The World’s Strangest Monarchies


St Edwards Crown image by MarkMurphy

Monarchy is one of the most basic and simple forms of government humanity has ever devised. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the idea of “I’m in charge and when I die, my oldest son will be in charge” is very intuitive. Societies in every inhabited continent independently devised their own monarchical governments. However, because it was independently developed in so many places, not all monarchies are the same.

King Mswati III image by Amanda Lucidon

Ngwenyama Mswati III of eSwatini

For example, the African nation of eSwatini has two reigning monarchs. These are the Ngwenyama (“Lion”) and Ndlovukazi (“She-elephant”). The Ngwenyama, usually referred to as the “king” by English speakers, is the main ruler of the country, with essentially unchecked power, his word being the law of the land. However, the Ndlovukazi, who is always the king’s mother, has important symbolic and ceremonial powers, and at least in theory, is just as important. If the king is still a minor, his mother will act as his regent until he is old enough to take the throne. When the king dies, one of his many wives will be chosen to be the new Ndlovukazi, and it is her son who will be crowned the new king.

King Salman bin Abdull Aziz of Saudi Arabia image from the US Department of Defense

King Salman bin Abdull Aziz of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s monarchy also had an unusual order of succession until very recently. Since the death of the nation’s founder, Ibn Saud, in 1953, every Saudi king has been one of his sons, with the throne passing from brother to brother. However, that generation is slowly dying out, so in 2017 current King Salman bin Abdull Aziz named his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz as his heir. This marks the first time a Saudi king will be succeeded by his own son. This is a major change in a country that, like eSwatini, is an absolute monarchy where all political power is held by the royal family. The King of Saudi Arabia is also the Prime Minister and can enact laws by decree. All the other top government jobs are given to members of the royal family, many of whom also control the country’s many state-owned businesses and have gained fabulous wealth through their positions. In essence, the Saudi royals treat their country as though it’s their personal property.

Fortunately, absolute monarchies like these are quite rare these days. In the modern age where much of the world has embraced democracy as an ideal, most of the world’s monarchs rule constitutional monarchies. These are governments where the monarch’s powers are limited by a constitution that makes them share power with an elected parliament of some kind. The most famous monarch in the world is, of course, a constitutional monarch: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Queen Elizabeth II image by Bill Ingalls

However, her position has its own political strangeness. While we mainly think of her as the Queen of the United Kingdom, she is far, far more than that, thanks to the British Empire.

1915 British Empire Map from

They used to say that the sun never set on the British Empire, and in a sort-of metaphorical way, it still hasn’t. Not only does the United Kingdom continue to govern 14 small colonies – er, “Overseas Territories” – in six continents, there are also 15 countries that are basically independent nations in every way that matters, with their own governments, militaries, and embassies around the world, but still act like British colonies for ceremonial and symbolic purposes. Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu all recognize Elizabeth II as their sovereign. Their politicians, soldiers, police officers, and new citizens all swear an oath of allegiance to her, they all mint her face on their coins, and she appoints a “Governor” or “Governor-General” who acts as her royal representative in these nations. As I’ve mentioned on Cat Flag previously, Australia, New Zealand, and Tuvalu still show the Union Jack on their flags, as do the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Manitoba, and Ontario.

Malaysia, another former British colony, decided not to follow this example and rejected the idea of continuing to honor the British monarch in this way. However, they still wanted to be a monarchy, just with their own monarch. Uniquely, rather than give this monarch a title like “King” or “Emperor”, they chose to call him the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or “Paramount Ruler”.

Yang Di-Pertuan Agong XVI image from the US Embassy Kuala Lumpur

Al-Sultan Abdullah, the current Yang di-Pertuan Agong

Fair enough, but what really makes Malaysia’s monarch interesting is that he is chosen for a five-year term. Yes, really, Malaysia is the only monarchy in the world that gives its monarch a term limit. So, why is he even considered a monarch at all, and not a president of a republic? Well, Malaysia is a federation made up of 13 states, nine of whom are monarchies, and these nine monarchs choose the Paramount Ruler from among themselves, though in practice, they all take turns at holding the position. Thus, the Paramount Ruler is a monarch already by virtue of his existing titles.

Though, to be fair, one can be a monarch and a republican president at the same time. Just ask the President of France.

Emmanuel Macron image by Andrea Hanks

See, in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain lies the tiny Principality of Andorra. This small country has existed since the Middle Ages, and since 1607, it has been ruled by two “Co-Princes”, the Bishop of Urgell (a small town in Spain) and the ruler of France. Originally, this meant the King of France, but since the Principality’s northern neighbor became a republic, the President of France has filled this role. Of course, as the French President is typically quite busy with his main job governing France, he appoints a representative to act on his behalf in Andorra. Generally, French presidents have tended not to interfere in Andorran politics, though in 2009 then-president Nicholas Sarkozy used his position to pressure Andorra to reform its banking laws so that it would no longer be a tax haven.

Monarchy may be the oldest form of government, but as we can see from these examples, it is anything but simple. Just like any political institution, it is subject to the same human foibles and pressures. When it comes to monarchies around the world, politics is strange, indeed.

