I don’t know if your head exploded when Bill de Blasio used Lorde’s monster hit “Royals” as his victory theme. Mine suddenly swelled, Total Recall-style. Relative obscurity and penury, her anthem claims, rule just as hard as the point-oh-oh-one percent realm of excess and access. The song’s subversive edge, much better suited for pop bangers than political banners, comes from the hook at the end of the chorus: “Let me live that fantasy.”
Like lots of teenagers, Lorde gets now. She knows that the bygone world of titles, nobles, and royals was a joke—rooted in the vanities of an enchanted past, not in the reality of our shared humanity. But now it’s a joke that we can all be in on. Not even money can keep us out. Today the “royal experience” isn’t fundamentally about popping bottles or making it rain in the strip club. It’s about treating yourself like a king or a queen—or, really, like an emperor. No filter, no shame, no one to answer to. Self-entitlement with a good conscience.
Today, if you really want to watch Americans live that fantasy, you’d best sit down for some reality television. There, tribes rule, and not just Kardashians. Aristocratic metaphors fly as furiously as bleeped diatribes, from 2005’s Princes of Malibu to today’s Shahs of Sunset. And lest you subhuman racist types think TV tribalism is an import from the decadent, swarthy remains of the empire of Alexander the Great, keep flipping those channels. Over on Great American Country—yes, that’s a channel—you can tune in to Farm Kings, where a dozen all-American relatives “battle the elements—and each other—to keep the family business going.” Their family name? King! Shakespeare couldn’t make this stuff up!
But the reigning TV family tribe, far outstripping the power of every noble house in Westeros, is now so familiar to the general public that you can win plushies bearing their likeness in those claw-grabber games at the arcade. None is more tribal, none more family, and none more American than the stars of Duck Dynasty.
Which, as anyone with a television now knows, is a problem.
Not for the first time, we have a reality TV scandal on our hands that has nothing surprising about it. Hickish rube deems sex sinful unless straight and married. Film at 11. Yet the outrage surrounding Duck patriarch Phil Robertson—and the counter-outrage marshaled to his aid—has nothing to do with shock. Robertson’s views return us to familiar battlegrounds in the culture war.
So some will continue to say that we stupid Americans really love all-or-nothing conflicts. Beat the Nazis, beat the communists—the jihadis aren’t nearly scary enough to feed our hunger for ’round-the-clock othering, so, praise the God of War, we have each other. Theorists have long surmised that, since the fall of the French monarchy, “democratic” war has been total by default, the enemy stripped of all honor, stripped practically of his very personhood. Perpetual culture war fits right into that tidy framework.
But that overlooks the real breaking news surrounding the Robertson freakout. For years, thanks especially to the TV and the Internet, Americans have been deeply moved and captivated by completely anachronistic forms of entertainment centered around tribal war. Rather that thrilling to conflict that pits nation against nation, or human against alien, we’re reverting to the themes and narrative structures of epic poetry. As I said of last year’s blockbuster fiction franchises, the epic poem is back, it’s viral, and it’s worth billions. And what goes for multivolume serial novels goes double for reality television. America doesn’t really break out the popcorn for political conflict—or war—unless it’s linked in to intimately personal interrelationships.
We all seem to understand that the fantasy Lorde describes requires a deep archive of collective memory. Without an ongoing visceral recollection of the lost era of monarchs, nobles, feuds, and bloodlines, we lose the inspiration to dress up and pretend. We sink into the domesticated blandness of our interchangeable, modern-era selves.
The drama surrounding Duck Dynasty is even less shocking that it first appeared. Our unexpected lust for reliving and rehearsing tribal conflict makes the identity politics of reality television feel like the most natural thing on Earth. Dump the talk of a new civil war. Drop your clash of civilizations references into the dustbin of history. Today our social imagination is a Game of Thrones world, replete with vast kinship networks, endless shouting matches, constant betrayal, and bloody vendettas. And we’re loving every minute of it.