Who will save America? Which presidential candidate has the intelligence, charisma and acumen to fix our economy, deal with Iraq, address rising oil prices, eradicate poverty, lead democracy, and put the nation on a better moral track?
It’s a trick question, and every four years we pound our heads against a wall trying to answer it, says Dana Nelson, the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English and American Studies.
If we want to save America, contends Nelson, we have to do it ourselves. “The president-as-superhero myth promised all the democracy with none of the work,” she writes in her new book, Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People. “As such, it teaches citizens to admire rule by strong individuals and to abjure the messy workings—disagreements, slow debates, compromise, bargaining—of actual democracy.”
In the book, published by the University of Minnesota Press, Nelson tracks the steady drive by presidents—Abraham Lincoln used the Civil War to increase executive power—to move more and more clout from the hands of the people to the Oval Office. Most of the time this power shift occurs because of fears about foreign relations or war powers, says Nelson.
“Democracy is not something that’s practiced just in government. Democracy is something you can work on in your business, social and religious communities. It’s all about trying to get involved with people genuinely different from you so you don’t just encounter people with whom you already agree politically.”