Strange Politics: The primaries

White House image from Public Domain Pictures

As I write this, voters in South Carolina have just finished casting their ballots in their state’s primary election, selecting who they want to be the Democratic party’s candidate to challenge President Donald Trump in the upcoming election in November. They are joining three other states that have made their candidate preferences known: Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. On Tuesday, 14 states will all hold their primaries at the same time in an event known as “Super Tuesday”, my home state of California among them.

If this sounds exhausting, well, it is. I have mentioned before that the system of presidential primary elections here in the United States is one of the major contributing factors in the ludicrous length of our presidential campaigns, typically lasting longer than a year. So, why do we have it? Why don’t all the states just hold their primaries at the same time? Why do we hold primary elections in the first place? And what is a “caucus” anyway?

Well, as with so many aspects of the Strange Politics we have here in the United States, the answer stems from history. Back on Election Day in 2016, I went over the history of U.S. presidential elections, and described how the modern method we use to choose our nation’s leader evolved gradually over time. Nobody deliberately designed the system this way; it came to be through piecemeal reforms and centuries of tradition. Today, let’s focus on how our presidential primaries work, and how they got this way.

Let the People have a Voice!

We Americans often take for granted that we get a say not only in who becomes our president, but who we get to choose from for president. This is very much NOT the case in most countries around the world. For starters, in most countries, membership in a political party isn’t something that most people have. In the European Union, for example, political party membership averages just over 4% of total voters. In contrast, 57% of Americans were either Democrats or Republicans in January of 2020. This is largely because in most countries, joining a political party means actually going to the party and applying for membership, paying membership fees for the privilege. In the United States, voters are asked their political party preference when they register to vote. Thus, even in countries that let party members choose their candidates, only a small percentage of the voting public will have a say. Some countries don’t even offer that, and instead have a handful of high-ranking party leaders pick their party’s candidates. Voters will just see it announced one day that so-and-so is the candidate for such-and-such party. Indeed, this was once how American voters found out who the presidential candidates were.

The Founding Fathers never specified how political parties should choose their candidates since, well, they didn’t originally plan for political parties to be a thing in the first place. In those early days, once the first American political parties started to form in spite of the Founders’ intentions, meetings known as “caucuses” would be held every four years between these parties’ respective Senators and Representatives in Congress to choose that year’s presidential candidates.

This system broke down in 1824, when the Democratic-Republican Party ended up running four candidates against each other, all from the same party! That year, Andrew Jackson won the popular vote and the largest share of the Electoral College vote, but as nobody earned an outright majority in the Electoral College, it was up to Congress to decide, and they chose John Quincy Adams. This broke the Democratic-Republicans apart between Jackson’s and Adams’s supporters, each holding rallies in various states to drum up support for their rematch in the 1828 election. Andrew Jackson won, and shortly thereafter, he officially formed the Democratic Party. At the time, Jackson’s opponents were in a bit of disarray, forming several political parties. In 1831, one of these new parties, the Anti-Masonic Party, held a national convention in Baltimore to choose a presidential candidate that all party leaders could get behind. Soon, the other parties copied the Anti-Masons, and by the 1840’s the practice of holding a national convention to nominate a presidential candidate became standard.

This system, while more open, was still essentially a gathering of top party leaders to pick the candidate without any input from the general public. Delegates were chosen by their state’s party bosses, party bosses would often negotiate behind closed doors between ballots and make political bargains with each other, and it would often take multiple ballots by the delegates to pick a nominee. This system was rife with corruption, leading to reformers in the early 20th century calling for more transparency and for the ordinary voter to have more of a say in the process.

In 1901, Florida became the first state to experiment with having ordinary party members choose delegates to the national convention. Oregon would later be the first state to ask party members who their preferred presidential candidate was in a non-binding vote often called a “beauty contest”. A few other states would copy these reforms, but progress would be slow. One key turning point came in 1952, when Estes Kefauver made a major push to win the presidential primary elections in each of the 14 states that held them at the time in order to convince the Democratic Party leadership that he should be their party’s nominee. His campaign managed to shock everyone with a massive increase in voter turnout to these early state contests, with Sen. Kefauver winning 12 of these states. It was enough to convince President Harry Truman to step aside, but not enough to win the nomination at that year’s Democratic National Convention. The party leadership instead picked Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson to run.

From this point on, presidential primaries started to gain more attention from the national news media and the public. The next primary contest to have major consequences, also within the Democratic Party, was in 1968. That year, President Lyndon B. Johnson decided to withdraw his re-election campaign after failing to get a majority of the vote in the New Hampshire primary. This game-changing decision left the field wide open to many challengers, with the strongest candidates being Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. Then, just moments after winning the California primary, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. This tragedy opened the door for Vice-President Hubert Humphrey to easily win the nomination with the support of party bosses, even though he only won 2% of the vote in the primaries, a result that contributed to loud and acrimonious protests within the convention hall and violent clashes between the Chicago Police and anti-Vietnam War protesters right outside its doors.

