Just over a decade ago, in the autumn of 2010, the Danish state broadcaster DR aired the first season of a drama titled Borgen, centering on a smart and charismatic forty-something politician, Birgitte Nyborg, who leads the relatively minor Moderate Party. In an election rocked by a late-breaking scandal, the Moderates gain an unexpected fifteen seats, enabling Birgitte to launch an improbable but successful bid to form a coalition government. The ensuing nineteen episodes show her as Denmark’s first female prime minister, navigating the treacherous waters of coalition politics—corralling recalcitrant party stalwarts, undercutting upstart challengers, and placating a merciless press—while at home her marriage implodes.
Borgen was soon re-aired in Britain, where 650,000 viewed the premier, and it gained fans in the United States even before it was legally televised. “We thought Borgen was maybe too Danish to travel,” the cultural director of DR remarked in 2013; “we are amazed and happy it is possible.” Anglophone critics applauded the show’s taut storylines and moral complexity; “Stop what you’re doing and go watch Borgen,” a Slate headline commanded its readers. Most American reviewers reserved the highest praise for Sidse Babett Knudsen’s subtly commanding performance as the embattled new PM—and indeed, there is an undeniable pleasure in seeing her curtly dismiss her droning ministers with a sharply clipped “tak” (“thank you”). Meanwhile, the unsparing portrayal of venal MP’s scheming behind closed doors shocked viewers in France, who were accustomed to public officials maintaining an air of grandeur. In fact, most of the show’s tension stems from the contrast between Birgitte, the proverbial “adult in the room,” and everyone around her, as the PM struggles to pacify the petty defiance of both her coalition partners and her increasingly petulant spouse (at one point, when Birgitte proposes discussing their marital disagreements, her husband snarls, “and you will be leading the negotiations, as usual?”).
The surprising success of Borgen stems from its ability to reflect the views and tastes of a social stratum in the modern West that sees politics as a realm of spectacle and personal drama. No critic seems to have noted that the show’s central strength—its main character—is also its greatest weakness. For Birgitte, like Perry Mason, seems incapable of making a mistake. While she may have personal foibles, the political plotlines always vindicate her judgments. The fictitious PM maintains an impossible combination of shrewdness and innocence: she always somehow gets her way while keeping her own hands clean. For instance, in the first episode, Birgitte, ahead of an election, comes into possession of evidence of financial malfeasance by the center-right prime minister, but refuses to use it for political gain; regardless, the conniving leader of the Labour Party dramatically exposes it in the midst of a live debate, redounding to the Moderates’ benefit and vaulting Birgitte into power. In this way, the series resembles Arthurian tales of the virtuous ruler, both prudent and just, who rises to power through a kind of magic, who personifies the highest ideals of the age, and whose only evident flaw is a blind spot regarding the weakness of her own marriage.
Despite its reputed realism, Borgen in fact presents a romantic view of politics, set within a hermetically sealed universe. In addition to its idealized main character, the show resembles the Arthurian romances in what it leaves out: as in most tales of the Round Table, we learn nothing at all about the ordinary people of the country. Throughout the first season, not a single scene so much as alludes to how the government’s decisions affect anyone’s survival or well-being. Every figure who appears on screen is directly connected either to the government or to the media. (Even when, in the second season, Birgitte brokers peace between warring African states, we see not a single battle scar or burnt-out house, but only feuding presidents.)
In Borgen, the citizenry remains offstage, and politicians materialize in the halls of Parliament without substantive agendas or constituencies. This is true even of Birgitte herself. The opening episode features a party leaders’ debate, in which we might naturally expect to see Nyborg argue for her platform; instead she begins her speech by pointing out that she is wearing a dress because she has gained too much weight to wear her snappy pantsuit, and comments wryly, “it’s important that we are who we are sometimes.” She briefly notes a few policy areas in which she disagrees with her opponents, such as climate change and immigration, but rather than proposing policies, she closes her address with the vacuous pronouncement that, “if we are to create a new Denmark together, we have to invent a new way of talking to each other.” Birgitte’s platitudes evidently strike a chord with the fictitious Danes; but as the Moderate Party rakes in seats, we are left guessing as to who voted for them or why, apart from Birgitte’s personal appeal. For us as viewers, it is enough merely to know that they are moderate—a synonym for levelheaded, dependable, and mature, like their unflappable leader.
In sum, Borgen presents a view of politics in which little is at stake beyond the central character’s attainment of deserved power and success; government is merely an arena for self-realization. The palace intrigue that supplies most of the suspense is personal, with policy disputes serving only as pretexts for political maneuvering. The viewer gets the sense that to acknowledge the impacts of government actions on the public at large would somehow spoil the fun, complicating our identification with the heroine. In the manner of a medieval courtly epic, the show takes place in an insular, self-referential world—a fact underscored by the show’s title, which, although referring to the Danes’ colloquial name for the governmental edifice, Christiansborg, literally means “the Castle.”
Politics as Aspirational Theatre
Borgen appeared at an aspirational moment following the rise of Obama, when fiscal conservatism characteristic of the 1980s and ’90s could seemingly be rebranded with young, eloquent leaders from traditionally marginalized identities. Indeed, the parallels are sometimes unnerving: in the thirteenth episode, which aired in October 2011, Birgitte endeavors to pass a broad fiscal reform package which involves cutting retirement benefits, echoing Obama’s failed push, only two months prior, for a “grand bargain” including cuts to Social Security. In fact, the show’s sensitivity to the zeitgeist is so keen that it even presaged the future: in that same autumn of 2011, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the forty-five-year-old leader of Denmark’s Social Democratic Party, whom many had likened to Birgitte Nyborg, won the general election and took office as the country’s first female PM.
Of course, the show’s prophetic powers had their limits, too. If we observe Borgen from the distance of eleven years since its Danish premier, we may credit the show as a canny expression of the centrist optimism of the early 2010s. But while it acknowledges bitter disputes over immigration, it shows no hint of the broad public anger and distrust that would roil the rest of the decade, contributing to such political upsets as the Brexit vote, the “blue tide” in South America, and the rise of Corbyn, Sanders, Duterte, Modi, and Trump. In the world of Borgen, neither “populist” mobs nor their instigators approach the gates of Christiansborg.
This blind spot exists because in the case of Borgen, the call is coming, so to speak, from inside the castle. The show reflects the mentality of a comfortable, international middle class that is swayed more by the shifting tides of taste in long-form television than by lurches in the labor market. Despite the IKEA-like mild exoticism of the Nordic setting, Borgen is keyed into the sensibilities of affluent audiences in the English- and French-speaking worlds: the creator and head writer, Adam Price, is of Anglo-Danish extraction; the lead actress was trained in Paris and speaks fluent French and English, both of which she has opportunity to show off on screen; and the minor scandal that sets the first episode in motion takes place in London. The international links entangling Borgen have their parallels in real life, as well, as the actual Danish PM that followed in Birgitte’s footsteps, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, was a daughter-in-law of Neil Kinnock, a centrist former leader of the British Labour Party.
