The Conquest by Presidentialism

You have to hand it to John McCain -- his campaign ads are (inadvertently) the most incisive commentary on the death of Jeffersonian democracy ever broadcast.

Superficially, they lambaste Barack Obama's worshipful crowds and messianic promises that a heavenly "light will shine down" on his candidacy. But what the ads really lampoon is what Vanderbilt professor Dana Nelson calls presidentialism: our paternalistic view that presidents are godlike saviors -- and therefore democracy's only important figures.

"The once-every-four-years hope for the lever pull sensation of democratic power blinds people to the opportunities for democratic representation, deliberation, activism and change that surrounds us in local elections," she writes in her new book, "Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People."

In a country whose anti-royalist founders constitutionally constrained executive authority, what explains the metastatic growth of presidentialism? The evisceration of journalism and social movements.

The media's Watergate triumph sired the current Age of Stenography. With personal glory the new priority, correspondents figured out that transcribing White House prognostication is a far easier way to gain notoriety than Woodward and Bernstein's shoe-leather investigations. The result is journalism run by grotesque sloth and vapid speculation-the kind exemplified by The New York Times' top three political correspondents this week. As inflation hit crisis levels and the Russia-Georgia conflict inched the planet toward World War III, these "reporters" devoted a stunning 2,148 words to fact-free guesses about selections for vice president-a position with no power and zero impact on ordinary people's lives.

Media consolidation and cost-cutting have sped up this decline, turning many local news outlets into collages of wire copy and presidential punditry from D.C. bureaus. Meanwhile, the 21st century's most celebrated model of "grass-roots" movement-building is -- a top-down group whose primary function is to land stories about itself in Washington gossip rags and send e-mail spam about presidential candidates.

The resulting noise reiterates one message: The only thing that matters is 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Why is this dangerous? First and foremost, by ignoring local elections and issue-based organizing in favor of presidential politics, activists make presidential progress less likely. "Even the best presidents need social movements to accomplish transformational change," warns community activist Deepak Bhargava in The Nation magazine's latest White House-centric edition. "FDR could not have succeeded without the agitation of the unemployed workers' councils and the unions, and LBJ's greatest accomplishments were made possible by the civil rights movement."

Worse, presidentialism leads us to ignore the arenas where issues are already being sorted out.

For example, how many of the Democratic convention delegates incensed by the Obama-McCain energy brouhaha have any idea that just beyond Denver's Rocky Mountain horizon, a battle over Colorado's massive gas reserves will more immediately impact the national energy crisis than the inane presidential back-and-forth about offshore drilling? Better yet, how many Democratic enthusiasts donning Obama T-shirts know who their state representative or city council member is-or even what a state legislature or city council does?

In his upcoming book, "You Can't Be President," journalist John MacArthur ponders the depressing answers to these kinds of questions, reminding readers of Alexis de Tocqueville's 19th-century writing.

"It is in vain to summon a people, which has been rendered so dependent on the central power, to choose from time to time the representatives of that power," he observed. "This rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity."

Published 168 years ago, the passage is a prescient warning as the upcoming Democratic and Republican conventions toast presidentialism's conquest of democracy in America.

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