These events led both Democrats and Republicans to look at reforming their system for choosing presidential candidates. The McGovern-Fraser Commission (on the Democratic side) and DO Commission (on the Republican side) recommended concrete measures to make the nominating process more transparent, more fair, and most importantly, more open to the public. Today, every state’s ordinary Democrat and Republican voters get to participate in the process of nominating a presidential candidate.

So how do primaries work?

Well, that depends on what state you live in and which political party you belong to. See, each state has the ability to set its own laws regarding the mechanics of how elections work within their state, and both the Democratic and Republican parties can set additional rules for their presidential primaries that their state affiliates have to follow. Not only that, but the details change every four years as state officials and national party organizations haggle and mediate over the rules.

For starters, some states have “open primaries”, where any voter can pick either party’s ballot regardless of that voter’s own party affiliation, while others have “closed primaries”, where you only get the ballot of the party you belong to. Open primaries have the advantage of allowing independent and swing voters to have a say, but they also have the disadvantage that members of the other party can sabotage the race by voting for the worst candidates. Here in California, we have a system where political parties can choose to let independent voters (and ONLY independent voters) participate in their primary; the California Democratic Party lets voters do this, while the California Republican Party does not.

Still other states don’t have primaries at all. Iowa, Nevada, and Colorado still cling to the old “caucus” method of making their presidential candidate preferences known, the only difference now being that any voter who belongs to a political party can attend that party’s caucus. In these states, the “caucus” in a particular district is held in a single place, usually a school or some other public place, that anyone who wants to participate in must physically be present in to cast their votes. The reason? Voters will vote with their feet, physically standing on opposite sides of the room as they argue the case for their preferred candidate and try to convince people to switch sides. Once all the debates are done, someone counts how many people are standing in which corner, and that is how many votes are cast for that candidate.

Believe it or not, this was the original way votes were cast in the United States and other democracies around the world, until Australia came up with the idea of a secret ballot in 1856. Over time, almost everyone realized that voting in secret was a better way to get people’s actual preferences, reducing the risk of a vote skewed by peer pressure or intimidation.

Polling booth image by Lindsay D'Addato

Thank you, Australia!

So, the votes are all counted and the presidential nominee is chosen, right? Nope!

See, it is still the delegates who attend each party’s national convention that decide who their party’s presidential candidate will be. The votes we cast in the primaries (or caucuses) are actually votes to determine who those delegates will be. All Democratic primaries, and most Republican primaries as well, apportion the delegates between the candidates based on the share of the votes that they won. The Republicans allow each state to decide for itself how to assign their delegates, so a few states still give all of their delegates to the candidate who won the most votes.

A bit indirect, but at least it ensures that each party’s candidate is the people’s choice, right? Well, there are a couple of wrinkles. The first is particular to the Democratic National Convention, while the other applies to both conventions.

Superdelegates and brokered conventions

At every Democratic National Convention, the members of the Democratic National Committee, Democrats serving in Congress or as state governors, former Democratic presidents, and other key party leaders will be in attendance, numbering a total of 771 out of the 4,750 attendees, or about 16% of the total delegates. These “superdelegates” are not beholden to any voter. They represent the party establishment, a relic of the older system of party bosses making these decisions.

They are, understandably, controversial. The irony of the “Democratic” party having such an un-democratic practice in its candidate selection process has been a huge point of contention within the party’s membership, especially after the 2016 election where the open support many of them showed for Hillary Clinton angered supporters of her chief rival, Bernie Sanders, who accused the party of rigging the nomination contest against him. As a result, several reforms were made to restrict the superdelegates, most notably by preventing them from voting on the first ballot.

Wait, FIRST ballot?

Yes, that’s the other thing about these national conventions. If no candidate has won the majority of the delegates’ votes on the first ballot cast when the convention meets, then all bets are off and the convention decides the nominee the old-fashioned way. This situation is called a “brokered convention” or “contested convention” and it has never occurred since the reforms of the 1970’s. Still, it is a theoretical possibility, and there have been many dire predictions that this year’s Democratic primary may result in one; I personally feel it is far too early to be predicting that, with 46 more states still to cast their ballots. Speaking of which…

Why do the states vote at different times? And why does Iowa get to go first?

In the first presidential elections under the new rules in the 1970’s, Iowa just coincidentally happened to be the first state to hold its caucus, because at that time its rules were so much more complex back then that they had to start early in order to get their delegates to the national convention on time. Nobody cared until 1976, when Jimmy Carter won the Iowa caucus, then went on the be the Democratic nominee, and finally won the presidency. That was also probably a coincidence, but it put Iowa on the map and made it a tradition to start the presidential campaign season in the Hawkeye State.

Of course, other states were envious of Iowa, and there was much political wrangling between states as others wanted to hold that prestigious “first-in-the-nation” primary vote. Well, Iowa beat them all by straight-up passing a law declaring they would always vote first. Period. If a state moves its primary contest to earlier in the year, Iowa, by law, must adjust its caucuses so that they stay first.

Iowa wasn’t the only state to come up with this idea. New Hampshire also has a law on its books that it will always be the first primary in the nation. This meant they wouldn’t be in conflict with Iowa’s law but would still get to have tons of media attention as candidates would be forced to fly there and campaign. Plus, it left no other state with the option to pass an “I’m first!” law without creating a paradox that could only be resolved by warping space-time.

