Dec/Jan 2009

You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America

Brian Cook


It’s not until the acknowledgments arrive on page 261 of Harper’s publisher John R. MacArthur’s You Can’t Be President that readers learn the book was first conceived in French (and written jointly in French and English) as a means “to ‘explain’ U.S. democracy to a foreign audience.” The belated revelation explains quite a bit. For Gallic readers who often find themselves asking, “What’s the matter with the United States?” the account that MacArthur offers will serve as an excellent introduction to the distinctive dysfunctions of our democracy. But domestic prisoners trapped in the damned thing can probably afford to take a pass.

Not that it’s necessarily a bad idea to re-examine the dimensions of the cell or once again take measure of the diameter of its bars. In each chapter, MacArthur focuses on a different problem of the political status quo, and though his approach is scattershot—at times veering for no discernible reason from history to political theory to current-events journalism to personal anecdote—he can be an able, witty, and suitably pissed-off guide. On such matters as the campaign contributions that corporations pour into politicians’ coffers, the kowtowing of journalistic institutions to power, the gross inequities of a public school system largely funded by property taxes, and the giant swaths of ideological territory scythed out by our major-party duopoly, MacArthur cuts direct, if not exactly fresh, trails through familiar ground.

But if MacArthur expertly catalogues the dreary facts on the ground, it’s not entirely clear that he knows how to analyze them. When considering the marginalization of third parties in the United States, for example, he spends many pages on the high costs of running campaigns and the hostility of party establishments and political bosses to outsider and insurgent candidates. That’s all well and good, but it’s a bit bizarre that the fundamental structural barrier to US third parties—the absence of proportional representation—receives a single clause’s worth of attention. It’s akin to complaining at length about the lack of trees on Mars, while noting only in passing its oxygen-free atmosphere.

MacArthur’s relentless focus on the malign influence of party bosses suggests that, like so many pundits, he was caught a bit wrong-footed by Barack Obama’s defeat of Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. Whole sections are devoted to describing the nefarious and omnipotent ways of the Clinton establishment in demolishing any intraparty rivals to her 2008 candidacy. And yet, it turns out, that establishment wasn’t so omnipotent after all. MacArthur’s solution to this snag is certainly, um, elegant: He asserts that Barack Obama is the anointed candidate of an equally powerful establishment, that of Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley. The theory has much to recommend it—it means MacArthur didn’t have to go back and rewrite all those pages—but it does pose something of a problem for the rest of us, namely, that it isn’t true.

Certainly, Obama has never been an outspoken foe of Daley, but neither has he been an outright hack. Daley didn’t endorse him in any contest until the 2004 Senate race, after Obama had secured the Democratic nomination over the undisputed machine candidate, Dan Hynes. In the presidential election, as he’d done so often before, Obama managed to position himself precariously both inside and outside a political establishment.

That means there could well be something to MacArthur’s fears that Obama might not be the transformational president many progressives are hoping for. But before rendering any definitive verdict on the experiment known as American democracy, MacArthur—and the rest of us—should heed the wisdom in Zhou Enlai’s response when asked what he thought of the French Revolution: “Too soon to tell.”

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