The self-referential worldview of the North Atlantic upper-middle class, which Borgen captures, blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, reducing the old rituals of political journalism to pantomime. Within the world of Borgen, the Nyborg government is frequently challenged by an aggressive and adversarial press, whose leaders are often craven and self-serving, but whose greatest virtues are embodied by a scrappy young journalist, Katrine Fonsmark. Ambitious yet principled, Katrine springs unexpected questions on politicians live on air, and types hard-driving reports in her small Copenhagen apartment beneath a poster of All the President’s Men. The age of the movie reference should drive home how outdated and unrealistic a figure like Katrine is—any present-day reporter who asked powerful politicians challenging questions on air without warning would be canned and blacklisted within the hour—and how much Katrine forms part of the show’s insular fantasy world. She pins down Birgitte’s ministers, yet the PM turns to her for an interview when she needs to rehabilitate her image from rumors about her home life. As Birgitte represents the ideal politician, so Katrine embodies the archaic ideal of the reporter who tests the limits of power; she and Birgitte form complementary counterparts, both challenging and validating one another in a ritualized dance of questions, hints, and leaks.
Most consumers of modern-day media will recognize, of course, that contemporary political journalism in the West does not resemble Katrine Fonsmark’s reporting so much as it does Borgen. As in the Danish drama, personality and persona take priority over policy, and conflicts play out within a self-contained narrative world. The traditional rituals of the interview, the press conference, and the live report serve, like Victorian séances, to channel and transmute petty gossip into high drama. In August 2014, in an episode reminiscent of Birgitte’s debate performance, President Barack Obama delivered a press conference in which he admitted to ambivalence and lack of a clear policy with regard to the civil war in Syria; for the next three days, media were nearly engulfed in controversy, not over the war in which the United States would become increasingly entangled, but over the unusual color of the president’s suit. Much of this media commentary was in fact meta-commentary, with various outlets criticizing and commenting on one another’s comments and criticism. In 2019, on the fifth anniversary of the controversy, those same media issued a round of think-pieces lamenting the uneven treatment of Obama and Trump’s respective scandals, while neglecting to note their own role in insuring that the tan suit would be remembered for far longer than the administration’s failure to devise a Syria strategy. (Furthermore, these same media hardly ever compared the Obama and Trump administrations’ policies, which in many respects were similar.)
Courtier journalism shapes not only public perception of political figures but those officials’ perception of themselves. Over the 2010s, the social- and mass-media echo chamber elevated Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to celebrity status, to the point that retailers began marketing tote bags emblazoned with her silhouette and the words, “I Dissent”; in 2017, HuffPost published an article reporting that Ginsburg herself carried such a bag, thus completing the Möbius strip of political media, lifestyle marketing, and fame. In 2020, major platforms allocated more inches to discussing the president-elect’s wife’s use of the title “Dr.” than to discussing his long record of proposing cuts to Social Security.
In this light, it may be tempting to dismiss Borgen as redundant, and merely another instance of politics as entertainment—a Danish West Wing, as many critics called it—tethered to the naïve optimism of the early 2010s. This would be premature, however. For all of its shortcomings, the series offers a window into the mentality of a social class that has risen to power in much of the West over the past two centuries and that even today maintains its grip on the political center. In one respect, at least, the show has proved to be prophetic, in dramatizing how self-described moderates and liberals would present themselves in the face of left-populist challenges.
In Borgen, we see Birgitte forge a coalition with the Labour Party and the Greens, while relying on the passive approval of a small, new leftist party redundantly named “Solidarity Union.” (This is possible because of the distinctive character of the Danish constitutional system—a form of “negative parliamentarianism,” in which minority parties can cobble together governments with a combination of coalition partners and informally supportive third parties, maintaining power so long as their opponents cannot muster a majority to remove them.) Birgitte struggles to maintain her coalition, and must dispense Cabinet posts to the venal and shiftless bosses of the Labour Party. But the more emotionally charged and revealing drama comes in the PM’s dealings with the leaders of the Green Party and Solidarity Union. Birgitte’s clashes with her left flank, in the world of Borgen, are driven not by policy, but by personality: while the substantive political differences between the moderate PM and her young, idealistic allies remain vague and general, the psychological contrasts among them are stark. Amir Diwan, the Greens’ leader, appears as a simpering yes-man, an overgrown star student trapped in the mode of pleasing the professor. He brashly demands a major role in the new government but is ultimately bought off with a minor ministry. When Amir finally breaks with Birgitte over unnamed aspects of the fiscal overhaul deal, even withdrawing the Green Party from the government, it comes across less as a stand on principle than as a pitiful effort to move out of the teacher’s shadow. When it seems that the environmentalist may emerge as a rival to Birgitte, her team kneecaps him by leaking to the press that he collects gas-guzzling vintage cars.
The conflicts between Birgitte and her counterparts to her left revolve around a developmental axis, dramatizing the clash between mature and immature personalities. Sniveling and hypocritical, Amir Diwan embodies the caricature that liberal centrists habitually apply to leftist upstarts whom they regard as junior partners, while Nyborg’s undermining of Diwan appears as a regrettable but necessary step in her own emergence as a shrewd and effective leader. Although we never learn the specifics of Amir’s objections to the fiscal plan, Birgitte’s flat refusal to accommodate them, preferring instead to court the votes of her conservative opponents in Parliament, prefigures the American Speaker of the House’s glib dismissal, in 2019, of the “green dream or whatever they call it.” It is significant that Pelosi, in her casual rejection of the Green New Deal (“nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”), made no reference to the content of the proposal—even claiming total ignorance thereof—but instead aspersed the character and intelligence of its advocates.
The instances in which life imitates Borgen may tempt us to credit the show’s writers with prophetic insight—but if so, it stems only from a self-fulfilling prophesy. The series enacts the worldview of the contemporary center-left, in which politics is reducible to family drama. Borgen’s ability to capture liberal-centrist anxiety in response to the emergence of a young middle-class Left comes into sharpest relief in Birgitte’s dealings with Anne-Sophie Lindenkrone, the leader of Solidarity Union. With her usually unkempt, fiery red hair and piercing eyes, Lindenkrone stalks the halls of Parliament in search of an authority figure to attack. In the seventh episode of the first season, her wishes are momentarily fulfilled when repairs to Solidarity Union’s offices (plastered, of course, with posters for obscure social causes) uncover a hidden surveillance camera. Anne-Sophie goes on the warpath against the internal security service and the Justice Ministry—and by extension threatens Nyborg’s government. The emotional stakes heighten when we learn that Birgitte had previously met Anne-Sophie in the activist world and encouraged her to enter politics; “you were practically her mentor!” the Moderates’ deputy leader exclaims in disgust upon hearing of the conflict. The Justice Ministry dispatches with Anne-Sophie in the same manner that Nyborg undermines Amir—by exposing compromising dirt, in this case, a secret recording of a discussion of refugee policy in which Lindenkrone had proposed kidnapping a conservative politician’s children “to show him what it feels like.” The incident confirms the portrayal of Anne-Sophie as reckless and unserious, with emotions heightened by the undertone of rivalry between two women of different generations. The episode ends with the young activist-politician pitifully waiting outside the PM’s office to beg Birgitte for help in clearing her name, driving home Lindenkrone’s role as the prodigal daughter.
The friction between Birgitte and Anne-Sophie prefigures present-day clashes within the American Democratic Party, presaging the centrist response to the entry of an incipient left wing into electoral politics. When in 2019, an interviewer asked the Speaker of the House about the opposition within the Democratic Party (including from the so-called Squad) to a funding bill that would keep migrant prison camps open, Pelosi replied, “all these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world, but they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.” This was inaccurate—in fact, 195 Democrats had voted against the final bill—but the Speaker’s choice to minimize her opponents’ clout rather than to address the grounds of their objections echoes the most perplexing scenes of Borgen. For instance, in the sixth episode, Birgitte prepares to host a visit from the repressive dictator of a fictitious country. When Lindenkrone confronts the PM with a dossier of the foreign leader’s human rights abuses, the prime minister rejects the proffered binder, saying, “it is your privilege, Anne-Sophie, not to be pragmatic, because you head a party that is 1 percent above the cutoff line,” referring to the minimum threshold for attaining legislative seats.
