If the Founding Fathers could see us all now, they would be appalled. As America has been trained to treat the presidency as a royal throne, we have stomped all over the very anti-royalist revolution that brought this nation into being. As I show in my weekly newspaper column today, the presidential-palooza that has come to dominate every media instrument - TV, radio, newspapers, blogs, email - has suffocated the most fundamental tenets of Jeffersonian democracy.
Living here in Denver, the tragedy of all this is on display in full relief. As huge tax and energy fights roil the Rocky Mountain West, we are about to have the entire presidential-focused political Establishment from D.C. swoop in here, turning the city into a carnival of White House obsession. While I'm excited for the fun of it all, I'm also dreading it - both because I moved out to Denver, in part, to get away from the D.C. culture, but more importantly, because the convention exemplifies the true rot of our democracy.
The reason the presidential race gets almost all of the attention - and every other level of government gets none - is because we have come to believe democracy is a quadrennial vote for president, and that's it. As I say in the column, that has happened over time, thanks to the decline of journalism and evisceration of social movements. And no one is faultless - we are all part of the problem.
The first step to fixing the problem, of course, is acknowledging the problem. If we as progressives look honestly at ourselves, we will realize that we have contributed in very intense ways to the deification and starfucker-ism that is destroying our democracy. Groups like Moveon.org, the major progressive blogs, and the new "progressive" infrastructure in D.C. has fanned the flames of what Vanderbilt professor Dana Nelson calls "presidentialism" - the worship of the presidency and federal politics to the exclusion of all else.
Of course, there are beacons of light in all this. Democracy for America is about true local democracy. Their DFA-Link program, for example, is designed to help individuals in local communities connect with each other and organize around issues (and I can tell you from working with them for the last few months, they - not Moveon - are the future, if there is a future, of Internet organizing). The Bus Project, as another example, is working hard at true grassroots organizing far way from the spectacle of presidential politics. And the state-focused blogs that cover local and state politics are starting to build some shreds of democratic infrastructure.
But sadly, those examples are few and far between. Most progressive resources - whether from big Democracy Alliance donors, or small donors - goes straight into the presidential wasteland. The big donors are looking for Lincoln Bedroom access, the small donors are looking to be involved in the only arena that the media says is important. As they tell themselves each time around that they are participating in "the most important election in American history," many of the most important decisions are already being made in the shadows at the state, local and municipal levels. And as we all know, when decisions are made in the shadows without public attention, they are usually made to solidify the status quo.
The column keys off two upcoming books that I strongly suggest you read. One is Professor Nelson's "Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People." The other is John R. MacArthur's "You Can't Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America."
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