This also prevents all the states from holding a single, national primary election. I mean, what, we let Iowa and New Hampshire vote first, but everyone else goes at the same time after them? How fair would that be?

Indeed, the fact that every state gets to set the date of its own primary means that every four years there is jockeying and competition for who votes when. California has long been one of the last states to vote, holding its primaries in June, banking on its large population being enough to keep it relevant in the nomination contest. However, this often meant the nominees had already been selected by the time California voted. So, for the 2020 election, California scheduled its contest for March 3. This triggered panic in many smaller states who saw such a massively populous state with a ton of delegates leapfrog them, leading to many choosing to hold their own primaries on the same day. The result is Super Tuesday, a day where many states all hold their primaries at once.

The trouble with Super Tuesday, and with proposals to just hold a single, nationwide primary, is that states really like the attention that candidates and the media give them when it’s their “turn”. By voting state-by-state, candidates are forced to spend some of their time and energy campaigning among the ordinary American citizens in remote, rural states like, well, like Iowa and New Hampshire. Indeed, this is arguably one of this system’s greatest strengths.

Still, you don’t want things to get too out-of-hand. In 2008, Michigan and Florida moved their primaries all the way into mid-January, pushing the primary season as early as possible, much to the frustration of both parties. After this, a new rule was instituted that no state could hold its primary before the first Tuesday in March, except for four states: Iowa and New Hampshire (of course), plus Nevada and South Carolina (to add a little diversity to the early-voter-state crowd). Any state that violated these rules would see the number of delegates they were assigned at the convention massively reduced to the point they would be drowned out by the cooperative states.

That’s how we ended up with the system Americans use to decide their presidential candidates: one where ordinary voters participate, state by state, in contests with varying rules to determine the delegates to the national convention that makes the final decision. Only then does the candidate compete against the other party for the real contest to see who will win the White House.

Strange Politics: The Emperor of Japan

Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan, who is set to take the throne as Emperor on Tuesday. Image by Michel Temer.

The current Emperor of Japan, who is 85 years old and has reigned since 1989, is set to abdicate the throne on April 30 in favor of his son, Crown Prince Naruhito. On his accession, the crown prince will become the 126th member of his dynasty to reign over the world’s oldest monarchy. All emperors of Japan, including the soon-to-reign Naruhito, trace their descent to the Shinto goddess of the sun Amaterasu through her descendant Jimmu, who is said in legends to have become the first emperor of Japan in 660 BC. Of course, modern historians and archaeologists tend not to believe such things, but have still found evidence that the Japanese imperial line dates back at least as early as the Kofun period around the 5th century AD – which still means the line of Japanese emperors goes back more than 1500 years!

How is this possible? Well, Japan’s emperors play a very unique role in Japanese society that has no equivalent in any other country. Indeed, it is only us Westerners who have dubbed them with the title “Emperor”, as a way to roughly conceptualize their status and position. The actual Japanese title is Tennō, meaning “heavenly sovereign”. The Japanese language refers to foreign emperors as “kōtei“, in order to distinguish them.

The Tennō reigns from the “takamikura” or Chrysanthemum Throne and during his reign, he has no name; he is just the Tennō. Many Western news media outlets and reference works will call the current monarch “Emperor Akihito”, referring to His Imperial Majesty by the name he used as a prince, but to the Japanese this would be considered quite disrespectful. Having said that, the traditional Japanese calendar divides Japanese history into “eras” that are each given a name, and a tradition has arisen that a new era name is selected upon the succession of a new emperor and that former emperors are referred to by the era name of their reign. Thus, Tuesday will be the first day of the “Reiwa” era, and the current emperor will then be referred to as “former Emperor Heisei”.

The Tennō is more than a reigning monarch, but the head of the Shinto religion as well. He is in charge of the three most sacred objects in Shinto, which are presented to him upon taking the throne: the Sacred Mirror that Shinto worshipers believe lured Amaterasu out of hiding, the Sacred Sword that her brother, the storm god Susanoo, pulled from the corpse of a dragon, and the Sacred Jewel that Amaterasu gifted her mortal descendants when she sent them to Earth. Indeed, as the role of the Tennō is considered sacred, he only very rarely speaks in public, which means that when he does speak, his words carry quite a lot of weight. The Tennō is so revered in Japanese society that the country’s very national anthem is a poem singing his praises.

Having said all of that, one would think that the Tennō is an extremely powerful figure in Japan. At least politically, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, from a constitutional standpoint, he is the least powerful monarch in the world. See, while most constitutional monarchs, like Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, legally retain some important political powers such as the ability to veto laws, appoint the Prime Minister and other important officials, declare war, command the armed forces, and ratify peace treaties, Japan’s constitution explicitly rips those powers away from the Emperor. The 1947 Constitution of Japan describes the Emperor as “The symbol of the state and the unity of the people”, and specifically instructs him to only exercise his functions and duties in accordance with the instructions of Japan’s democratically-elected politicians. For example, while the Queen may be theoretically free to choose whatever Prime Minister she wants and is only bound by long-standing tradition and custom to name Parliament’s preferred candidate, the Emperor is bound by the text of the constitution to choose the Prime Minister that the Diet picks for him. The Emperor’s political role has been described as a “rubber stamp”, but I think a more apt description might be something akin to a human flag. Just as a national flag is an object with immense symbolic value for a country, the Emperor is a person with immense symbolic value for Japan.