The logic of Birgitte’s response is unclear—her deflection of Anne‑Sophie’s concerns, like Pelosi’s comment on the Squad, inexplicably invokes vote tallies in response to a question of ethics—but both the muddled logic and the contemptuous tone should be familiar to those who follow contemporary Western politics. By means of such rhetorical evasions, the policy preferences of the left wing can be derided as “luxuries” belonging to “privileged” dilettantes who do not understand the responsibilities of adults; thus, even complicity in the violation of ethical norms can paradoxically be presented as the mark of maturity. Questions of ethics and indeed of practical policymaking are subverted and replaced with the therapeutic language of middle-class self-development. Borgen’s portrayal of Lindenkrone serves a similar function: if the minor party leader is a naïve ideologue showing ingratitude toward her mentor, then both Birgitte and the audience can comfortably rationalize her decision to ignore the dossier of crimes proffered to her. Birgitte, in this view, is free to pursue her self-actualization without the hindrances of moral or civic responsibility. The logic of middle-class feminism has come full circle: whereas once the personal was political, now the political is purely personal.
The Retreat to Metapolitics
In the later 2010s, as left-leaning populists gained footholds in American and British politics, debates between the center and the Left, not only in the political press but also in everyday conversation and social media, increasingly resembled Borgen. Left-leaning proposals met with a battery of objections that served to shift the terms of discussion away from the policy’s material effects in favor of questions of perception: “it will scare swing voters,” “it won’t make it through Congress,” “it’s too ambitious,” and so on. Programs that are evidently popular among the wider public, such as single-payer health care in the United States or renationalization of the Royal Mail in Britain, received a preemptive death sentence, often on the grounds of some prospective line of attack that conservatives would use against them. In this way, moderate critics fled from the field of policy debate to that of armchair punditry, from politics to metapolitics.
The terrain has shifted only slightly since the pandemic crisis. Although the new Biden administration, influenced by progressive pressure or by traditional Keynesian logic, has embraced proposals for massive public spending funneled through private contracts, it still adamantly resists any calls for permanent new institutions or programs that would impinge upon the for-profit market. Even scaled-down versions of the same proposals, such as a public option, which Biden claimed to support, languish in the purgatory of committees and subcommittees, ironically forgotten amidst the pandemic. When these ideas occasionally resurface in public discourse, moderate critics in the United States again shift into the mode of punditry, arguing that leftist policies are impractical because of the Senate’s even partisan split.
Although these metapolitical arguments appear to have succeeded in muting criticisms from left-populist politicians, they are irrelevant to the question of whether the policies at issue constitute worthwhile aims. Therefore, to invoke them in the context of ordinary political debate among laypeople is a non sequitur, sure to leave one’s interlocutors either flummoxed or infuriated. Anyone who has undertaken a project knows that the natural sequence of action is first to formulate one’s goals and then to take stock of the possible obstacles that one might meet, either adjusting course or strategizing in advance as to how to defeat them. To collapse the distinction between a policy’s desirability and the ease with which it will be achieved is not “pragmatic” or “realistic,” but logically confused, like the proverbial man who searches for a lost key on a busy sidewalk rather than in the alley where he dropped it because the sidewalk is better lit. Likewise, to say that a policy platform is unlikely to be delivered as proposed, and that compromise will be necessary, is merely to state the obvious, and in no way denigrates the platform; as anyone who has engaged in business negotiation knows, opening with a higher asking price only makes it more, rather than less, likely that one will ultimately realize a gainful sale.
In sum, the familiar centrist and liberal deflections of left-wing arguments fail to persuade anybody—but that is not their main purpose. Their principal aim is to change the subject, shifting the conversation away from discussion of concrete policies (and by extension, the negotiation of conflicting material interests) and reframing it as a contest between personalities at disparate stages of development: condescension is the underlying constant. For instance, to accuse progressive politicians of “overpromising”—as the New York Times did in its bizarre dual presidential endorsement in 2020—is to confuse advocating a proposal with promising that it will be delivered. It is unclear whether those making the charge are in fact victims of such an elementary misunderstanding of politics or merely choose to impute it to their opponents; either way, it amounts to an insult to one’s intelligence. Likewise, Hillary Clinton’s remark that her former primary opponent had proposed “that America should get a pony,” deftly minimized the material effects of the policy platform in question while infantilizing its supporters.
If such rhetorical ploys fail to change minds, then they persist because they are psychologically useful in avoiding responsibility for one’s political actions. Life does not imitate Borgen of its own accord, but rather centrist rhetoric helps to shelter the consciences of those who see themselves reflected in the show’s central character. For example, Birgitte’s glib and logically flimsy dismissal of Anne-Sophie’s human-rights complaints allows the PM to maintain the flattering pretense that she shares the younger woman’s humanitarian ideals even as she violates them. Perpetual self-absolution forms the central theme of the series, and it is only heightened, not undermined, by Birgitte’s occasional hand‑wringing over the hard, unpleasant choices that she must make. The logic of the series offers an easy escape from the contradictions between one’s stated principles and one’s actions: the highbrow “moral complexity” that the television critics extol offers easy expiation to affluent liberals troubled by their advantages in an unjust and unequal world. Through a combination of self-indulgence and self-pity, liberal-centrist viewers attempt to recast themselves not as the beneficiaries but as the victims of their own complicity. In this light, the common centrist accusation that leftists apply “purity tests”—as if there is anything strange about citizens judging whether or not to vote for a politician based on their policy positions—looms forth as the projection of a guilty conscience.
Borgen, in sum, forms a set piece in the continuing liberal project of constructing a hyperreal world in which political identities serve only as props of self-construction. Integrity is obsolete: the viewers, like Birgitte, must have their cake and eat it too, casting themselves as moral exemplars who have simply grown too savvy and “realistic” to bother with actual morals. Why, after all, as some perspicacious viewers have asked, does Birgitte form a coalition with the parties of the Left, rather than with the center-right bloc with whom she seems to share more common ground? Why would a moderate leader reach out only in one ideological direction, rather than the more natural course of building outward from her own party’s middle position? The answer is the same reason that contemporary American “liberals,” though clearly in line with traditional middle-class thinking, still place themselves on the ideological left—namely, it enables one to identify with reformist causes while refusing to take any position inimical to middle-class interests. Birgitte’s Moderate-Left coalition, though lopsided and unwieldy, enables the series to present scenes in which Birgitte threads the needle, claiming to share the same ideological aims as her naïve allies while disavowing any obligation to act on them. In this way, the PM serves as an alter ego for ex-radicals who wish to hold on to the moral aroma of their past ideals while washing their hands of their stances in the present.
Those who have endured this long examination of Borgen will hopefully recognize that we have considered the series not because it is socially impactful, but because it shines a light on a mentality and self-image that pervade the upper-middle classes in the modern West. Indeed, we must note that the currently growing “progressive” and “democratic socialist” Left shares most of the same fixations and proclivities as their liberal counterparts (many of whom are their own parents and teachers): obsessive cultivation of self-image and “identity”; punctilious policing of “representation” and the boundaries of polite speech; ecstatic identification with celebrity politicians; and enthusiasm for short-lived moral causes-célèbres. (Indeed, even the perverse projection of mother-daughter relations onto the screen of factional politics is so persistent that the most outspoken leftists in Congress can call the Speaker of the House their “mama bear.”)
