Book note: Presidential idolatry is "Bad for Democracy"

Being alive, involved, and slightly clever in these double-ought times is brutal. So many issues swirl around my bourgeois mind. Tainted lunch food in our schools. OMG—the kids! Global climate crisis. OMG—the world! Financial markets tanking, under-employment rates and foreclosures soaring. WWJD? CYA.

It makes me want to escape, close my eyes, and envision solutions without my own sweat-equity. Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People just won't let me do it. This is a book that, albeit long-winded, demonstrates how you and I must fight for our ideals and get involved to ensure that a democracy functions in the United States of America.

Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People by Dana D. Nelson. Published by the University of Minnesota Press (2008). $24.95.


Dana D. Nelson's book makes the case that we've had 200+ years of propagandized leadership, which has systematically stripped away the checks and balances put in place by our nation's forefathers. As a dedicated mama-for-Obama deeply entrenched in a get out the vote movement, I found this a bitter pill to swallow. But the tanking of global markets made me take a second look at what Nelson had to say about the state of this nation and its leadership model.

"[Since] Franklin D. Roosevelt," Nelson writes, "every president has worked to extend presidential powers in ways that the Constitution's framers would likely have viewed as alarming and profoundly compromising...The Bush administration...brazenly partisan...is not inventing new maneuvers." Nelson had to prove it to me. I wasn't sold on the idea that FDR, the creator of the New Deal and a man who marshalled the U.S.A. out of the Depression, usurped rules and wheedled his way to greatness. If you're prone to hero-worship or idolatry, this book's gonna raise your blood pressure.

Nelson says in the introduction that she is trying to define what the office of the president means as well as what the office has done and continues to do to maintain its image. Nelson argues that there is a mesmerizing power surrounding the office, promoting "presidentialism," and explains that "we look to the the sitting president for national strength and unity—[it] encourages citizens to believe that their democratic agency depends on presidential power, instead of the other way around...[if] people begin to feel uncomfortable at their diminishing political agency, they can be reassured by the quadrennial ritual of electing a president. If only this time we get the right one in power, we can feel as if we were able to do something, as if we had some say."

But yes, I can has been the mantra that I've embraced this year. Why did I say I would review this book? [Cuss word]! As I spent spare time on the phones asking legislators to not pass the bailout bill, I began making connections to the arguments made in the book. How did Nelson know my growing frustrations could be answered by her idea of the "modern presidency" and its twentieth-century interests (economic, cultural, civility, and self-aggrandizement).

If you read this book, your Minnesota niceties will get checked. "In our nation, it's become easy to scare people away...by threatening them with disagreement." Greek in its origin, the word democracy means people (demos) power (kratia). "Self-rule means navigating never-ending disagreement among a diverse people...[it's] a project we do together in public as a people: The People...That is hard, often messy, sometimes downright ugly work."

Nelson's book is a thorough historical review and an appeal to our highest ideals, a call to each of us to reclaim our country with good old-fashioned hard work. "Politics, as Hannah Pitkin evocatively puts it, is 'the art of the possible.' In this book, I've [offered] a different conceptual framework...in the hopes that it can change the way we understand our relationship not just to the president but to the project of democracy." With folks like Nelson encouraging thoughtful discourse and informed points of view we can build a true society, a democracy. Yes, we can.

Rachel Dykoski is a socio-eco-political activist, mom, wife, and free-range writer in Minneapolis.

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    fine, i'll pile that on my reading list, too.

    This sounds like a fantastic, provocative book. we need more dialog about these issues. we need more action, too. thanks for another great article!