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You Can't Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America Paperback – September 9, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Alexis de Tocqueville is a guiding spirit for this wide-ranging text, which advances a familiar argument: that moneyed and privileged interests, rather than the needs and opinions of ordinary citizens, dominate contemporary American politics. MacArthur, president and publisher of Harper's magazine, begins by lamenting the lack of basic comprehension of the Constitution and American government on the part of the political and media elite. From there, he proceeds thematically, considering the influence of the Republican and Democratic parties, the effects of social class and education, among other topics. Detours into local politics, including an extended account of a dispute over the construction of a Target store in Portsmouth, R.I., feel digressive, as do the author's occasional forays into history, in which he takes aim at targets on both sides of the political aisle from Joseph McCarthy to Woodrow Wilson and James Polk. MacArthur's book will likely inspire like-minded political progressives, despite his harsh criticism of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but its crossover appeal may be limited. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
About the Author
JOHN R. MACARTHUR is the president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine. An award-winning journalist, he has previously written for The New York Times, United Press International, The Chicago Sun-Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He is also the author of the acclaimed books The Selling of Free Trade: NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy, and Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War. He lives in New York City.
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MacArthur's title is a riposte to a Junior Scholastic magazine article that in typical pollyanish fashion celebrated US democracy. By 'you', who can't be president, he means someone who wants to overcome the barriers to social change in the US. He then lays out many of the forces that narrow the path down which American democracy moves--lobbyists, the two party duopoly, the media/elite alliance, the numbing domination of the American marketplace by a few chains. He also has a vivid chapter about the limits of Barack Obama's early political career, marked by an aversion to courageous stances in favor of relentless careerism. By contrast, his idea of how democracy and citizenship should work is epitomized by the story of Conni Harding, who fought against the siting of a Target store in her town. It is an interesting story, but I think it reveals the limits of MacArthur's politics. Should social change really just be about blocking the destruction of small towns, rather than the reordering of national priorities? Is it possible that MacArthur is one more in a long line of writers mistaking NIMBY (not in my backyard) for the ultimate expression of democracy? Is democracy really about individuals standing up to the powerful, or about mobilizing coalitions of the weak to transform the balance of forces in the political sphere? Can we talk about the failures of American democracy and what is needed to transform it without soberly discussing the beneficiaries of the lobbyists, the chain stores, the party duopoly, etc, which go well beyond some tiny elite?
It's easy to see how John MacArthur, an award-winning journalist, author of "The Selling of "Free Trade": NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy," could win the ire of the Bush clan and the Clintons. His copy is straight-forward, easy to read, in a style anyone can follow, loaded with supportive information that blends seamlessly with his theme: government by the people is a myth. The approach is not so much an attack when he has done so well to support it as an indictment of the American political system. Hopefully, we will see some changes in the future under Obama.
In this book Mr. MacArthur describes how party bosses, like Richard Daley of Chicago and the Clintons rule with an iron fist. How without so much as a nod from the federal government, Daley destroyed Meigs field in what the Chicago Sun-Times described as a land grab. No doubt some of Daley's rich realtors, donors to his reign as mayor, got richer. MacArthur describes it best:
"Just before midnight on March 30, 2003, with no warning to the Federal Aviation Administration, Daley ordered bulldozers under police escort to rip into sections of the nearly 4,000-foot runway and thus render it unusable for takeoffs and landings."
The author has much to say about the 2004 presidential campaign and Hillary's ambition to be president no matter what it cost the nation. MacArthur describes it on page 66:
"In [Hillary's] view, Howard Dean's very nomination posed a major threat to her power over the Democratic Party. Unlike Kerry (Who she hardly supported) and the other candidates, Dean was not dependent on the traditional Democratic money pool controlled by Bill and Hillary."
Quoting another Democratic insider, "Hillary's future depended on George W Bush remaining in the White House."
So, rather than allowing the election of an inspirational leader, Billery installed Terry McAuliffe, a friend and ally, to run the Democratic Party. Obviously, he was sacrificed (for the greater good, in Hillary's opinion). The Clintons left their party with a second choice candidate: John Kerry --- one that the Clintons did not support.Ironically, McAuliffe paid the price later by being replaced by Howard Dean.
The Clintons, de facto bosses of the Democratic party, not only failed to support Kerry they went after Dean in ways that no loyal American could conceive: they supported a 527 group calling itself "Americans for Jobs, Health Care, and Progressive Values." This group went after Dean during the Iowa caucuses with savage TV ads known as the "Go Back to Vermont" campaign. Perhaps this division within the Democrats created an opportunity for the Republicans so they attacked Dean. On page 75, the author gives us his assessment:
"... Bush and the Republicans feared Dean's antiwar and anti-deficit message --- feared that he would make a stronger opponent than the ambivalent and tortured John Kerry, who voted for the Iraq War resolution."
In the end, both parties eliminated from the race a candidate who might have changed things for the better.
I have a few more pages to read in this book before adding my final comments. So far, John McArthur has made his point. We (the American people) must change this system. Hopefully, the first step is voting into office a president who appears little tainted by the corruption of the system. We must be more vigilant. We must strive to be better consumers, to ask why a party is doing something, not just go back to our lives and hope that by electing a good man we made a difference. Government of the People is not quite correct --- it is a "Republic" not a democracy. We elect people who represent us. Let's all be activists. Join an activist group --- like Public Citizen. Be a part of the force that pushes government to do the will of the people. Let your voice be heard! Don't let lobbyist and the rich control our America.
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