Nonetheless, certain salient differences emerge as well. Contemporary leftists by and large perceive society as an arena of contending material interests, and accept as a premise of electoral politics that parties and politicians ought to deliver tangible material benefits in return for votes. Even this most basic acknowledgment is anathema to the liberal center, threatening as it does the understanding of politics as a theater of pure self-actualization. As the middle-class public gains fulfillment through identification with success and power, its spokespersons must condemn substantive policy demands as personal attacks on political celebrities. There can be no friendly terrain on which to engage the most committed versions of the liberal mind, sealed as it is behind a curtain wall of self-defenses, closed to its own supposed allies as well as to its professed enemies. One who engages the liberal center confronts a nearly impregnable fortress, impervious both to rhetorical challenge and to the shocks of external events.
A political structure is usually most inflexible when its foundations are under stress. The defenders of the liberal center-left persist—through victories and defeats alike—because success on the battlefield is less important to them than holding the center ground. Only from this position can the educated middle class defend its social position in the West, which it has taken centuries to attain. Liberalism’s continuing tenacity, as it suppresses the tensions and contradictions at its base, can be understood only in light of the history of the social class whose haunted conscience it protects, and whose demons it attempts to keep at bay.
The Roots of Middle-Class Status Uncertainty
On November 25, 1882, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company staged the premier, at London’s Savoy Theatre, of a comic opera titled Iolanthe; or, the Peer and the Peri. The fantastical plot revolved around a legal battle between the House of Lords and the kingdom of the fairies, sparked by a forbidden love affair between a young woman under the guardianship of the lord chancellor and a half-fairy, half-mortal shepherd lad. The story served as a satire both of romantic pastoral literature and of the often trivial parliamentary feuds that roiled Victorian Britain.
It was a night of firsts. No previous opera penned by the popular team of Gilbert and Sullivan had premiered in as large and modern a venue as the Savoy, and Iolanthe was the first theatrical production on earth to be lit from its inception by electric lights; the troupe of costumed fairies that opened the show even took the stage with glowing electric wands and crowns. In addition, it was the first production ever to premier in two countries at once: a performance took the stage on the same night in New York, where the Brooklyn Bridge was still under construction, and where the Edison Illuminating Company had only two months prior activated the first commercial power plant in America. The New York audience, as it filled the theater, buzzed with reports of the play’s smashing reception just hours earlier across the ocean, transmitted by means of the transatlantic cable. As the Gilded Age reached its zenith, feats of engineering, increasingly indistinguishable from magic, bound Europe and North America ever more closely into one civilization of seemingly limitless grasp.
Gilbert and Sullivan, too, were now at the height of their powers. Over the preceding decade, the fortuitously matched team had built a following across Britain’s class lines reminiscent of Shakespeare’s. W. S. Gilbert’s scripts, poking good-natured fun at the shallow patriotism, bureaucratic bumbling, and indulgent aestheticism of Victorian England, served both as a scaffold for Arthur Sullivan’s lilting ditties and rousing marches, and as a sly self-satire of the British middle class. Coming off of the commercial triumphs of H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and Patience, theatre-going London could hardly have expected less than a hit from Iolanthe—and although the opera never equaled the popularity of the partners’ greatest productions, neither did it disappoint, running for 398 performances. British critics focused their praise on Sullivan’s score, with the Daily Telegraph commenting that, “The composer has risen to his opportunity, and we are disposed to account Iolanthe his best effort in all the Gilbertian series.” The following May, the ever-fashionable Prince of Wales attended Sullivan’s birthday party, where he listened to portions of Iolanthe transmitted live to the composer’s flat by means of a magical new device—the telephone.
Nonetheless, a cloud hung over the success of Iolanthe. While upper-class patrons and critics could extol Sullivan’s score, the icy reticence with regard to the script suggested that Gilbert had finally gone a bit too far. Previously, the satirist had shown the skill, like Voltaire, to cause a stir without causing a scandal, and when his plays mocked the selfish ambition of bourgeois social climbers in the House of Commons and the Navy, his views could be identified fairly comfortably with the more radical wing of the Liberal Party. In Iolanthe, however, he aimed his pen at the soft target of the House of Lords—which despite successive waves of reform in Victorian Britain had remained firmly entrenched. As the age of steam powered a new industrial class, the House appeared as an increasingly glaring anachronism. The two grandest songs in the opera are delivered by laughably pompous peers (as high-ranking nobles with seats in the upper house are known): in the first act, the entire House marches onstage striking imaginary drums and cymbals while bellowing,
Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!
Bow, bow, ye tradesmen, bow, ye masses,
Blow the trumpets, bang the brasses,
Tantantara! Tzing, boom!
The second Lordly number features a peer defending the House’s ancient prerogatives in view of the role that they have played in crises past:
When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,
As every child can tell,
The House of Peers, throughout the war,
Did nothing in particular,
And did it very well.
Gilbert’s new script pushed the bounds of oppositional Liberal discourse, not only because it took aim at the traditional upper class, but more crucially because, unlike his earlier operas, which mocked the pretensions of characters who failed to live up to their institutional roles, it went so far as to mock the institutions themselves. The opera threatened to inflame latent contradictions in Victorian society, calling into question not only the status of the upper house of Parliament, but all of the traditional prerogatives embedded in the British Constitution, from the established church to the monarchy. Indeed, many spectators must have noticed that the catalog of the Lords’ nonachievements conveniently omitted the civil war and interregnum, during which middle-class Puritans and Levelers had briefly abolished the House of Lords, throwing it onto the constitutional rubbish heap along with a disestablished church and a beheaded king.
Thus, it should not be surprising that the royal palace stepped into the tense atmosphere surrounding Iolanthe. The crown sought to diffuse the situation by means of a classically British ploy: the dispensing of minor honors. In 1883, while the opera was still running, Queen Victoria conferred a knighthood upon the composer Arthur Sullivan, ostensibly in honor of his more “serious” classical works. The Crown hoped that this rarefied status (although it did not entitle him to a seat in the House of Lords) would oblige Sir Arthur to abandon his pursuits in the popular theatre and his collaboration with Gilbert. Unfortunately for the palace, Sullivan had only months earlier suffered financial ruin and begrudgingly signed a five-year contract to produce more operas for D’Oyly Carte.
With the theatrical partnership intact, the government dealt carefully with William Gilbert. The royal censor, the Lord Chamberlain, declined to ban Iolanthe, as he had briefly done ten years earlier to Gilbert’s satirical play The Happy Land, which mocked the Gladstone government. Still, the playwright surely understood that he was on thin ice. His subsequent scripts eschewed open ridicule of British institutions, and although several of his later operas were successful at the time, they are mostly forgotten today. The major exception is the biting satire The Mikado, which Gilbert prudently set in a fictitious town in Japan; after the opera debuted in 1885, Gilbert even issued a disclaimer, insisting that the Japanese emperor that appears in the play “was an imaginary monarch of a remote period and cannot by any exercise of ingenuity be taken to be a slap on an existing institution.” Most importantly, after 1900, when the Liberal Party launched an open campaign to strip the House of Lords of its powers, Gilbert refused to allow the party leaders to use the words of Iolanthe.