Why is this the case, though? Well…

Let’s just say a certain date that will live in infamy was involved.

The actual, on-the-ground political power of the Tennō has waxed and waned many times over the centuries due to a variety of historical factors. In the 7th century AD, the Emperor Kōtoku implemented a number of political reforms known as the Taika Reform, modelling Japan’s government on the Chinese model. At this point, we can call Kōtoku a true emperor, as he was assuming powers similar to the Chinese emperor. However, by the Heian period (AD 794-1185), the Fujiwara clan were actually running the show in the Emperor’s name. This was in part due to the fact that the Fujiwara frequently intermarried with the imperial family, and many emperors at this time had Fujiwara mothers who acted as regents for their sons. Toward the end of the Heian period, though, the Fujiwara’s power declined and civil war broke out between rival clans for power. This anarchic phase ended with the victory of Minamoto no Yoritomo, who seized power and became Japan’s first shogun. For centuries thereafter, the shoguns ruled Japan as military dictators of a feudal society. This is the age people think of when they think of historical Japan, with its castles, samurai, and ninja.

In theory, the shogun was appointed by the Tennō and ruled in his name, and the Tennō could dismiss a shogun that displeased him. In practice, however, this was very much not the case, as the Emperor Go-Daigo learned the hard way in the 14th century when he tried to do exactly that and ended up causing another civil war. Power remained firmly in the hands of the shoguns until 1853.

Why 1853? Well, that was the year that an expedition by the U.S. Navy led by Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan on a mission to convince the isolationist Japanese to open up their ports to trade with the United States. The massive steam-powered gunboats armed to the teeth with powerful cannons shocked and frightened the Japanese, who now saw how far behind the west they had become technologically. This precipitated a political conflict that led to another civil war between factions supporting the shogun and emperor, with the imperial faction (with some British backing) winning the day in the end.

This led to the Meiji Restoration in 1867, with the Emperor Meiji deposing the last shogun and re-establishing imperial rule for the first time in nearly a millennium. In 1890, Japan’s first constitution took effect, establishing a constitutional monarchy modeled on those of Europe at the time. While this constitution allowed for some limited democracy through the election of a Diet with legislative power, it also preserved the emperor’s role as an active political player with immense power. The emperor’s power was further magnified through the establishment of State Shinto, a form of the Shinto religion that was infused with political ideology, most notably including the belief that the emperor was more than just a descendant of Amterasu but a divine being in his own right who should be worshiped as such.

In the 1930’s, a series of militaristic, imperialistic prime ministers allied with war-hungry military commanders took power and launched a campaign to conquer China. This led to the United States imposing an oil embargo on Japan, to which the Japanese retaliated by bombing Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. During World War II, the regime justified its actions through the lens of State Shinto, holding that the world should know the benefits of the emperor’s divine rule and that it was glorious to die for the emperor. When Japan lost the war, the victorious Allies had to decide what to do about this imperial cult. Some called for the abolition of the Japanese emperor’s role entirely, or at least for then-Emperor Shōwa (known in the west by the name he had as as a prince, Hirohito) to be deposed. Ultimately, the decision was made to do neither, but instead to have the emperor publicly renounce his divinity and for Japan to be made to adopt a new constitution that stripped away all his political power.

In a way, then, the role of the Tennō has gone back to the way it was during the shogunate, only instead of the Tennō being a symbolic puppet of a military dictator, he is the symbolic puppet of a modern democracy. It’s amusing to me how things have come full-circle with a modern twist like that. It just goes to show that everywhere in the world, and throughout all of history, politics is always very strange.

Strange Politics: The Club that the World Treats Like a Country

We have covered the Strange Politics of some very small countries here at Cat Flag. We’ve talked about the Vatican City, the tiny global headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church tucked away in less than half a square kilometer of land in Rome. We’ve talked about Sealand, the quasi-legal micro-nation on a platform of the coast of England. Today, however, we are talking about a “country” that has no sovereign territory of any kind, whatsoever. It has only two citizens, one of whom is the only person in the world with a permanent passport issued by this “country”. Yet it is an officially-recognized UN permanent observer nation and it maintains embassies in countries around the world.

This “country” is the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, or as it is officially called:

*deep breath*

The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta


The Order of Malta, as its website calls it for simplicity’s sake, is treated in international law as a sovereign entity equal to any nation with actual soil. Its headquarters in Rome and its embassies around the world are given the same special legal status by their host nations as the embassies of countries like the United States, Russia, China, India, Ethiopia, or France. Yet when you look at how it actually functions in the real world, it is basically a fraternity that focuses most of its time and energy to charitable causes, like the Freemasons, Kiwanis Club, or Knights of Columbus.

How did this happen?

