Dana Nelson


On her book Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People

Cover Interview of December 22, 2008

A close-up

The-president-as-superhero myth promises all the democracy with none of the work.  As such it teaches citizens to admire rule by strong individuals and to abjure the messy workings—disagreement, slow debates, compromise, bargaining—of actual democracy.  This training works against our own abilities to navigate and wield democratic sovereignty.  Subscribing to the search for a nationally redemptive hero every four years makes citizens feel less, and not more, powerful, and therefore all the more in need of a superhero presidential rescue.  Every cycle, we wind up disgusted by our leadership.  And every presidential election leads citizens to the hope that this time, we’ve got it right.  When we turn out to be wrong—again—about the salvific powers of this president, we helplessly put our hopes in the next.  This boom-bust cycle of hope for the presidential rescue fuels the power of the presidency, if not always the actual power of individual presidents.  It offers no such boon for the citizens, though.  Believing that the solution for democratic problems can only come through the intervention of a “great president,” we put our energy into exaggerated and mythical hopes for his agency, rather than investigating, investing in and cultivating our own.