Gilbert’s cautious course, after the Iolanthe affair, preserved his operas’ social acceptability in the eyes of elite patrons. It is uncertain whether he seriously feared censorship or social ostracism from the London stage; more likely, Gilbert merely wished to preserve his own chance of attaining a knighthood. The son of a naval surgeon, Gilbert exemplifies much of the ambivalence and self-doubt of the Victorian middle class, especially its more radical reformist elements (when one of his moralistic plays drew harsh criticism, he wrote his own parody of it). Iolanthe illustrates the inner conflict between the courtier personality and its radical counterpart, which runs through much of Gilbert’s writings. The fact that his satire was distinctly muted after 1883 reflects the intensity of the middle-class desire for honors and patronage, and the ways in which traditional institutions could exploit that desire to channel disruptive forces within safe bounds.
What is more, the taming of Gilbert appears as a minor skirmish in a centuries-long, mostly subterranean class struggle, by which the rising commercial and professional classes negotiated their place in Western society. In the Middle Ages, the small bourgeoisie mainly strove to defend its self-governance within the towns and cities that it dominated and ran as quasi-republics. After 1400, with improved navigation, growing markets, and campaigns of conquest abroad, the mercantile and lettered classes of Europe emerged from their urban enclaves. They formed a strategic alliance with the crown, staffing the growing royal courts and managing their foreign adventures. In the time of the Renaissance, the highest aim of the bourgeoisie was not to amass wealth, but to become noble. This coveted transmutation could be attained over a generation through an advantageous marriage, or overnight by means of ennoblement by the monarch. From the penny‑pinching petty treasurer to the cutthroat soldier of fortune, the striver of common birth desired no greater affirmation of his worth than a title and an estate. One may trust that Francis Drake, the son of a modest farmer and deacon of Devonshire, would not have set sail on his global campaigns of raiding and sabotage had Queen Elizabeth not granted him a knighthood and the right to hang a coat of arms in his country house.
Only in the late 1600s did some middle-class philosophers begin to articulate a liberal theory of society, according to which the privileges of birth ought to be curtailed or abolished to make way for an open arena of individual enterprise. Liberalism gained a serious foothold in nineteenth-century Britain—even giving its name to a parliamentary party—as industry and empire fueled the rise the strongest middle class in Europe. Despite the apparent simplicity and consistency of classical liberal theory, however, the middle-class Victorian mind was gripped in practice by a deep ambivalence—between seeking to overthrow older, hereditary elites and striving to join them. Although middle-class artists, professors, politicians, and petty officials boasted of their association with the dynamic sciences and technologies transforming the nineteenth‑century world, in contrast to the stodgy conservatism of the landed gentry, they continued to campaign for formal titles. Inventors at the forefront of modern industry coveted letters to add to their names. Henry Bessemer, who launched the modern steel industry, gladly accepted a knighthood from Queen Victoria in 1879. Even in America, the titans of coal, steam, and rails mimicked the habits of the landed aristocracy and groomed their daughters to marry into the cash-strapped ancient families of Europe, matching American fortunes to noble titles.
The Victorian liberal psyche, obsessed with status, existed in constant tension between radical reformism and conservatism. The inner conflict occasionally resolved itself into reform programs aimed at rewriting the rules of ancient institutions in such a way as to make honors and titles more accessible to “merit.” This could be achieved by making prestigious positions contingent upon the capabilities that were common to the commercial and professional class—such as memorization, punctilious performance of rote tasks, and mastery of technical language—all of which factory-style schooling inculcated in preparation for work in the civil, military, and business bureaucracies. Such reforming ideas, however, never formed a stable focus of political action, since the very advantage of offices and titles was individual honor, not collective uplift.
The ambiguities and unresolved tensions of the Victorian liberal mind come into dramatic relief, fittingly enough, in Iolanthe. At the climax of the play’s first act, the Fairy Queen, already under pressure from her magical subjects to insist on the right of the half-fairy shepherd boy, Strephon, to marry his mortal lover, overhears members of the House of Lords (many of them enamored of the same young lady) denigrate her otherworldly majesty. Royally incensed, she turns on the peers and issues a series of threats to bring them to heel: she will send none other than Strephon himself into Parliament, where “Backed by our supreme authority, / He’ll command a large majority.” As the gravity of their situation dawns upon the frightened Lords, the Fairy Queen intones,
Every bill and every measure
That may gratify his pleasure,
Though your fury it arouses,
Shall be passed by both your Houses.
As the Queen begins reading off a frightening legislative agenda—starting with, “You shall sit, if he sees reason, / Through the grouse-and-salmon season”—the peers erupt in moans and wails of protest. Thus far, the scene can be taken as a familiar parody of the pampered upper class clinging to their dilettantish pastimes. The gnashing of teeth escalates dramatically, though, when the queen begins to threaten the very means by which nobility is attained:
He shall offer to the many
Peerages at three a penny;
Titles shall ennoble then
All the common councilmen;
Earldoms shall be sold apart
Daily at the auction-mart.
The prospect of noble titles being literally cheapened by commercial sale or by indiscriminate conferral on minor officials is horrifying enough; still, the queen provokes the vengeful wrath of the peers by means of her most shocking proposal of all, which she saves for last: “Peers shall teem in Christendom, / And a duke’s exalted station / Be attainable by competitive examination.” The horror! The highest, most rarefied title of all, the dukedom, assigned on the basis not of ancient lineage, but of performance on a test, like a petty clerkship!
The absurdity of the scene at the heart of Iolanthe is undeniably amusing, at least in the strange disjuncture of a magical, otherworldly monarch delivering pronouncements in the prosaic language of parliamentary reform. Who would not laugh at the sight of the Fairy Queen herself—famous for her wrath—waving her electric wand and threatening to subject potential peers to written examinations, and at the exalted Lords writhing in agony at the prospect of so small an encroachment on their rights? Past this point, though, the humor of the confrontation is ambiguous. Is our laughter mainly at the expense of the cowardly Lords who wail and gnash their teeth at so tame a threat, or at the expense of the queen who issues it in the first place? After all, if she and her parliamentary proxy are so powerful, could they not compel the House of Lords to pass a bill dissolving itself and abolishing the peerage altogether? Does the absurdity lie in the Lords’ fear of competing on an even playing field with doctors and solicitors, or rather in the desire to reshape the upper House in the image of a vocational school?
Audiences surely interpreted the ambiguities of Iolanthe in various ways, depending on their views of the well-known political disputes of Victorian England—for Gilbert’s Fairy Queen, in issuing her legislative agenda that seeks to pierce the “blister” of aristocratic privilege, steps into the role of a middle-class reformer. Many of her proposals would have sounded distinctly familiar to those who followed the endeavors of Liberal governments; her declamation even mimics the ceremonial “Queen’s Speech,” by which the monarch, at the opening of each parliamentary session, announces the governing party’s agenda to the House of Lords.
In particular, by 1882, the competitive examination had become a talismanic ritual of the liberal middle class. Britain’s civil bureaucracy had been growing since the 1600s, and posts in the civil service came to serve as the lowest rung of royal patronage, offering young men a pathway toward the great offices of state and the prestige that they conferred. By the nineteenth century, middle-class professionals, resentful of the networks of patronage that favored the traditional aristocracy in the attainment of posts, began to agitate for a more impartial hiring system. In 1850, the Liberal leader William Gladstone commissioned a report that ultimately called for a competitive examination as the main qualification for office.
