Presidential Power to the People

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.

In the first chapter of your book, you argue that the president has morphed into a kind of superhero. What are the roots of this transformation? 

There are several flashpoints. One is in that wonderful “I cannot tell a lie” biography by Mason Locke Weems [The Life of Washington, 1806] where the president is impermeable. He fights in battles, and while bullets pierce his regiments, they never pierce his body. At the same time, he’s an extraordinarily softhearted man. Americans latched onto that image as they got anxious about political partisanship and whether or not democracy was going to survive.

President Jackson became a kind of mythical repository, even after his death, for desires about political unity, not so much political representation. It’s really in the early 20th century, though, that the invincible president became intractable, right as popular culture was starting to promulgate the superhero and FDR was leading the nation out of the Great Depression and into World War II. Citizens were trained to imagine that the president would be this kind of superheroic character who will offer extralegal solutions to their problems.

How does imbuing an executive with superhuman power weaken our democracy?

The American Revolution was fought so that the people could have sovereignty. Imagining that our president will be our savior makes us reimagine democracy in opposite terms. The president has all the power and we get our power as a people from him, which is the way of a monarchy. It’s something that’s developed over a couple hundred years, but it takes us back to exactly the place that we as a nation tried to reject.

Later in the book, you write about the emergence of the “unitary executive” during the Reagan administration. What drives this political philosophy?

The unitary executive is a corporate model of undivided leadership. It’s a model of power that wants to operate unilaterally in the name of efficiency and profit. It’s the place where an unchecked capitalism comes into severe conflict with democracy, which is an inherently inefficient process. It’s an extraconstitutional democracy that takes its authority and momentum from that superheroic conception of the president. He or she is the arbiter of our collective interest.

It’s based on the idea that the executive branch needs to set one course for the country and stay on it.

That’s the rhetoric we hear around strong leadership: that companies and nations succeed when they have a strongly unified mission, and there’s no time or room to consider different approaches or directions. We’re in the midst of an information and organizational explosion where we have all kinds of interesting alternative models [for problem solving]–open models that already work better for certain kinds of companies and organizations. We know those models can be more productive and more profitable, yet nobody is applying those lessons to our political system.

So, while the current administration has been especially egregious about expanding executive power, the table was already set.

George W. Bush has pushed this harder and faster than I think his predecessors would deem wise. Nevertheless, the trend was clearly in place. Reagan articulated the idea much more carefully, while [George H. W.] Bush and Clinton worked behind the scenes to maintain presidential power. So I don’t think there’s any reason to hope that electing somebody from a different party is going to stop this historical trend.

This is something I don’t think the framers foresaw. I don’t think they ever imagined that the presidency would become this focal point for democratic power, democratic expression, and democratic action. I don’t think they ever imagined that the office itself would be able to make Congress irrelevant.

Barack Obama’s ascendance has inspired great enthusiasm among reform-minded voters. Is it because of his vocabulary of change or is he just another superhero–someone to save us?

Obama is interesting in big ways. He speaks the language of open systems. He’s talking about a coproduced democracy; he’s talking about citizen access, citizen input, and universal volunteerism. I think what people, especially young people, are excited about is that he talks like a leader who would reopen democracy for citizens to be coproducers and not just consumers of government services.

If he wins, do you think that will happen?

I don’t want to be unfair to Senator Obama, but I think there’s a good chance that there will be more rhetoric than action. When people step into that office, the power is centripetal–it sucks them into what they will then argue are the demands of that office. The presidents who first served in Congress–Lincoln, Truman, Johnson–were all initially against executive power. They went out and battled it and they said smart, principled things about why it’s dangerous to give the president more power than the people. Then, the minute they were in the office, they started backpedaling, and quite arrogantly so.

My argument is that no one leader will deliver democracy back to the people; the fact that people ardently believe that an Obama-like candidate is needed to effect that change is exactly where we go wrong.

When it comes to presidential power, is there a difference between Obama and McCain?

Well, I think either one of them could back up a little bit, because the public is demanding that right now. I think they’re both going to make some apparent concessions, but I also suspect they’ll work to maintain the general direction. We’ll see–but the question cuts to how powerful the presidency is becoming. We don’t have checking and balancing anymore. We have to depend on the next president to give power back.

Are you arguing that democracy would be better off without the office of president?

I’m willing to admit that maybe federal government needs an executive office. But I don’t think the office was the greatest idea. And we definitely don’t need a president for a democracy. That’s for the citizenry.

Are we up to it?

Absolutely. I think that’s where Gene Healy and I differ [see “Supreme Warlord,” p. 50]. His book is great, but he’s more cynical about citizens’ ability to deserve a different kind of presidency. I see citizens having a great deal of agency about this. I pay a lot of attention in Bad for Democracy to how institutions and symbolism have combined to train public demand for the president. I think that means we can train ourselves differently.

The first thing we have to do is articulate our sense that democracy should be something more than whatever the current president says it’s going to be for us, and that democracy doesn’t have to be about strong national unity but can be about a productive, highly functioning disunity.

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