If democracy were an "American Idol" contestant, the phone lines would be jammed: We have a winner!
With a black man on one national ticket and a woman on the other, the democratic ideal appears ready for the spotlight. It's clear that anybody with ability and desire, regardless of race or gender, can rise as high as she or he wants - even to the Oval Office. Right?
Alas, John R. MacArthur is all set to play Simon Cowell to democracy's big dream. In his new book, "You Can't Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America" (Melville House), he argues that the current campaign - as historic as it may look - is no breakthrough. And the promise dangled before generations of American kids - that everyone has an equal shot at the commander-in-chief slot - is a dangerous myth, MacArthur says.
"The idea that anybody can be president flies in the face of reality," declares MacArthur, publisher of Harper's magazine for the last 25 years. "Between the idea of a Lincoln, coming out of nowhere, and the reality of modern-day politics, is a vast gulf."
So should parents stop telling their kids - today's 10-year-old Obamas or 6-year-old Sarahs - to get real and quit dreaming about Inauguration Day?
Absolutely not, counters Aaron Cooper, a Chicago-based clinical psychologist. "I don't like the idea of putting a cap on what kids are capable of," he says. "I don't like parents conveying anything that sets a limit on a child's potential."
Cooper, co-author of "I Just Want My Kids to Be Happy! Why You Shouldn't Say It, Why You Shouldn't Think It, What You Should Embrace Instead" (Late August Press), adds, "You want to encourage dreaming, to support effort and perseverance. The important thing in life is trying. Applying ourselves."
Hence one of life's most vexing dilemmas: Should we calibrate our aspirations to reality - or swing for the fences? Is it better to dream big and be disappointed - or to acknowledge an unpleasant truth and then perhaps try to change it?
For MacArthur, the notion that the presidency is an achievable goal is a "destructive national delusion." That is because, he says, entrenched special interests have rigged the game from the start. "Saying that anyone can be president ... is a bit like expressing a belief in the literal existence of Santa Claus," he writes in "You Can't Be President."
MacArthur, grandson of the late philanthropist John D. Mac-Arthur, whose foundation annually awards stipends that are dubbed "genius grants," believes that "democracy in America is frozen by a two-party oligarchy and a campaign finance system that have raised the barriers of entry to our political process to nearly insurmountable heights." Incumbents have a tremendous advantage, he notes. "Insurgents get crushed, for the most part."
But isn't this a strange year to be claiming that fresh new faces don't stand a chance?
In other words: What about Obama?
"He's backed by the Daley machine," says MacArthur, who adds that the Democratic nominee "was, at the outset, favored by most party officials and the Wall Street establishment." Obama raised far more money than his rival for his party's nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and to date has raised more than his opponent in the general election, Sen. John McCain.
MacArthur, who has also written books about media coverage of the 1991 Gulf War and about the free-trade movement, says he hopes Americans will be motivated to "take back the system you were formally promised in the Declaration of Independence."
But what if his two daughters - ages 8 and 16 - come home one day and say they hope to grow up to be president?
"I'd tell them there are better ways to live the American dream than to aspire to be president," MacArthur says.
Cooper, who directs Family Matters Online, a Web site sponsored by Northwestern University's Family Institute, believes some parents may hesitate to encourage presidential dreams - for many of the same reasons cited by MacArthur. Money and power rule. Politics has largely become a matter not of noble service but of deal-making, of constantly raising cash from rich donors seeking favors.
"Parents may feel a certain ambivalence about the presidency. It's lost its luster," Cooper says. Yet in many American households, he adds, becoming president still is the epitome of success.
So if your kid comes home and announces a desire to run for president someday, what should you say?
"You say, 'What do you think that's going to take?' " Cooper advises. "It's a time to celebrate dreaming. This is a kid who hasn't given up. And it's wonderful to discover that kids still dream."