Although the report’s recommendations were eventually implemented in 1870, the practice remained controversial. Many Tories held that moral reputation ought to outweigh bookish smarts as the criterion for entrusting young men with public office. The most impactful advocate for the civil service examination to emerge from the debate was none other than John Stuart Mill. Although known today as the defining liberal-utilitarian philosopher of the age, when Mill wrote his essay on “Reform of the Civil Service” in 1854, he was merely an examiner for the British East India Company. Over the course of thirty-one years, since entering India House as a seventeen-year-old unpaid assistant, Mill had risen through the ranks to preside over the Company’s correspondence with the princely states of India—all without so much as setting foot in Asia. His bureaucratic ascent was so automatic and prosaic (he once boasted that his job required fairly little intellectual effort) that he could easily have served as the model for Sir Joseph Porter, lord of the admiralty in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pinafore, who describes his unimpeded rise through minor offices to a post in Parliament, ultimately attaining command of the Royal Navy without ever going to sea. His ascent includes a spell in a legal partnership—which, he admits, “Was the only ship that I ever had seen. / But that kind of ship so suited me, / That now I am the Ruler of the Queen’s Na-vee!”
John Stuart Mill, in his 1854 essay, as in his philosophical writings, makes no reference to his career with the East India Company. Rather, in his pithy tract, he warns of the corrosive effect of favoritism on the efficiency and reputation of government, which a standardized examination would correct. His argument does not end here, however: in Mill’s view, the new system will improve not only the functioning of government, but the very soul of the nation. He predicts that, were the state to “bestow its gifts according to merit, and not to favour,” the incentive would spur a “great and salutary moral revolution, descending to the minds of almost the lowest classes.” All persons of ability would cultivate their higher faculties, hoping to attain the honor of employment in affairs of state. Even the most menial government posts would serve as marks of excellence; meanwhile, the “mediocrities” left over would find employment in “mechanical labour” and other occupations, which though necessary, “require only mediocrity.”
Thus far, Mill’s argument may come across as fairly typical of the middle-class affinity for what we now call “meritocracy,” laced with the usual contempt toward artisans and manual workers. Nonetheless, Mill goes so far as to state explicitly what most latter-day liberals leave unsaid: that academic and bureaucratic merit serve as proxies for moral worth. In Mill’s estimation, the greatest benefit of the competitive examination system lies in that it rewards and elevates the most truly praiseworthy qualities of character, inculcating the lesson among the populace that “whatever tends to enlarge or elevate their minds, adds to their worth as human beings.” The examination system teaches that “the Government considers the most valuable human being as the worthiest to be a Public Servant.” Mill continued in this line of argument five years later, in his “Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform,” in which he bluntly advocates for educational requirements as a condition of the right to vote:
If it is asserted that all persons ought to be equal in every description of right recognized by society, I answer, not until all are equal in worth as human beings. It is the fact, that one person is not as good as another. . . . a person who cannot read, is not as good, for the purpose of human life, as one who can.
Here, Mill has stepped far beyond the mere calculation of social utility. The logic of moral superiority that he developed in reference to the civil service is naturally extended to electoral politics; taken together, his essays envision a grand reordering of society, with moral worth, as demonstrated by educational attainment and academic performance, as the measure of status. In this new society, the civil service would replace noble titles as the outward mark of dignity.
Mill’s vision of a meritocratic revolution offered to solve several problems. Avenues to advancement would open to those born outside the landed gentry and ill-suited for warfare; reform would help to assuage the hunger for honors on the part of the growing professional class. Mill, like most proponents of the civil-service reform proposal, clearly took inspiration from the imperial examination system of China, with which he would have been familiar through diplomatic channels. This ancient practice restricted access to imperial posts and created a rarefied “mandarin” class surrounded by a majestic aura. It is possible that he was also aware of a pitfall of the Chinese system: by the nineteenth century, the Qing dynasty was struggling with an overabundance of successful applicants, trained from childhood by private tutors to pass the exam. With public posts more than adequately filled, many degree holders were idle, reluctant to engage in labors beneath their dignity. Under these conditions, imperial examiners were forced to find technical grounds for rejecting applicants aside from their performance on the test. Mill shrewdly circumvented this problem by insisting that the examination be “competitive” in the sense that the civil service would accept only a set quota of the highest scorers each year, rather than all those who reached a given threshold of performance.
For all its advantages, Mill’s proposal raised further problems and contradictions which would remain unresolved in the Victorian age and after. The Chinese situation demonstrated that, given adequate resources, a large middle class could groom their children to master the contents of a written test; hence, regardless of the number of degrees conferred, the greater the incentives toward achievement, the greater the overabundance of qualified aspirants. Moreover, Mill’s insistence that on the one hand, degree-holding and public office could serve as proxies for moral worth, and on the other hand that only a fixed quota of applicants should pass the examination, raised a bizarre implication: even if one accepts academic performance as a proxy for moral worth, how could such an abstract quality be assigned to a fixed quota of exam-takers? If in a given year only two hundred degrees could be awarded, should the public understand that only two hundred men that year had attained moral excellence? By extension, would such a system not permanently relegate most people to presumed moral worthlessness?
In effect, Mill’s version of meritocracy serves as a justification for inequality, legitimizing a new nobility of degrees to rival the older one of birth and breeding. All elites require some degree of arbitrary exclusion to survive, and the competitive examination made it possible to draw such boundaries while hiding their arbitrary nature. The meritocratic elite could lay claim to more genuine desert than the aristocracy on the basis that their ranks were, in principle, open to all—but Mill himself surely knew that this was a mere pretense, since like many children of the middle class, he had been intensely trained from childhood for intellectual attainment (his fanatical father had taught him Greek by age three and Latin by eight).
Ultimately, the greatest impact of Mill’s meritocracy was the separation of “moral worth” from moral conduct, substituting technocratic competence for ethics. The scheme enabled bureaucratic managers to claim nobility of character without regard to the actual purposes or effects of the tasks that they performed. Mill himself, for instance, could have his cake and eat it too, claiming presumed moral authority on the basis of his service at India House, even as the Company carried out infamous campaigns of torture on the subcontinent and forced Chinese ports to accept illegal British opium at gunpoint.
In sum, the competitive examination offered a possible new foundation for social distinctions, but the contradictions that it implied remained unresolved, as did the lingering middle-class ambivalence toward the older upper class. In Iolanthe, the audacious demand that the ducal title be open to competitive examination simply extends the logic of civil service reform to the pinnacle of the old nobility, pushing meritocracy toward its logical conclusion. Nevertheless, it is revealing that the Fairy Queen’s threat is ultimately empty; in the play, the peerage is never reformed, much less abolished. Gilbert’s play follows traditional British folklore in depicting the fairies as mercurial, proud, and fickle; while they may presume to stand in judgment of mere mortals, their wrath can always be appeased, allowing them to withdraw to their phantasmic otherworld. Gilbert’s choice to have the fairies stand in for Liberal reformers suggests that the Victorian middle class, withdrawn into its own parallel world of self-flattering fantasy and sentiment, posed no real threat to the old order. Ambivalent Liberals, for all their moralizing and reforming zeal, still wished, at bottom, to join the nobility. In the second act of Iolanthe, the feud between the Fairy Queen and the House of Lords resolves itself when all of the fairies fall in love with the peers and spirit them away to Fairyland for a collective wedding.
Managing the Contradictions of Liberalism
William S. Gilbert died of a heart attack while swimming in a pond on May 29, 1911. His passing came only four years after he finally achieved his knighthood in recognition of his decades of success on the English stage. His demise also occurred, as it turned out, only three months before the Liberal government pushed through a bill stripping the House of Lords of its legislative veto power. Prime Minister Asquith, incensed at the peers’ intransigence in blocking any move toward home rule in Ireland, forced the Lords to pass the humiliating reform bill under threat of stacking the chamber with hundreds of newly elevated Liberal peers, much as the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe had appointed Strephon as her Parliamentary saboteur. We cannot know what Sir William would have made of the momentous debate in August when the Lords fought late into the night, only to “perish,” in the words of Lord Selborne, “in the dark, slain by our own hand.” Had Gilbert lived through the year, perhaps the prime minister, in drawing up his list of prominent Liberals with which to threaten the House of Lords, might even have added insult to injury by including Sir William’s name.
