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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?
The book is a ripping indictment of what most of us know in our gut. And despite the onerous knowledge haunting any reader who cares for democracy, the result is somehow incredibly provoking and inspiring. I hesitate to repeat the contents of the book when its author does such a thorough and artful job. Also I hesitate to say things which really require many paragraphs to begin to understand. That and the sound-bite is way too effective a bait for the internet trolls.
Suffice it to say that I extend gratitude toward the author and hope that many read this book and are as inspired as I am to follow Jefferson's dictum so aptly quoted in MacArthur's first chapter: "We are never permitted to despair of the Commonwealth."
Count one more standing with you John MacArthur. You are a true patriot.