Royal drama representative of broader rejection of institutions
Earlier this month, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex — otherwise known as Harry and Meghan — shocked the British royal establishment with an announcement revealing their plans to “carve out a progressive new role within this institution.” Following emergency discussions, Buckingham Palace on Saturday issued a statement saying that the duke and duchess will “step back from royal duties,” no longer represent the Queen, and will no longer receive public funds for “royal duties.”
While Harry and Meghan appeared to have wanted to create a new, hybrid role within the monarchy, it seems they were instead given a choice that was more clearly in or out. They appear to have chosen out. In so doing, they are turning their backs on their senior positions within one of the world’s oldest, most privileged institutions. The royal institution offered them unmatched levels of global influence and wealth, but came with intrusive media scrutiny, often racist and sexist portrayals of Meghan, and intense restrictions.
Their high-profile attempt to reform an institution — and, when that failed, to opt out — is perhaps the most interesting element of their story. It is representative of a global trend in which people, especially young people, are opting out of and challenging traditional institutions. This is happening around the world, with potentially positive and negative consequences. “Institutions” in this sense can be defined broadly, as an organization founded for religious, social or other purposes, as an established custom or, in the political science approach, as a set of formal rules and informal norms that shape political environments.
There are many examples of this trend from different parts of the world. In the UK, Brexit is far more consequential than “Megxit.” At the end of this month, the country is expected to formally leave the EU — one of the world’s most significant multilateral institutions. Meanwhile, on continental Europe, there has been a strong trend of voters turning against the centrist parties that, in many cases, had governed since the end of the Second World War.
In the US, multiple sources have documented how the younger, millennial generation is turning away from organized institutions. Polling suggests that older Americans are also questioning everything from religion to the nuclear family, but these trends are much stronger among younger adults. Polls show younger Americans increasingly turning away from any religious affiliation, holding liberal political beliefs while being less likely to identify with a political party, and generally distrusting authority. Polls show millennials as less likely to marry and less likely to value having children.
In India, multiple commentators have raised concerns about the decline of the independence of the judiciary, the media and the central bank — key institutions of Indian democracy. This trend has accelerated under the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has also actively eroded the institution of secular democracy.
The Middle East and North Africa experienced a new wave of protest in 2019, as young people in many countries across the region rejected traditional political institutions as corrupt and ineffective. The region was not alone, with significant protests also being seen from Hong Kong to Chile in 2019. A recent report from a political analysis firm forecast that civil unrest across the world will increase in 2020, with nearly 40 percent of the world’s countries experiencing some degree of unrest and protest.
The sense that old institutions are failing or crumbling is so widespread that the 2019 fire that destroyed part of the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris resonated with many people beyond the damage caused to this particular cultural treasure. More broadly, it was the physical embodiment of a sense that old institutions are collapsing.
Multiple factors are driving this trend. One is a sense that institutions are failing to meet people’s needs. Millennials’ attitudes in the US are deeply shaped by the 2007 to 2009 Great Recession. The economic and political failures of many Middle Eastern and North African governments are the key factors behind regional protests. Growing inequality has been a major factor in protests in many parts of the world.
In some cases, institutions were based on assumptions that held true in the past but are no longer as relevant. For example, religious, business and social institutions in developed countries that were based on a model of a working father and homemaker mother have had difficulty adjusting to the realities of families with two working parents. Societies with large youth populations may struggle to maintain traditional hierarchies that place authority with elders.
A worldwide trend is anger toward political, economic, cultural and intellectual elites.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
These and other factors have led to a fundamental questioning of authority. A worldwide trend is anger toward political, economic, cultural and intellectual elites. Many countries are experiencing a rejection of expertise, as people seek simple, relatable solutions rather than complex, technocratic ones. In many cases, authority figures in institutions behaved corruptly, hypocritically or immorally and lost the trust of those they purport to guide.
Such threats to institutions have negative and positive implications. Alienation and loneliness are increasing as people turn away from institutions that have long provided community, meaning, identity, and support. The erosion of political and economic institutions increases the risks of instability within countries and globally. However, it is healthy to question the value of institutions that have failed to adjust to changing realities or to meet people’s needs. Furthermore, for individuals with the necessary resources and personalities, change offers opportunities to forge new paths and escape old strictures.
Wise leaders will recognize the need to reform many institutions and even jettison others. At the same time, institutions are essential to ensuring just and effective political and economic systems and to providing people with community and meaning. The societies that find a way to balance change, reform and preservation will be best equipped to manage an era of institutional transformation.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch