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TheCanadian Review of American Studies, Volume 12,No. 1,Spring 1981 Plebiscitary Politics: Requiem forthe American Dream? Walter Dean Burnham and Martha Weinberg, eds. 4111 e11canPolitics and Public Policy. Cambridge, Mass., andLondon:The MIT Press, 1978.418 +xi pp. Jame~ W.Ceaser. Presidential Selection: Theoi:1·and Del'elopment. Pnnceton:Princeton University Press. 1979.371 + xivpp. EdwinDiamond. Good News, Bad News. Cambridge, Mass., andLondon:The MIT Press. 1978.263 + xiv pp. RobertE. DiClerico. The American President. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: PrenticeHall, 1979.374 + x pp. Jon Alexander Recenthistory has been unkind to Americans. Gone are the simpler days of globalhegemony, the mobilizing assumptions of cold war, the politics of clear and inspiring purpose. They have suffered one leader's assassination, twofailed moral cripples, a caretaker and one chief of questionable competence .1Their sense of national purpose hacked to pieces in Indochina, theirdignity raked awaywith Watergate's muck, and their economy in pillaged shambles, who can say their distrust of all basic institutions is misplaced? Thecrisisis political; its pervasive spread threatens to crumble the last shards ofthe American dream into the dry dust of nostalgic longing. These determinedly upbeat books, as American as corn fritters, reflect suchbrooding. What went wrong? Their collective answer: the coming of age of vast, amoral communications media along with a misguided new Progressivereform movement have replaced representative government with plebiscitarypolitics. Thus, the danger of presidential dictatorship, so recently averted, remains critical. Institutions that once provided effective buffers between citizen and state-especially the moribund political parties-no longerfulfill the essential functions of fostering political conciliation and of civilizingsavage political ambition. The parties' growing ineffectuality in temperingthe electoral struggle undermined the system's capacity to restrain the dark underside of politics. Bemused, spectator-citizens tuned in on 90 Jon Alexander a phantasmagoric game played by professionally packaged presidential aspirants , and by a new breed of amateurs- enthusiasts who rewrote the electoral rules with good intentions but disastrous consequences. Confronted bycontrived images and demagogic pandering, the electorate faced reform-born imbroglios as well. Men of honor who might appeal to the electorate's common prudence and wisdom disdained the grueling game, and so the people recoiled into a discomfited cocoon of cynicism bordering on despair. The MIT studies are dedicated to the late Jeffrey Pressman, who had "made everyone think well about politics"-a goal all four works share.But how? The nation's indictment of its own political system lengthens daih. These books read much like the ambulance driver disgorging you at the emergency ward with "Have a nice day" or St. Peter meeting you at the Pearh Gates with "other than the accident, how was your weekend?" · American Politics and Public Policy is a postschrift- an agglomerated effort by Dr.Pressman's admirers to honor his memory. Good Neivs, Bad Ne11·, is journalistic fluff, chicly written by a former Newsweek editor turned political scientist (so MIT claims). The American President, a textbook. shows infuriatingly incompetent copy editing,2 but focuses unerringly C!: plebiscitary trends, the national leadership obsession, and that perpetual nemesis of would-be dictators-the incorrigible bureaucracy. Presidential Selection is a fine (Ph.D.) dissertation in political theory, but also a feeble anti-reform manifesto largely blaming the latter-day heirs of Progressivism for the rise of the current plebiscitary system. These works intersect in discussing executive recruitment and leadership. the parties' decline and mass media's rise, and the derangement of public policy. They paint a composite portrait of ''electoral Caesarism"-unre· strained, image-based soft demagoguery appealing to citizens as a mass,and whose logic favors presidential dictatorship based upon popular enthusiasm. These works leave the concept undeveloped; the specter, presumably derived from Europe's experience with fascism, is an executive demagogue who invokes the Roman principle vox populi legati suprema lex est to turn the civil polity into an ongoing mass plebiscite.-1 As originally applied to America by political scientist Harvey Wheeler: this concept's logic is as follows. Today the government is as impotent asit is irresponsible, yet the absence of obvious despotism is small consolation as the ideal of government by the people is seen to recede further and further from reality. Effective leadership disappeared with the rise...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 89-99
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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