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Non-Fiction: Better Me than Democracy

John R. MacArthur, You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America

(Melville House, 2008)

Studies—even pop studies—of the sociological aspects of the American system of government seem to be a vanishing species. In keeping with the nasty, selfish, finger-pointing tone of most mainstream political discussion this century, it’s no surprise that books on the subject tend to be highly partisan attacks on political parties or figures. Surely the number of ferociously anti-Bush books hitting the stores in mid-2004 must have shattered some record, and the offerings from the other side (Ann Coulter, those “Swift Boat” creeps), while fewer, were, if possible, even meaner and more personal. But while no decent person who wasn’t actually paying for all that paper could have been disturbed by the Bush-thrashing of the past few years (especially from traitorous members of his inner circle), what about the longer, larger view of the people running this country and how they got there? Even a contemporary equivalent of such upper-middlebrow classics as Who Rules America? or The Power Elite would be nice.

From its title, You Can’t Be President, by Harper’s publisher John R. MacArthur, certainly seems like it aims to pick up where those earlier works left off—perhaps with nods to Pierre Bourdieu’s late-70s masterpiece Distinction (nominally about “taste,” though equally important as a study of class and power and how they are perpetuated). But MacArthur’s book is not exactly like any of those, as its subtitle (“The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America”) makes clear. Rather than an analysis of the social forces that carry certain people to the centers of power and guarantee that others will never get close, You Can’t Be President offers a critique—cogent and mostly unassailable—of the corrupt, self-serving nature of contemporary American “democracy.” Shooting fish in a barrel? Maybe, but I don’t see many other journalists doing it. And given the prevailing view among educated lefties that a Barack Obama in the White House will save the world, despite his indisputable membership in the System, a lesson in how government in America really operates today couldn’t hurt.

MacArthur’s book focuses on eleven problems with American democracy that make “rule by the people” a virtual impossibility: (1) the Constitution, or rather most politicians’ ignorance or willful trampling of it; (2) the all-powerful duopoly of the major American political parties, and their history of crushing any candidate who dares to operate outside of it (see: Howard Dean, Ralph Nader, George McGovern); (3) the mind-boggling expense of running a presidential campaign, which prevents all but a chosen, well-funded few from making a go of it; (4) the influence (via campaign “contributions”) of lobbying groups, and their resulting ability to call the shots on everything from NAFTA to bankruptcy laws; (5) on the local level, the ability of huge, wealthy retailers and real estate interests to steamroll grassroots opposition to development; (6) the effectively unlimited power of political bosses like Chicago’s Richard Daley; (7) the enduring Horatio Alger legend, which promotes the convenient myth that success in America stems entirely from your own willingness to roll up your sleeves and work for it; (8) the importance of quality education to financial or political success in America, and the politics of access to it; (9) the conflation of “choice” in consumer goods and the electoral system, even while both are being progressively limited; (10) wars, and the forces working against any candidate who opposes them; and (11) the 2008 presidential campaign (through the summer), with its own illustrative examples of machine politics, funding battles, and dirty fighting.

That’s a lot of ground to cover, but the larger point is clear: vastly wealthy entities and entrenched power blocs (all the worse when the Republicans and Democrats team up to stop an unacceptable candidate or push for a war) pretty much work together to call the shots here. We citizens are left with the power to flip a lever every four years. That shouldn’t be news to anyone, but MacArthur’s contribution is his insight into how money and party machines actually influence things like legislation, budgets, and the workings of government in general. As for explicit solutions, he doesn’t offer any (which doesn’t make his points any less valid), but he seems to have faith in the American electoral system, on the condition that genuinely independent candidates be free to compete and have their voices heard, a condition that clearly isn’t being met.

There’s always a chance that books like MacArthur’s will at least turn on the light in the basement and make the roaches scamper. Maybe a dozen more books like this one, and a few less about how Bush is the antichrist, and people’s attention will finally be drawn to the rot in the system and away from fleeting symptoms of that rot.

A contemporary follow-up to Bourdieu’s Distinction would be great, too.


Dave Mandl

DAVE MANDL was the Rail's former music editor. He is a freelance writer/journalist.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2008

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