Elizabeth II’s Conflicted Legacy: Perspective of Americans and the British
On 8 September, 2022, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth Realms passed away.
On one level, any death is a tragedy. And Elizabeth was perhaps the most beloved and recognizable public figure in the world. So the tragedy of her passing—mediated by social platforms, television, and simple conversations—was experienced by billions.
But the collective experience of mourning was by no means unified or simple. Because on another level, the Queen has always been a potent symbol for a complex tangle of histories and ideas.
For instance: Are the British royals representative of a modern nation or of an imperial legacy? The triumph of democracy or of the endurance of class oppression? Contemporary celebrity culture or of dignified charitable commitment? Perhaps all of the above?
There is an understandable impulse to simplify, to reduce a human legacy to its lowest common denominator. Traditional polling often embraces this impulse, asking respondents to vote up or down, yes or no regarding the meaning of Elizabeth’s passing. While social listening captures the remarks of the vocal few on Twitter or Instagram but is hardly representative of millions of dinner table conversations and private reflections.
Glimpse looks for meaning instead amidst the complexity of human language—at scale. To be sure, we ask the standard poll questions; but then we also insist on asking, “Why?” Because without that fundamental question, we remain stranded at the surface of meaning, unable to discover anything new about the views or emotions of people, unable to empathize with their perspectives on life—or death.
Immediately after the Queen’s death, we asked 171 registered voters across the United States and 156 census representative UK residents a series of questions about their experience of the event. We got back all of the responses within an hour. And many were surprisingly raw and emotional.
Most fascinating: the transnational contrast between the free response answers to two different questions:
How do you feel about the death of Queen Elizabeth?
Do you think the monarchy should continue or be abolished? Why do you feel that way?
The most common American reaction to the first question was sadness, tempered by the sense that Elizabeth had lived a “great” or “full” life. Glimpse’s root and tree system for categorizing ‘mentions’ captures this trend perfectly:
In the UK, sadness was also (predictably!) the most common emotion. But a sadness rooted more in Elizabeth’s role as representative of the national family. As such, the most common term used by respondents was “country” instead of the American “great life.”
And opinion was much more divided–both within and between the US and the UK—when it came to the second question about the continuation of the monarchy.
About 54% of the American respondents thought the monarchy should continue while the remainder either didn’t care or advocated abolishment.
This comment from a 41-year old woman from Orlando is representative of this tension between individual and institution:
“I am saddened and consider it to be the death or an era, in a way. While I personally oppose monarchies as a concept she has a timeless influence on the entire world, both socially and politically. I wish she could have lived longer but there has been a lot of news on the subject of her death lately, and I am not surprised at the news today.”
While this negative judgment about the future of the monarchy puts forth the most common case for its absolution:
“The days & eras of monarchy have gone [a] long time back. No country can afford [the] unwanted burden of an inactive functionary [on] public money… living such a pomp & luxurious life.”
On the other hand, a full 67% of polled UK residents thought the monarchy should continue. A large percentage of the responses emphasized national distinctiveness and pride.
Here’s a 64-year old woman from the east of England:
“The monarchy has done us good over the years. Other countries without Royal families seem to admire our Royal family.”
And a 29-year old woman, also from the East of England:
“I think they do good for the country. I like the tradition of it and it bringing countries together e.g. the commonwealth”
Interestingly the arguments in favor of abolition were also somewhat different across the Atlantic. This 65-year old woman from the Northeast of English makes the case:
“I don’t feel the monarchy is helpful and is rooted in colonialism and racism.”
So what then is Elizabeth’s legacy? That of an individual public figure who maintained a strikingly dignified life under immense public pressure? Scion of a troubled family? Or an anachronistic symbol of a pre-modern system?
I’ll leave the complexly eloquent last word to the 41-year old American woman from Orlando that we heard from above:
“I have thought for a long time that it would be fitting to dissolve the monarchy after Elizabeth's death, as her reign really bridged the gap between the "old world" and the "new world" that she helped shape through her extensive influence. Quietly putting the whole thing I the past now that she's gone would make the most sense, as there really is no benefit either nationally or globally to having Charles continue the media circus that no longer holds any governmental significance. He'd merely be a figurehead and has had to live in the spotlight all his life. I say let the man retire from this position he didn't even choose, in peace. It'll give the family more dignity to keep them out of the media and no longer require they follow outdated protocols, and plus there is so much scandal in that family.”
It is from the texture of responses like this one that we learn, gain new insight, and come to empathize with the perspective of others. (And formulate new and more interesting research questions!) It is by gathering natural language responses from audiences at scale that we validate, compare (across nations or across populations within them), and benchmark. Neither is possible without the other.
Adam is Chief Strategy and Customer Officer Glimpse. Adam is a Cultural anthropologist by training, and has created and taught courses on innovation and leadership for MBA and Executive Education students at institutions like Columbia University and the MIT Sloan International Program in Beijing.