Though forgotten today, the Parliament Act of 1911 formed an important incident in the haphazard progress of democratization in the West over the course of the twentieth century. We need not rehearse, at this juncture, the many well-known battles by which excluded groups and constituencies in the English-speaking world secured formal political rights after 1900; rather, we must note several tensions and contradictions that persisted through this period of democratic reform. First, it involved, in addition to the wider extension of civil rights, the gradual erosion of formal aristocratic and monarchical powers, even as their politically neutered vestiges remained. The result was an awkward and often contradictory settlement, in which all citizens are equal but some are more equal than others (“a despotism strict, combined / with absolute equality!” in the words of the chorus in Gilbert’s The Gondoliers). While it may be tempting to assume that this partial revolution occurred only in Britain and its empire, it has a parallel in the United States in the wrangling over the makeup and powers of the Senate and Electoral College, which were originally framed to protect the interests of the upper class, with the former mirroring Britain’s House of Lords.
A second important paradox is that the growing consensus in favor of formal, legalistic equality continued to tolerate—or even to justify—enduring inequality in wealth and status. This awkward halfway covenant has been maintained largely by the cautious stance of the middle classes, which, although they have produced a few radical agitators, have generally sought to temper class conflict. Middle-class liberal reformers in Britain and America have made strategic alliances with selected minority groups rather than with the laboring class at large, remaining mostly aloof from those whom John Stuart Mill called the “mediocrities.” (Notably, America’s most populist president of the past century, who attacked the opponents of his program as “economic royalists,” was not a middle-class reformer, but an old-money patrician.) Far from countenancing the expropriation or seizure of major institutions, liberals have instead favored the controlled opening of small avenues of advancement to limited numbers of children of the lower strata, applying to these “underprivileged” protégés the norms and standards of their own social class.
These avenues of advancement run overwhelmingly, of course, through institutions of education. Blending meritocratic policies with philanthropy, the modern middle class obsesses over academic achievement, including the prestige of attendance at exclusive institutions. Admission to Oxbridge or the Ivy League serves largely the same role that Mill assigned to the competitive examination: alma maters take the place of noble titles, and the frantic preparation (and sometimes even subterfuge) in which many middle-class parents engage to secure their children’s admission recall the desperate maneuvering of Victorian families to wed their daughters to peers.
The obsession with higher education allows for a loophole by which the middle class can square the more egalitarian rhetoric of the age with the scramble for status and honors. The pathways into the educated elite run through a labyrinth of applications, interviews, admission tests, and essays, which serve not to ensure the responsiveness of the mandarin class to the wider public interest, but only to extend or deny patronage: the modern meritocracy is a modified courtier system. The legal wrangling over the college admission process demonstrates that the principal appeal of the prestigious university is the conferral of exclusive social status, not of a better education. Why, after all, if there is a surplus of qualified applicants, would litigants spend millions on lawsuits concerning the disposition of a few seats at Harvard, rather than solving the dilemma by creating more Harvards? The answer, of course, is that the scarcity of seats is precisely what gives Harvard its cachet. College degrees form an important building block, along with wealth, employment, residence, and taste, of modern class distinctions, which comprise shades and gradations every bit as subtle as those of a Victorian drawing room and all the more impenetrable for being largely unspoken and unacknowledged.
As in the age of steam, the liberal middle class continues to celebrate its association with science and technology, while the old wellsprings of status in land ownership and military service lose their prestige. One might expect that the modern middling sort might rest easy in their victory, but this would contradict the very nature of the middle class, which is founded on perpetual competition—a Darwinian race for footholds on the ladder of success sustains a background of anxiety.
The Victorian tension remains: even as they celebrate the fading of the old landed classes into irrelevance, the bourgeoisie continues to covet the trappings of nobility. The 2010 film The King’s Speech depicts the sessions in which the Australian nurse and failed-actor-turned-speech-therapist Lionel Logue sought to treat the stutter that plagued King George VI. Although Logue insists on a strictly egalitarian style, even addressing the king by his private nickname, “Bertie,” nonetheless when the sovereign asks how he can properly reward the therapist for his services, Logue boldly suggests, “a knighthood.” His proposal is all the more ironic considering that earlier in the film, when Logue denounces the royal physicians as “idiots,” Bertie points out that “they’ve all been knighted,” to which Logue retorts, “that makes it official.”
Although the dialogue in The King’s Speech is fictitious, it captures the contradictory impulses of middle-class aspirants in the democratic age. In his book From Servants of the Empire to Everyday Heroes, the historian Tobias Harper traces how, with the entry of new social groups into the British political scene, the granting of honors serves to identify emerging elites and weave them into the traditional status hierarchy; many an activist and artist has recounted how, after feeling no particular affinity for the monarchy or the upper class, they have succumbed to the excitement of visiting the palace, indescribably “chuffed” to meet the queen. Traditional institutions have evolved with the shifting class landscape to maintain their legitimacy; in Harper’s words, “the more the British Crown ranked people, the more the people cared about rank.” In this light, it should not be surprising that it was Tony Blair’s New Labour government, raised to power by the young urban middle class of “Cool Britannia,” that in 1999 finally transformed the makeup of the House of Lords, ousting most of the stuffy hereditary peers and packing the House with professionals, scientists, and academics. Thus, in its way, the Blair government realized the dream of the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe—to submit the peerage to the measure of middle-class merit without abolishing it.
Still, Tobias Harper’s research, like The King’s Speech, underscores the central importance of the monarchy to middle-class aspiration. As strategic marriage and military service fall out of favor, royalty fills the vacuum, looming forth as the single fount from which all patronage flows. Moreover, as the Crown has gradually withdrawn from the political stage, its magnetic appeal to the middle class has only increased. In Iolanthe, the Fairy Queen stands in not only for the Liberal reformist faction but also for the absent Queen Victoria, who had refused to deliver the Queen’s Speech to the House of Lords since the death of her husband twenty-one years earlier. While alive, Prince Albert had promoted inventors, experimenters, and wizards of all kinds, as exemplified by the Great Exhibition of 1851; after his passing, the Queen entered a state of mourning from which she never emerged, leaving the industrial and intellectual classes bereft of royal attention. Yet the widowed queen’s seclusion gave the Crown an aura of apolitical grandeur, adding to the allure of royal favor in the form of knighthoods and other titles. Moreover, although she privately preferred the Tories, the Queen’s extreme discretion allowed the liberal middle classes to adopt her as a model of domestic modesty and propriety. Her successors have built upon this foundation, presenting the royal family as symbols of middle-class British sobriety, onto which liberal reformists could project their own ideals. Hence any lingering distrust between the reformist middle classes and the palace transformed, as if by the magic of the king’s touch, into mutual dependence.
Once again, it may be tempting to suppose that this evolution was limited to Great Britain, with republican America blithely unaffected across the ocean. The situation is not so simple. If anything, the absence of a hereditary monarchy and a peerage has left Americans scrambling for substitutes. As many have pointed out, Hollywood can provide a surrogate royalty, but in truth it lacks the majesty of the original. The success of Downton Abbey reflects an enduring—or perhaps increasing—American fascination with the British upper class and its elegant decline into insignificance, but it is the monarchy that packs a more potent charge for the American imagination. The popularity of (and lurid fascination with) British royals in the United States has sometimes exceeded that in their own homeland, and the interest has only intensified with the marriage of an American woman into the royal family.
