The Conquest of Presidentialism

by: David Sirota

Fri Aug 22, 2008 at 10:20


If the Founding Fathers could see us all now, they would be appalled. As America has been trained to treat the presidency as a royal throne, we have stomped all over the very anti-royalist revolution that brought this nation into being. As I show in my weekly newspaper column today, the presidential-palooza that has come to dominate every media instrument - TV, radio, newspapers, blogs, email - has suffocated the most fundamental tenets of Jeffersonian democracy.

Living here in Denver, the tragedy of all this is on display in full relief. As huge tax and energy fights roil the Rocky Mountain West, we are about to have the entire presidential-focused political Establishment from D.C. swoop in here, turning the city into a carnival of White House obsession. While I'm excited for the fun of it all, I'm also dreading it - both because I moved out to Denver, in part, to get away from the D.C. culture, but more importantly, because the convention exemplifies the true rot of our democracy.

The reason the presidential race gets almost all of the attention - and every other level of government gets none - is because we have come to believe democracy is a quadrennial vote for president, and that's it. As I say in the column, that has happened over time, thanks to the decline of journalism and evisceration of social movements. And no one is faultless - we are all part of the problem.

David Sirota :: The Conquest of Presidentialism
The first step to fixing the problem, of course, is acknowledging the problem. If we as progressives look honestly at ourselves, we will realize that we have contributed in very intense ways to the deification and starfucker-ism that is destroying our democracy. Groups like Moveon.org, the major progressive blogs, and the new "progressive" infrastructure in D.C. has fanned the flames of what Vanderbilt professor Dana Nelson calls "presidentialism" - the worship of the presidency and federal politics to the exclusion of all else.

Of course, there are beacons of light in all this. Democracy for America is about true local democracy. Their DFA-Link program, for example, is designed to help individuals in local communities connect with each other and organize around issues (and I can tell you from working with them for the last few months, they - not Moveon - are the future, if there is a future, of Internet organizing). The Bus Project, as another example, is working hard at true grassroots organizing far way from the spectacle of presidential politics. And the state-focused blogs that cover local and state politics are starting to build some shreds of democratic infrastructure.

But sadly, those examples are few and far between. Most progressive resources - whether from big Democracy Alliance donors, or small donors - goes straight into the presidential wasteland.  The big donors are looking for Lincoln Bedroom access, the small donors are looking to be involved in the only arena that the media says is important. As they tell themselves each time around that they are participating in "the most important election in American history,"  many of the most important decisions are already being made in the shadows at the state, local and municipal levels. And as we all know, when decisions are made in the shadows without public attention, they are usually made to solidify the status quo.

The column keys off two upcoming books that I strongly suggest you read. One is Professor Nelson's "Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People." The other is John R. MacArthur's "You Can't Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America."

You can read the full column at the San Francsico Chronicle, Denver Post, Ft. Collins Coloradoan, Lewiston Sun-Journal, Alternet, TruthDig, Credo Action or Creators' website.

The column relies on grassroots support, so if you'd like to see my column regularly in your local paper, use this directory to find the contact info for your local editorial page editors. Get get in touch with them and point them to my Creators Syndicate site. Thanks, as always, for your ongoing readership and help contacting local editors. This column couldn't be what it is without your help.  


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Appalled? (0.00 / 0)
Perhaps they'd be appalled, but it isn't like this is anything new.  Washington is considered out greatest president largely because he willingly left after two terms.  He could have stayed as long as he wanted.

The next president, John Adams, abused executive power arguably unmatched until the 21 century.

In two centuries of promoting democracy elsewhere, we have never, to my knowledge, recommended a system like ours; we always suggest a parliamentary system.

So while I agree with the general premise, I don't think it is exactly unique to our times.


Care to elaborate? (0.00 / 0)
The next president, John Adams, abused executive power arguably unmatched until the 21 century.

That's a bold claim.  How about some examples of these unmatched abuses?  

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.


[ Parent ]
Uh... (0.00 / 0)
ever heard of the Alien and Seditions act?

"I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that."
-Lawrence Summers


[ Parent ]
Uh, Yes (0.00 / 0)
They are an excellent example of legislative abuse of power - or more of an abusive expansion of federal power.

Even so, that abuse was also repudiated pretty quickly - so it doesn't mean that presidentialism has been with us all along.  

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.


[ Parent ]
Sedition act (0.00 / 0)
When thinking about the John Adams presidency, the first thought is the Alien and Sedition acts he passed.  The Sedition act actually outlawed anyone from criticizing the federal government, including criticizing Adams himself.

You can make the argument it was the Federalist who abused the power of government, not so much Adams himself.  But in a time before there were real checks and balances built into the system (in any practical way) the abuses were in my opinion more dangerous than in any other period of time.  

For example, today the Supreme court would strike down the Sedition act without much thought (even this court), but they had no such power at the time; Marbury v. Madison was two years after Adams left office.

Of course, the power of the federal government is so much higher in the modern world that you can include some kind of multiplying factor to make many presidents look more abusive.  But I think Adams and the Federalists came very close to derailing our big experiment with their abuses of power at a critical time in U.S. history.


[ Parent ]
Adams didn't pass anything (0.00 / 0)
Congress did. Presidentialism lives!

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.

[ Parent ]
To Be Fair (0.00 / 0)
Washington was probably too dumb to abuse his power.

[ Parent ]
agreed (0.00 / 0)
I couldn't agree more with your premise, David. While I haven't donated to Obama yet (but plan to), I don't intend to volunteer for him. I do this because, in the grand scheme of things, Obama will have significantly less impact on my life than my city councilperson, mayor, state representative and state senator, governor, or even my congressmen and US Senators. so when I have a truly progressive person running for those offices (which I usually do), I work tirelessly to help them get elected. because they need my help.

Obama, however, with his 2 million donors and thousands and thousands of paid staff, with even more volunteers, probably doesn't need my help too much.

anecdotally, I recently had a spat with my girlfriend because she didn't know who any of our local elected officials were. although she isn't quite the celebrity-worshipper that many new Obama fans are, she's definitely too caught up in the national scene.


The Sign Of A Healthy Relationship (0.00 / 0)
Is that you fight about who knows more about local government.

[ Parent ]
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