You Can't be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America

(Editor's note: John R. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper's Magazine and author of You Can't be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America from Melville House Publishing. AlterNet's Democracy editor Steven Rosenfeld spoke to him about political realities in the Obama age, including what activists need to do after Election Day).

AlterNet: Rick MacArthur, in You Can't Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America, you go through a long list of barriers to political participation and answer the question why you can't be president, or at least why you can't be president so easily. What prompted you to write this book?

JRM: Well, actually, it was a French publisher who asked me to explain American democracy to the French in an election year. So once I got that in my head, I started looking into it and thought, 'You know, I don't think Americans really understand American democracy.' So I went and found an American publisher so they would also publish it. But at first I thought of explaining it to a foreign audience that knew nothing about America. And the more I looked into it and the more I thought about it, I got the idea that Americans themselves didn't understand what the barriers were. That they had been so conditioned from childhood to thinking anybody could be president, and this year even more so, because a half-African candidate looks like he's going to get elected. It proves that anybody can become president.

The phrase 'you can't become president' stands in for a lot of different things, not just you can't be president of the United States, but also you can't be well-educated if you go to a lousy public school. If you're poor, you can't change social classes very easily. In fact, it's very difficult and very rare to change social and economic classes in the United States. You have less consumer choice than you think. You don't have unlimited choice, which is one of the major points that people make about how great American democracy is -- that consumer choice is part and parcel of that. Democracy itself, voting, is a kind of consumer choice. So I wanted to debunk the old saw that anybody could be president, but as I said, I started out thinking I was talking to foreigners only. And then I realized there were a lot of things that I didn't think my fellow Americans understood.

AlterNet: When did we become a nation of political amnesiacs, if that's the right word?

JRM: Partly, it's the two parties themselves. They perpetrate or perpetuate a lot of the myths because it serves their purposes of remaining in power. The statistics that got the French publisher most interested in me doing the book were the re-election rates, which are astonishing. And they are getting worse, where you have 99 percent of incumbents getting re-elected in 2006 -- 99 percent -- and even in 1994, when the (Newt) Gingrich (Republican) revolution hit, it was still 91 percent re-election rates for (congressional) incumbents. For state legislatures, it was something like 93 percent, according to this academic study across 50 states.

So the two parties encourage the amnesia and encourage people to think there was never anything but a two-party system in the United States. And this is the best of all possible worlds. The media contributes to it, because the media doesn't really challenge the party structure. They don't give the third party candidates much airtime. You don't see Ralph Nader or Bob Barr at McCain-Obama debates and that is for a reason. They want to limit the choice so they can hold onto power more effectively.

I don't blame Americans for being poorly educated. Americans are instinctively more aware than what is wrong than some people would think. It's just that they don't have the means with which to talk about it. There's no forum for this.

AlterNet: If Americans actually know in a somewhat simmering way that there are all these problems, or that they are not really participating in a meaningful way in their politics, what can they do about it or where can they vent?

JRM: Well this is a choice that I implicitly offer in the book. You can either be Connie Harding in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, and organize your town and organize your fellow citizens, and stop the big box from coming into town -- or any other issue you can think of. You can organize around an issue in your home town, or home county, or home state. Or you can do what Barack Obama did. He used to be a community organizer. He went into politics. The question is really not did Barack Obama do the right thing or the wrong thing. I think Barack Obama always wanted to be a politician. It's should Connie Harding go into politics? Should she run for office? I don't express an opinion in the book, but when I think about it, I think she should not: because you do not want Connie Harding to turn into Barack Obama. You want Connie Harding to keep pressuring politicians. Or a 1,000 or 10,000 Connie Hardings pressuring political elected officials from the outside because once you go into politics, you've got to deal with the man. Obama has got to make peace, or accommodate himself to Richard Daley in Chicago. And you can't speak up on keeping WalMart out of Chicago. You can't take a position in favor of the big box minimum wage, because if you offend the mayor, forget about running for U.S. Senate. And then, of course, forget about running for president.

AlterNet: So it is the two-party system and the deals that participants in it make to censure themselves that really keeps American democracy more dormant than flourishing, even though we have great activity around the November election?

JRM: I don't want to rain entirely on Obama's parade, because when I am talking about this inchoate and instinctive feeling that there is something wrong is reflected to some extent in the Obama campaign. Even though Obama is a candidate of the big money and Wall Street and so forth, he does have hundreds of thousands of small donors who I think instinctively wanted to overthrow the Clinton dynasty. They didn't want another family dynasty running the country. That's in the positive sense.

But in terms of two party politics and the cartel they have set up, I am always at pains to say that money is also an issue, but money is secondary because, as I point out in the discussion of the Connecticut Senate campaign between Ned Lamont and Joe Lieberman, here you have a self-financed candidate with $300 million who upsets the incumbent and still can't win, because the two parties gang up on him. Half the Democratic Party continues to support Lieberman, and the Republicans put up a stumblebum and want Lieberman re-elected. Nobody wants the new guy. It is the party power first and the money second. Money is used by the two parties to prevent entry; it make it harder for you or I to raise the money to run a primary campaign. Because if you know that the incumbent is going to spend ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty million dollars and you are starting from nowhere, it is hopeless. You might as well not even bother unless you are rich.

It is the two party system and the networks of loyalty. Obama, as I point out in the book, doesn't help Lamont. He doesn't want to offend Lieberman, who he endorsed before the primary campaign. He doesn't want to offend the Connecticut Party regulars. So he basically stays out of it.

AlterNet: Even if Obama wins, what do you suggest that people do to add new vigor, where possible, to the political process?

JRM: Well, I think that we need a third party. But in order to get a third party, we need somebody like Howard Dean, four years ago, or George McGovern 36 years ago, dropping out with their mailing list, their contributors list, and founding a third party. You need professional politicians with big fundraising potential to form a third party. But until that happens, I think the best way to invigorate the democratic process is to do what Connie Harding does, which is to organize real low-budget, people-intensive protests and lobbying movements. Because that puts a lot of pressure on the elected politicians and they respond, sometimes. In Chicago, they don't. But that's the ultimate in boss rule. But in other states, you can win. You can win an issue, or partially win an issue.

As far as Obama goes, I think Obama will be elected now. And for a long time I didn't think he could be, not because he is Black, but because of the Clintons. I thought the Clintons were doing their level best, or their worst, in the campaign to damage him so much that in the general election McCain would win. Hillary practically endorsed McCain during the primary season. But with the economic crisis, the Clintons are pushed to the side. I don't think they can control it anymore. Assuming that Obama is elected, then you have to ask yourself what do you do to put pressure on Obama. Well, that's going into the street. That's Martin Luther King, putting pressure on Kennedy and Johnson, making it possible for them to do the right thing.

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