More broadly, popular culture reflects a growing attraction to monarchy in the abstract, beyond its modern British embodiment. Since the nineteenth century, as monarchy has been gradually depoliticized, so politics has been correspondingly monarchized. As many have observed, Americans invest the presidency and the “first family” with the trappings of royalty, and the trend has only grown since the 1960s, when liberals in particular embraced the mythology of the Kennedy White House as a modern “Camelot.” The increasing emotional investment in the presidency, despite almost constant scandal and failure, accounts for Americans’ polarized feelings of exultation and disgust in response to Trump’s vulgarities and violations of courtly “norms,” like Shakespeare’s mad Richard II who debases the crown by “mingling his royalty with cap’ring fools.”
Furthermore, literal monarchs have become the defining heroes of middle-class entertainment. Although royalty has always provided good fodder for drama, the narrative mode has shifted in recent years. In the popular fantasies of the 1960s and ’70s, royal characters such as Aragorn and Princess Leia, although charismatic and appealing, form parts of a larger team whose more humble heroes provide the audience’s alter egos. Since that time, direct identification with the monarch has become the central mode of middlebrow drama. A future historian could easily be forgiven if, in browsing through the prestige entertainment of the past ten years (e.g., Game of Thrones, The Crown, The Great, The Last Kingdom, Vikings, and of course, Victoria), they came away with the impression that the anglophone middle class was fervently royalist. Moreover, the paraphernalia of monarchist fantasy is beginning to seep over from mass media entertainment, such as Black Panther, into political discourse; even the multiplication of such cheeky slogans as “slay queen” and “king shit” in reference to politicians instantiates the merging of royalist fandom with politics.
Imprisoned in the Castle
The rise of pop-culture royalism is in one sense merely a vulgarization of the long-standing liberal attraction to monarchy, but its emergence was surely facilitated by the introduction of a third element: the therapeutic and self-help language that proliferated in the 1970s and ’80s. In the past fifty years, as personal self-actualization comes to be seen as the highest pursuit, the worlds of politics, celebrity, and royalty provide interconnected models of self-fashioning. The necessary precondition for self-realization is, of course, self-revelation, whether private or public, which takes the place of sacramental confession. In the 1990s, the dramatic career of Princess Diana fortuitously combined celebrity, philanthropy, and emotional self-exposure. In her praiseworthy advocacy for the stigmatized survivors of landmines and HIV, the Princess of Wales combined the traditional figure of the beneficent, maternal queen with that of the taboo-breaking mad prince; the matrix in which the two combined was Diana’s own transgressive self-narration as the outcast “people’s princess,” punctuated by her tragic passing.
Diana’s legacy, above all, was the final fusion of royalty, philanthropy, and politics into a single theater of aspirational celebrity. As the young, newly minted moderate PM Tony Blair (another likely model for the fictional Birgitte Nyborg) managed the aftermath of Diana’s death, the complex of assumptions and emotions associated with her apotheosis finally transferred into the realm of liberal politics. It should not be surprising that Diana, at the time of her death, was rumored to be preparing to run for office; these claims are unverified and doubtful, but their persistence reflects the power of middle-class fantasy.
Although royalty remains aloof from factional politics in the modern West (centrist hopes for a royal intervention in the Brexit mess were disappointed), it provides romance to an otherwise arid middle-class politics. Curiously, Borgen, a series that takes pride in exposing the inner gears of the political machine, leaves one important meeting offscreen: after her electoral success, Birgitte meets privately with the queen of Denmark, who charges her with forming a government. We never see this conversation, nor even the room where it takes place; the flushed Birgitte merely remarks that Her Majesty was “polite, in a queenly sort of way.” This discretion on the part of the writers reflects, on one level, a lingering reluctance to puncture the air of mystery surrounding the crown. On another level, it lends to Birgitte, even as her rocky private life is exposed to view and her coalition is rent by petty rivalries, a measure of reflected majesty which none of her rivals, on the left or right, can claim. This royal glow follows Birgitte even after she leaves office and, in the third season, flies in a private helicopter over Hong Kong to join corporate board meetings in the sky and meet discreetly with her English lover.
In sum, the modern political “center” rests with the liberal middle class, which seeks to mute material struggles in favor of projecting its own quest for personal self-realization onto the political stage. Charismatic politicians perform philanthropic beneficence as the fulfillment and enactment of personal success; policies take a backseat to humanitarian slogans and mildly edgy fashion statements. In the fairy castle, personal development and fulfillment form the only proper measure of value, making substantive disagreements not only irrelevant but uncouth. The liberal middle class since the 1990s has built a fortress around itself, as if defending a phantasmic realm against intrusion. Criticisms on the basis of policy, which raise the specter of conflicting class interests and call into question the pure beneficence of the liberal class itself, must be deflected, ironically, in the name of “realism.”
The unresolved tensions of the liberal mind remain suppressed, like a restive hinterland beyond the city gate. All palaces defend themselves, to some degree, by means of artifice and illusion, extending even to self-deception; Queen Elizabeth I, towards the end of her reign, banished all mirrors from her royal residences so as to hide from herself the signs of age. The modern liberal middle class is similarly sheltered: unlike the Victorian bourgeoisie of Gilbert’s time, the liberal middle class of today is incapable of self-satire. When everyone in the castle is Cinderella, all must agree not to break the spell; modern liberals need not fear the lord chamberlain because they censor themselves.
Thus far, liberalism has shown a remarkable resilience, retaining control of all major center-left parties, even as increasing portions of the population lose faith in or even turn against the castle. At mid-century, the blue-collar lower-middle class, strengthened by unions and postwar social democracy, constituted an electoral ally to liberal reformers, whereas today it has ceased to exist, collapsing since the 1970s into poverty and precarity. Meanwhile, the children of the upper-middle class, including holders of advanced degrees, struggle to replicate even a semblance of the older generation’s lifestyle. Many of them, disillusioned with the liberal center, shift into a leftist or social-democratic mode, attaining patronage not from traditional bureaucratic posts but from a web of do-gooder progressive foundations and the army of “organizers” that they deputize. In such an unstable situation, factions, fractures, and jealousy are common, as various natives of the middle class vie to represent a working class with whom they have little in common.
In short, the foundations of the fairy castle are eroding, but even as it threatens to crumble, it is unclear whether those who leave it can secure any alternative political base. The Hanover monarchs, for a century and a half, banned water bowls from the royal table, so that when toasts were made to the king, secret supporters of the Stuarts, the rival claimants to the British throne, could have no way to surreptitiously signal their support for the “king over the water.” Only in 1905 did the palace allow the fingerbowls to reappear. Similarly, today, the fairy castle strives to banish any sign of its decline and to deny the possibility of an alternative. If it is to survive, or if a better-adapted mode of politics is to challenge it, the contradictions embedded in Victorian liberalism must be uncovered and confronted. The logic of status and smarts as substitutes for moral worth must be abandoned, and the courtier mentality, so unseemly in a democracy, overcome. Perhaps the fairy castle will collapse under the weight of the tensions within; perhaps it will be demolished from without. Either way, those who hope for a future of freedom and human flourishing must be ready to embrace entirely different measures of success, and an ethic of humility such as few have practiced in the modern age.