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Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People Hardcover – September 19, 2008
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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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Top Customer Reviews
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?Read more ›
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.Read more ›