The story of the Order begins in 1048, when the Muslim ruler of Egypt granted the Catholic Church the right to build a hospital in Jerusalem to treat pilgrims in the city. During the First Crusade, a Benedictine monk known as Blessed Gerard founded the Order of St. John of Jerusalem as a new monastic order that ran the hospital and cared for the wounded and sick. In the violent, chaotic times of the Crusades, it became clear that the hospital was in danger, so some of the knights serving in the Holy Land joined the order and swore to defend it. Appropriately enough, these knights came to be known as the “Knights Hospitaller”.

While the First Crusade was successful in conquering the Holy Land for Christendom, over the next two centuries the surrounding Muslim nations continuously wore away at the Christian holdings, and successive Crusades failed to hold back this tide. By 1291, all the Crusaders had been kicked out of the Middle East, including the Knights Hospitaller. The Knights set up shop in exile on the island of Cyprus, ruled at the time by the friendly House of Lusignan. However, this initial friendliness quickly soured as a dynastic dispute within the Cypriot royal family pitted the Knights Hospitaller against another, perhaps more famous order of Crusaders, the Knights Templar.

These conflicts led the Knights Hospitaller to decide they needed a base under their own control where they could operate freely. So, in 1306, they just up and invaded the island of Rhodes, conquering it after four years’ fighting. For more than two centuries, the knights ruled Rhodes and functioned as the island’s government. They used it as a major naval base to raid the coasts of Turkey, Syria and Egypt. In 1523, a certain Ottoman sultan by the name of Suleiman the Magnificent got a bit fed up with these pirates, and captured Rhodes, forcing the knights into exile again.

Seven years later, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V decided to grant the tiny yet strategically-located islands of Malta to the Knights. Perhaps he felt sorry for the knights, or perhaps the devoutly Catholic emperor wanted to do something nice for the Church as an apology for sacking Rome and taking the Pope prisoner.

In any case, the knights would rule Malta for 268 years, building fortresses, churches, palaces, and, of course, hospitals. Under the knights’ rule, Malta was neutral in all wars between Christian nations, but played a key role in the wars against the Ottoman Turkish navy and North African pirates. They also very briefly tried their hand at colonialism, taking possession of several islands in the Caribbean for a few years. However, not all was well with the Order. The Protestant Reformation led to a schism, with the Order’s German branch adopting Lutheranism and consequently being expelled, though it continues to operate to this day as a separate organization.

The end of the knights’ rule in Malta came when Napoleon Bonaparte led a French invasion and conquest of the islands in 1798. The British were not about to let the French hold such a vital position in the Mediterranean, and the Maltese were none too happy with the French occupation, so the British helped liberate Malta from the French and the islanders offered their homeland to the British for protection. Malta would remain a British colony until 1964. Of course, since they happened to rule Malta, the British royals decided to create an order of chivalry of their own modeled on the Knights Hospitaller.

As for the original order that started it all, they were now in exile in Italy, eventually setting up their headquarters in Rome. They still exist today, with 135,000 members operating in 120 countries. While the Order no longer governs Rhodes, nor Malta, nor any Caribbean islands, nor any territory for that matter, it is still treated as a “sovereign subject of international law” recognized by 108 countries and the EU, mainly because of its historical status as an ex-national government. In this sense, it is something like a government-in-exile, a “government” that has lost control of its country, but continues to claim to be the legitimate ruler of that country, and in some cases continues to be recognized as such by foreign powers. Except the Order does not lay claim to Malta, and in fact has concluded treaties with it.

What does this Order do, then?

In practice, the Order of Malta today is mainly focused on providing medical services and humanitarian aid to victims of war or natural disaster, and to serving the needs of the poor, homeless, elderly, and disabled. In recent years, they have been operating in Syria and Iraq to help the victims of ISIS. The unique legal status of their members as sort-of diplomats from a sort-of country is actually quite useful to their operations in this regard, giving them some legal cover from potentially hostile local authorities. In particular, the fact that the order maintains a policy of complete neutrality means that its members operating in war zones are seen as more trustworthy than, say, official humanitarian missions from the United States or Russia or China.

Like any charity, its funding comes from a mix of grants from national governments or international organizations (such as the UN or EU) and private donations. They have a variety of chapters around the world, with the branch in the United States operating as the Order of Malta American Association.

Like the Freemasons, the Order continues to engage in elaborate ceremonial pageantry honoring its history, with members organized into three classes that are subdivided into multiple categories, with the highest-ranking members called “Knights of Justice”. The leader of the Order is called the Prince and Grand Master, who is elected to serve for life by the Order’s government. He is made a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church as part of his position, and in order to qualify for the position, he must be of noble birth.

Yes, I DID just say the Order has a government. Why wouldn’t it? The Order’s members elect a Sovereign Council, led by the Grand Master, who handle the executive functions of the government and have legislative power over matters that don’t involve the Order’s constitution (oh, by the way, the Order has a constitution). The members also elect a Chapter General that handles constitutional questions. Then there are the Courts of the Order, because, yes, the Order has its own courts.

Quite the elaborate framework for an organization that is mainly focused on helping the sick and needy.

So, how do I join?

