Presidential Power to the People

Author Dana D. Nelson on why democracy demands that the next president be taken down a notch


| September-October 2008



This article is part of a package on the expanding power of the US presidency. For a searing cultural critique of the imperial presidency, read “ Supreme Warlord of the Earth .”

The title of Dana D. Nelson’s latest book captures both its radical rhetorical edge and its populist center. In Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), the Vanderbilt University professor combines political philosophy, historical anecdote, and a sprinkling of pop arcana to deliver a compelling case against both the cult of Obama and the centrist pull of McCain’s “straight talk express.”

“Presidentialism works against people’s civic cultivation of democratic skills,” she argues in the introduction. “It trains us to want the president to take care of democracy for us instead of remembering that democracy, properly defined, is our job.”

While the book is both substantive and theoretical, Nelson is not coldly observing the American experiment’s mean streets from the cozy confines of an ivy tower. After demonstrating how the executive branch has morphed into a Machiavellian chamber of corporate interest, the grassroots activist focuses the latter half of her polemic on how to “reimagine and retake democracy as a project we lead together, amid and out of the savagery of our many differences.”

With Decision 2008 looming, Utne Reader turned down the talking heads to chat with Nelson about the world’s most expensive popularity contest and why it doesn’t have to be a choice between liberty and death.