By the people, of the people
On republics, democracies, Rihanna, and giving the national mood a place to vent
Americans of a nit-picky sort sometimes engage in disputes over whether the United States is a "democracy" or a "republic". Of course, the national business is not conducted via direct democracy, but the literal definition of "democracy" is simply government by the people. And despite its antiquarian association in the mind with the Roman Republic, the definition of a "republic" is virtually the same: One in which supreme power lies with the citizens. A monarchy could be democratic, and a republic could be undemocratic, but at least for the case of the United States, sovereignty lies with the people, and the people choose the government.
■ Let it be noted, though, that a new republic has come into the world: Barbados has declared itself a republic, removing Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state and replacing her with a president. Interestingly, one of the complaints regarding the transition is that it was declared without conducting a democratic referendum. (Barbados is already governed by a democratically-elected legislature.)
■ It is a bizarre artifact of history (and institutional inertia) that dozens of countries still acknowledge hereditary monarchies -- including Canada and Australia, which still bow to the Queen. While there may be no urgent need to depose the House of Windsor (or any of its cousins), the act of declaring a republic really shouldn't seem objectively shocking in 2021. Most of the remaining monarchies are constitutional or parliamentary in form anyway, and the fact they retain hereditary heads of state is often only because those heads of state behave well enough to retain the consent of the people. (Not to mention the interest of the heirs in the line of succession -- Japan's Princess Mako and Britain's Prince Harry have decided it's more interesting to move to America.)
■ But the fundamental symbolism of declaring a republic is this: It says that supreme authority is organic, and that governments are only legitimate when they are "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed" -- not because anyone can make a claim to the bloodline of some long-ago warlord. To the extent that a head of state is generally a person tasked with embodying the symbolism of a country, then it's not really much of a step to take that duty away from a hereditary monarch and to place it in the hands of someone elected to do the job -- in fact, Barbados simply re-titled the governor-general (the designated representative of the Queen) and swore her in as president. But symbols matter, and to label the state as the people's thing is a healthy decision.
■ If there is one lesson America should learn from newer republics, perhaps it is that we ought to be open to separating the roles of "head of state" and "head of government". The President, inasmuch as he or she is functioning according to Article II of the Constitution, is the head of government (though in a shared role with the leadership of both the Congress [Article I] and the Supreme Court [Article III]). But those who function most effectively as heads of government may well be poorly-suited to the more symbolic role of the head of state. We might find ourselves better-served by electing a mainly ceremonial head of state who could symbolize the national zeitgeist, perhaps for just one year at a time and just one term in a lifetime. It might give the country an outlet to express popular feelings in a way that would contain them away from the processes required of a deliberative government limited by checks and balances.
■ An elected, ceremonial head of state -- call it the "Citizen of the Year" -- could offer us a focal point for those many feelings that don't really need to pump greater animal energy into politics. Sometimes we might feel like Betty White, and sometimes we might feel like Lewis Black. But giving someone the de facto title of "national id" might be good for us, especially if it were to divert status-seeking celebrities away from politics and maybe even let some culture wars be fought away from where laws are made.
■ Demanding that celebrities take popular political positions and converting ex-politicians into celebrities are both bad habits, and giving them all a path to a role of an oversized profile with an undersized level of responsibility might just clear the field a bit for the more serious and duty-driven among us to be selected for the work of governing the country. Choosing people as official symbols -- like the decision to name Rihanna as a "National Hero" of Barbados -- might well be a task best performed with the help of a gentle firewall from governing politics. (But we could still let the people decide.)