Well, here’s the bad news. You can’t just apply for membership; nobody can. Membership is by invitation only. However, the Order does accept volunteers to help them carry out their charitable missions, with 80,000 volunteers helping the order with all manner of things from disaster relief to homeless aid programs to an annual pilgrimage to Lourdes, a sacred site of the Catholic faith in France known for its healing waters. The Order also employs 42,000 doctors, nurses, and other personnel. So, I guess there’s that.

What can I say? When it comes to politics, just when you think you’ve seen the strangest things can get, you learn that it can get even stranger.

Before the Republicans and Democrats – Early America’s Political Parties

The midterm elections are just a month away, with the Democrats hoping to regain control of Congress and the Republicans hoping to stave them off and keep their majorities in both houses. It’s amazing to me to think that these same two political parties have traded power with each other since the mid-19th century. The Democratic Party was founded in 1828, the Republican Party in 1854. If you look at the political parties in other countries around the world, you find that this persistence of a rigid two-party system is practically unheard of. In dictatorships, the political party in power can be changed with a simple coup, while in democracies, political parties usually squabble, break apart, merge together, and rise and fall in popularity on a whim. In fact, America’s two main political parties are the oldest in the world. The fact that they remain in power is quite the accomplishment.

However, America wasn’t always dominated by these two parties.

After the United States gained its independence, political parties weren’t really a thing at first. The Constitution makes no mention of political parties as the Framers thought that America would be run by the wisest men, and surely the wisest men would never stoop so low as to form rival political factions that would compete for power, right?

Except that then several Founding Fathers formed the first political parties in America, much to the dismay of George Washington, who feared that these parties would divide the country and put their own interests before that of the nation as a whole. He was unable to stop his Cabinet from turning against each other, and by the time he left office, America’s first two political parties had been established: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.

The Federalist Party

Existed 1789-1824

Founded by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and John Adams, among others, the Federalist Party supported a strong national government that could rein in the states and keep them in line for the common good of all. They believed the Constitution was only the first step in nation-building, and supported Hamilton’s plans to fix the postwar U.S. economy through centralized control of banking and the establishment of a national debt. In foreign policy, they believed it was in the new nation’s best interests to try to repair relations with the British and maintain neutrality in the French Revolutionary Wars that were tearing Europe apart at the time. Washington actually supported this agenda, which is why some lists of U.S. presidents will mistakenly label him as a Federalist as well.

The Federalists were more popular among conservatives, businessmen, urban dwellers, and Congregationalists. Their main base of support was in the northern states, particularly New England and New York. They achieved the height of their power during the presidency of John Adams, controlling the newly-built White House, both houses of Congress, and the majority of the state governments. However, their brief time in power proved to be like Icarus flying too close to the sun. As America waged an unofficial naval war against France, Adams and the Federalists passed the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts that all but banned immigration and made it a federal crime to criticize the government.

First Amendment? What First Amendment?

Well, criticize the government is exactly what Americans did, voting the Federalists out of power in 1800. Things would only get worse for the Federalists as the years went on. They staunchly opposed the War of 1812, causing many Americans to see them as pro-British traitors. They never recovered from this political blow, and by 1820, they didn’t even have enough support to nominate a candidate for president. They slowly faded out of politics over the succeeding decade.

The Democratic-Republican Party

Existed 1792-1824

First of all, this political party wasn’t called “Democratic-Republican” at the time. When it was first formed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, it had been called the “Anti-Administration Party” as its members opposed the policies of the Federalists in George Washington’s administration. Very quickly, however, they decided to change the party’s name to the Republican Party, in honor of the fact that it espoused “republican virtues”. It was this name that the party used throughout its existence. Much as historians now call that part of the Roman Empire that survived after Rome itself fell “The Byzantine Empire”, so too do historians call Jefferson’s political party “The Democratic-Republican Party” as a way to avoid confusion with today’s Republicans, who named themselves after it.

Jefferson and Madison based their party around the simple idea that the Constitution should be interpreted as strictly as possible and the federal government should only be as large as necessary. To them, it had been the states that won their independence from Britain, and the states should now be free to do as they pleased. They wanted America to support the French Revolution, seeing it as an extension of their own revolution against monarchy and tyranny. They were most popular among farmers, liberals, and the southern states. They were the first political party to form a highly-organized, modern “get-out-the-vote” campaign, passing out leaflets, conducting polls, and helping potential voters register.

These tactics paid off in 1800, when Jefferson won the presidency (though he first had to contend with his own running mate, Aaron Burr, a story I’ve covered on this blog before). As the Federalists slowly collapsed, the party came to dominate American politics, getting three presidents elected in a row: Jefferson, Madison, and James Monroe. They also maintained control of Congress from 1802 onward. By 1820, America had basically become a one-party state, with Monroe running for president unopposed. America was under the party’s complete control.

Then, apparently, they all got drunk and decided it would be a good idea to run four candidates for president against each other.

In 1824, the party nominated Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, William H. Crawford, and Henry Clay. The “logic” behind this decision was that each was popular in a particular region of the country. As a result, nobody won an outright majority of the vote. However, Jackson was cleary the most popular of the four, winning the largest share of the popular vote as well as the largest number of electors in the Electoral College.

