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Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People Hardcover – September 19, 2008

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Editorial Reviews


"Dana Nelson argues provocatively—and persuasively—that the mythological status accorded the presidency is drowning our democracy. The remedy will not come from Washington. It starts with people rediscovering—then reclaiming—their birthright as active citizens, restoring meaning to the sacred idea of self-government." —William Greider of The Nation magazine, author of The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy

"If democratic practice is going to flourish in the United States, the American people are going to have to roll up their sleeves and take on the hard work of self-governance. Dana Nelson offers an astute historical analysis of how the presidency, far from advancing this goal, has actually impeded it.  Highly recommended." —David Bollier, author of Silent Theft and Brand Name Bullies

"At a time when ‘leadership’ is deemed the cure for every ill—from decreasing corporate profits to increasing civic dysfunction—Dana Nelson tells us this remedy is more snake oil than good medicine. Bad For Democracy is the much-needed reminder that self-government is a do-it-yourself endeavor, and Nelson sets a standard for civic life that was promised in the country’s founding, but never achieved. This book comes at exactly the right moment." —Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart

Book Description

Throughout our history, Americans have been simultaneously inspired and seduced by the American presidency and concerned about the misuse of presidential power—from the time of Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR to Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush—as a grave threat to the United States. In Bad for Democracy, Dana D. Nelson goes beyond blaming particular presidents for jeopardizing the delicate balance of the Constitution to argue that it is the office of the presidency itself that endangers the great American experiment.

The emotional impulse to see the president as a hero, Nelson contends, has ceded our ability to practice government by the people and for the people. She shows that exercising democratic rights has become idealized as—and woefully limited to—the act of voting for the president.

This urgent book reveals the futility of placing all of our hopes for the future in the American president and encourages citizens to create a politics of deliberation, action, and agency. Arguing for a return of the balance of power—both symbolically and in practice—to all the branches of government, Nelson ultimately calls on Americans to change our own course and imagine a democracy that we, the people, lead together.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Univ Of Minnesota Press (September 19, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0816656770
  • ISBN-13: 978-0816656776
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.5 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,896,509 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By S. J. Snyder on September 21, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Dana Nelson has a word for what many progressives sense is wrong with presidential governance in America, from ideas of the "unitary executive" on down.

That word is "presidentialism," and needs to get on more people's lips.

That said, for progressives wedded to the Democratic half of the two-party duopoly, Nelson has bad news for you.

Carter advanced presidentialism. So did Clinton. And, in all likelihood, so will Obama if he gets elected. Kennedy did it, too; Nelson says the Green Berets may have been his presidentialist response to the "New Frontier" of Vietnam.

This is the type of book that, if you're like me, you'll have higlighter out and running over many passages. (Actually, for me, it was a pen underlining many spots, so that I could write marginal notes as well.)

Presidentialism, in a phrase, is not just presidents, and their staffs, attempting to ever-strengthen the powers of the presidency. It's also citizens -- voters -- investing the office with godlike powers, character and mystique that not only go far beyond what the Founding Fathers intended, but are actually part of what they feared about a strong presidency, as Nelson shows.

And, presidents of both parties have played on that as well.

Briefly looking at whom she identifies as the first presidentialist president, Andrew Jackson, then taking a bit longer, yet brief, look at Lincoln and his Civil War exigencies, Nelson says the first more modern threads of presidentialism start with Grover Cleveland, the first president since Jackson to seriously use his veto for political and not just constitutional reasons.

That, in turn, influenced a Ph.D. history professor at Princeton on his theories of government. A professor named Woodrow Wilson.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Thomas W. Sulcer on January 9, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Dana Nelson has grasped one aspect of America's broken democracy and has written a terrific book focusing on this one flaw.

That flaw is "presidentialism" -- people worshipping the president. Presidentialism "trains us to want the president to take care of democracy for us instead of remembering that democracy, properly defined, is our job" she writes. It's blind adulation that channels us politically into thinking one person can solve every problem, so for most people, exercising democratic rights has narrowed to simply voting for president. She notes contradictions: people resent the power of presidents they dislike but approve of presidential power generally, and she faults people for having a misunderstanding of the relation of the president to democracy. "Presidents anti-democratic function has become normalized," she writes. She doesn't criticize particular presidents but sees a worrisome trend and suggests the office of the presidency itself endangers the great American experiment. Newly-elected presidents promise to end partisan rancor and unite the nation, but she questions whether such unity is a good thing. She asks: Isn't constructive debate what democracy should be about? Does democracy need a commander-in-chief? These are excellent questions by a sharp intellect.

Dr. Nelson has done extensive reading of political scholars I've read like Benjamin Ginsberg and Matthew Crenson and Justice Stephen Breyer (and others I will read such as Arend Liphart and Bill Bishop) and adds their insights to support her main premise. She's up-to-date with recent political writing. Her highly readable essay makes a solid case by sticking to her main point. But why has her book appeared now?
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Format: Hardcover
"Bad for Democracy" is on the ROROTOKO list of cutting-edge intellectual nonfiction. Professor Nelson's book interview ran here as a cover feature on December 23, 2008.
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