Saturday, August 23, 2008

Phelps, Bigfoot, and Presidentialism

Alexis de Tocqueville

What do these three things have in common? Perhaps nothing really, but in my early-morning, crow-cawing-pierced, groggy Saturday morning mind they all united in a common theme: fascination with the “top dog” to the exclusion of everything else. I know, sour grapes in regards to Phelps and his medals, but it did not sit well with me the response and media coverage of his effort. It seemed so over-the-top to the exclusion of all other possible stories. Now a pending book. Then throw in another Bigfoot hoax. People just want to believe there is a “big guy”, a “top dog” out there waiting to be discovered. The "discovery" was complete with an official news conference put on by the two car salesmen who made the find. Psst, hey reporters, you know that Bigfoot doesn’t exist and besides (exclusion theme) we have so many other serious problems (war, poverty, etc.) to deal with? Finally, there is the vice president choice for the two presidential candidates. Does it matter? Not really according to many and it displays our endless fascination with the “top dog”. In an interesting piece called The Conquest of Presidentialism, presidentialism as defined by Vanderbilt professor Dana Nelson is: our paternalistic view that presidents are godlike saviors—and therefore democracy’s only important figures. In the same piece there is a reference to a quote by Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859), a French historian who made some astute observations about 19th century American democracy that are still relevant today, which I’ll repeat here. The quote refers to our capability to select leaders. True or false?

“It is in vain to summon a people, which has been rendered so dependent on the central power, to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity.” (Democracy in America, Volume 2)

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