Still, with nobody earning a majority, it was up to Congress to make the final call. Rather than just going ahead and ratifying Jackson’s election, however, Congress picked Adams to be the new president. This infuriated Jackson, who claimed that the election had been stolen from him by a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Clay. He spent the next four years going on a nationwide tirade against the Washington elites, and having his supporters stubbornly push back against the Adams administration at every turn. This divide permanently cleaved the party in two, with Jackson’s supporters forming a new political party: the Democratic Party. Yes, that one.

The Whig Party

Existed 1834-1854

Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams ran against each other once again in 1828. This time, Jackson won, hands-down, no question about it, becoming America’s seventh president. Jackson proved to be an extremely controversial president, and made quite a few enemies. Eventually, these enemies all joined forces to form a new political party: The Whig Party.

That’s Whig party, not “wig party”. The name is British in origin, referring to those who supported a constitutional monarchy rather than an absolute one. In the early years of the American Revolution, before the idea of independence had set in, Americans who resisted the British authorities often called themselves “Whigs”. The American Whig Party adopted this name in reference to the idea that they were resisting what they saw as a tyrannical president.

The interesting thing about the Whigs is that they brought together anyone who hated Jackson and his policies, be they liberal, moderate, or conservative. The party’s membership often disagreed on many issues, and sometimes had little in common with each other. This was probably why in their first presidential election in 1836, they nominated four candidates that ran against each other. Because that worked so well last time.

By 1840, however, they got their act together and united behind war hero William Henry Harrison, who became the first Whig president. Then promptly died after one month in office. This made John Tyler the first vice-president to take over as president in U.S. history.

Now that Andrew Jackson was no longer in the picture, the Whigs had to actually come up with something else they could all agree on to keep their diverse party together. They settled on a mentality of political pragmatism: if it works, they were for it. They supported the construction and expansion of the national infrastructure, from roads to schools. They supported tariffs on imported goods in order to raise tax revenue for the government while supporting American businesses. They also believed the United States was large enough, and didn’t need to expand any further west.

Except Tyler really liked the idea of expanding further to the west. In particular, he hoped to annex Texas, which enraged his own party. Eventually, the Whigs kicked Tyler out of their party, while he was still in office. Yikes!

The real crisis for the Whigs, however, came in the next few years. In 1844, Democrat James K. Polk succeeded to the White House and promptly expanded the nation all the way to the Pacific, annexing the Oregon territory and defeating Mexico in a war of conquest. Acquiring these new lands meant that a decision had to be made over whether slavery should be allowed there. Southerners said yes, northerners said no. Once again, the Whigs rallied behind a war hero, Zachary Taylor, and once again, he became president only to die in office and leave a controversial vice-president in charge. This time, the new president was Millard Fillmore, who managed to work out the Compromise of 1850, one of those compromises-that-makes-everyone-even-angrier. It angered the southerners for not allowing enough of the new territories to practice slavery, and it angered the northerners for letting any of these new lands practice slavery at all.

This, finally, split the party for good. The Whig Party simply couldn’t withstand the divide among its own members over the slavery question. Over the next few years, the Whigs disintegrated.

The Know-Nothings

Existed 1849-1856

The collapse of the Whigs left the political scene wide open for any would-be political movement that wanted to challenge the Democrats, and as a result, we get the weirdest political party in U.S. history, which had a brief bit of success for a hot minute before vanishing.

In the 1840s, large numbers of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Italy began to arrive in America, and this freaked some Protestants out. Fearing that these Catholics would seize power in the Pope’s name, they formed a secret society called the “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner”. Because it was a secret society, its members would deny its existence by saying they “knew nothing”. Hence, the nickname they have been given by historians.

In the 1850s, as the Whigs collapsed, many Know-Nothings ran for office under the banner of the “American Party”, which campaigned on an anti-Catholic ticket and won a handful of elections. However, after their brief moment in the sunshine, they declined just as quickly as they arose. Turns out people just weren’t that interested in anti-Catholic conspiracy theories. They were more concerned about slavery.

The Free Soil Party

Existed 1848-1854

Another short-lived political party, the Free Soil Party was formed for one purpose, and one purpose only: to oppose the expansion of slavery in the west. Formed by Democrats who wanted to ban slavery in the newly-won territories, the Free-Soilers attracted anti-slavery Whigs and other abolitionist groups to their cause, and even managed to get former president Martin Van Buren as their nominee in their first election in 1848. The Free-Soilers declared that they would accept no compromise on this issue. There were enough slave states! No more!

Unfortunately, that attitude backfired when the Compromise of 1850 was passed. The Free Soil Party rejected the compromise, of course, but this made them look like stubborn and unreasonable jerks. Their stance on this issue cost them support, and by 1852, they recieved half the votes they had just four years earlier. By 1854, the party had collapsed, but slavery was still a contentious issue. That was the year that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, infuriating abolitionists across America. In this climate, the founders of the Free Soil Party decided to try again, and founded a new political party: the Republican Party. Yes, that one.

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers. That’s how we got to the two main political parties America has today. Now I need to go study the candidates and ballot propositions in my hometown so I can be prepared when I vote. I hope to see you all at the polls as well!