege that had been bestowed upon her. Her declaration that she hadn’t researched Harry’s background before she dove into a relationship strained credibility: Who doesn’t precede a first or second date these days with a deep dive through Google? The Sussexes’ complaints about money—the fact that the palace declined to pay for baby Archie’s security details—seemed tone-deaf, coming from people who lived in literal palaces and stepped out in designer eveningwear. Even the fact that they took refuge at Tyler Perry’s Los Angeles mansion, viewed by the left as a rescue from a sympathetic friend of color, looked to the right as another example of myopic celebrity culture. How could these people—Hollywood royalty and literal royalty—be the last to know about how awful the monarchy can be?
In reality, Harry and Meghan are probably neither as callous as their critics say, nor as innocently virtuous as they portrayed themselves to Oprah. Their British existence does sound miserable, as it likely is for all of the royals; the British tabloid press sounds like the Hollywood paparazzi, jacked up on dangerous levels of caffeinated tea. But the Sussexes were also wise, or wily, about their exit, and always seemed to have a business strategy of parlaying their massive celebrity into cash. When they first announced that they left the royals, in the pre-pandemic days of January 2020, they secured a trademark for a “Sussex Royal” brand to go on books and apparel. (They were forced to drop the name, and have now launched a new enterprise, Archewell.) And while Markle suggested that all of us who have lived through pandemic lockdowns now understand a taste of her suffering, most of us haven’t been able to take refuge in 9-bedroom, 16-bathroom mansions.
But the divergent American views over Meghan and Harry actually helps to explain why our own politics are so divided, and why so many people—before, during, and after the Trump years—have been so unable to agree. You can see strains of the system-vs.-individual divide in the immigration debate: Liberals see families fleeing from situations that are truly unsurvivable, often created by economic and political policies that the United States either abetted or even created. Conservatives see a series of personal choices that can be made, and changed, in the here and now: If you don’t want to be separated from your children at the U.S. border, don’t bring them on a treacherous path to the U.S. border in the first place. The same debate rolls on in education policy—should we devote resources to fixing public schools, or simply give families vouchers to find the best educational options? It undergirds the debate over criminal justice, welfare policy and countless other issues.
Indeed, this is a common American political dynamic, says Dannagal Young, a University of Delaware professor who wrote about the difference between liberal and conservatives takes on media and culture in her book Irony and Outrage. “Because of their support for the status quo and the existing cultural, political and social order,” she wrote to me in an email, “conservatives would tend to attribute responsibility for negative outcomes to the individual rather than to the system.” But liberals, she wrote, “are less wedded to social and cultural traditions and norms.” So they’d be in favor of broader change, tearing up the system altogether, “so that fewer individuals face those risks.”
Most of the matters that Americans debate have far higher stakes than the happy home life of a celebrity couple. Even the most emotionally gripping part of Oprah’s interview—when Meghan talked of sharing her suicidal thoughts, then putting on a brave face at an event at the Royal Albert Hall—called up the exquisite irony of Meghan and Harry’s royal lives. (At least one person on my Twitter feed wondered why, with their enormous wealth, they didn’t just commandeer a fancy car and drive to a therapist’s office.) Now, as they showed off their custom chicken coop and their happy family jaunts along the beach—and as Meghan wore a $4700 Armani dress—the need for sympathy seemed to have dwindled to impossibly low levels. The power of celebrity is a luscious safety net.
And yet, the over-the-top trappings of Meghan and Harry’s story, the fact that it contains such extraordinary highs and lows, are precisely what makes it so compelling, regardless of where you stand on the political divide. Many Americans have wondered, over the years, why we remain so fascinated with the goings-on across the pond. My answer has always been that the royals are a metaphor—for fraught family dynamics, romantic debates and desires, old traditions versus modern times. Oprah showed us that they’re a metaphor for politics, too.