Meghan Markle, voting rights activist

20 August 2020

7:27 AM

20 August 2020

7:27 AM

The biggest voting bloc in America is that of the non-voter. As a result, most prominent calls to Americans to drop their cynicism and exercise their right to vote are welcome.

But there’s something off about the newest celebrity voice in American voting rights: Meghan Markle, the American actress who married the grandson of Queen Elizabeth II of England. She was one of the most prominent voices kicking off the launch of the 19th, a nonpartisan journalism nonprofit covering the role of gender in politics. Now she’s headlining an event with a Michelle Obama-fronted group called The United State of Women, titled ‘When All Women Vote’. Notably, when she makes these virtual appearances, she is billed not as Meghan Markle, a self-made and successful American-born woman with an impressive lifelong commitment to social causes, but as ‘Meghan, Duchess of Sussex’, a title she only has because she married a British prince.

Let’s put it this way: a woman who a couple years ago was set to take up another country’s citizenship in order to marry into its monarchy, is now a prominent voice in encouraging Americans — especially American women — to vote. To vote as a citizen of the democratic republic that was established explicitly in opposition to the reign of the royal family she once proudly joined. It’s worth noting that millions of Americans (my family included, as my last name may indicate) are only Americans because their ancestors were trying to get the hell away from that royal family’s brutal imperial antics.

Isn’t that a bit weird?

It would not be anywhere quite as strange if she and Prince Harry had actually left their royal duties. If they hadn’t made media-friendly woke pronouncements about the legacy of colonization, but instead actively admitted that perhaps a clan of power-hungry inbred aristocrats shouldn’t still be clinging to power. Yet Harry and Meghan kinda-bailed-but-not-entirely, keeping their Duke and Duchess titles, even though going further doesn’t seem like it would have been much more of a burden. Harry was unlikely to ever be crowned king given the monarchy’s rules of succession. And they moved to southern California, where you don’t need a title to be royalty — just look at the Kardashians.

Now, after very publicly withdrawing from one Western democracy, Meghan is very publicly butting back into another. In her interview with the 19th, the Duchess mentioned that her husband has never been able to vote, citing it as an example of why no one should ever take the right to vote for granted. If a PR consultant devised that talking point, they should probably be fired. In the US, voter disenfranchisement remains an enormous problem, from draconian state measures that strip felons who have served their time of the right to vote for life, to misinformation campaigns that attempt to convince certain blocs of voters to stay home. The Duchess of Sussex’s husband can’t vote because he was born into money, castles, corgis, and the overwhelming burden of showing up at a lot of charity balls. There is zero comparison. I’m sure that if Harry did want to become an American citizen and start casting ballots, he could use his connections to leapfrog our labyrinthine immigration system that leaves scores of would-be eager American citizens and voters in a painful holding pattern.

The intrusion of British monarchs’ opinions into American democratic activism is made more uncomfortable by the bizarre but prominent social media undercurrent these days that promotes the idea that the American system of government is somehow worse than the authoritarian empire it replaced. Unlike many of my peers, I was a fan of much of the New York Times’s 1619 Project (Yes! The interstate highway system was racist!), but I couldn’t wrap my head around the assertion that a major reason for the American Revolution was the idea that the British Empire was committed to abolishing chattel slavery. Giving the moral high ground to the empire that threw Kenyan citizens in concentration camps and let millions of people in India starve seemed, well, strange. Indeed, Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz has called this ‘a striking claim built on false assertions.’

Look: there is a lot that I like about Harry and Meghan, from his advocacy of the importance of mental health to her lifelong commitment to women’s causes. But Harry and Meghan’s refusal to fully cut their ties to the royal family — a fundamentally undemocratic institution — means that the Duchess of Sussex encouraging American women to vote seems to come with an elephant in the room. Or, in her case, a corgi in the room. If you’re going to lecture the former colonies on how they should vote, maybe at least start by dropping the imperial title. Being committed to democracy and voting rights ought to be more than just a personal branding ploy.

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