Johann Hari: The ballot that could change US politics

Next week, buried in the Democrat resurgence, will be a result that might well have greater consequences
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The Independent Online

If we believe the opinion polls, it looks like the American electorate is busy gathering rusty nails and hammering together sturdy strips of wood to give the Republicans a long-overdue crucifixion in the mid-term elections next week. So it is tempting for the watching world to chill out, cheer as the Democrats reclaim at least one branch of the American state, and assume that after Katrina, after Fallujah, sanity is being slowly restored.

But remember, remember. In the 1990s, every single Democratic senator and congressman voted to reject the Kyoto protocols. On the Democrats' watch in the 1990s, CO2 emissions soared, inequality in America rose to levels unseen since the Gilded Age of the 1920s, and the number of Americans limping along with no healthcare insurance actually rose. Democrats alone are not the answer.

The glib anti-American explanation for the irrational right-wing policies pursued by both parties is to blame the American people. Listen to any lazy comedian and you'll know the script. Americans are all stupid superstition-addled fools who care more about eating another super-sized Double Whopper (with extra cheese) than about the planet, blah blah.

There's only one problem with this: it's not true. Let's just look at two issues out of hundreds: healthcare and the unfolding disaster of global warming. Every single opinion poll shows that Americans overwhelmingly support universal healthcare. For example, the Pew Research Centre found that 67 per cent of Americans agree with the statement, "It's a good idea to guarantee healthcare for all US citizens, as Canada and the UK do", while only 27 per cent disagreed.

And this disparity between public opinion and public policy extends into even more important policies. The impeccably impartial Council on Foreign Relations recently found that a majority even of George Bush's own supporters believe signing the Kyoto protocol is "necessary".

So what gets between the democratic desires of the American people and the actions of their government? Easy - massive amounts of corporate cash. If you want to run for office in the US, as a Democrat or Republican, you need vast sums of money to buy advertising slots. There is only one source with enough hard cash - big corporations - and they are waiting with open wallets. The insurance companies will lather a fortune on you. Big Oil will drench you in petrol-money. A thousand lobbying interests will offer you a thousand payments. And in return, as the great Texan liberal columnist Molly Ivins puts it, using an old Southern saying: "You got to dance with them what brung you."

If the corporations take you to the Washington party, you have to tango to their tune. Universal healthcare threatens the profits of the insurance companies. Dealing with global warming threatens the profits of Big Oil. So say goodbye to universal healthcare and Kyoto. As another great American liberal, Bill Moyers, puts it: "If a player sidling into home plate reached into his pocket and handed the umpire $1,000 before he made the call, what would we call that? A bribe. And if a lawyer handed a judge $1,000 before he made a ruling, what would we call that? A bribe. But when a lobbyist or CEO sidles up to a member of Congress at a fundraiser and hands him a cheque for $1,000, what do we call that? A campaign contribution."

This is legalised bribery on a massive scale, and at times, it is astonishingly blatant. For example, it is routine for the same corporation to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to both rival candidates, to ensure they have an open door and a slavering tongue waiting for them on Capitol Hill whichever party wins.

This malfunctioning of American politics is scarring and mis-shaping global politics. Earlier this week, the British government was desperately waving the Stern report at US politicians, hoping to convince them that global warming will cause hideous economic harm to America. But they were making a basic error. They were assuming the American state acts in the interests of the common good and can be appealed to on that basis, when in fact it has been hijacked by private interests.

In a pay-to-play democracy, American politicians are so dependent on the money of big oil companies and other corporations that they prioritise their private interests over the interests of the population. Dealing seriously with global warming would be bad for their corporate paymasters - so it cannot happen.

That's why, increasingly, political debate in America is confined to the few issues where the extremely rich donor-class is divided. There are some fantastically wealthy people who back stem-cell research and gay marriage, and some who oppose it - so you can debate them as much as you like.

And yet, and yet - I believe there is still enough democratic space and enough democratic will left in the US for the American people to reclaim their state from corporate interests. It happened before, with the great Populist rebellions of the 1890s, and it has already begun again - with startling results.

Five years ago, both Maine and Arizona introduced clean state funding for political parties after ordinary Americans gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures to force the proposal on to the ballot paper.

Once their politicians were accountable to ordinary people rather than to corporations, politics in these states changed rapidly. Maine has now introduced healthcare for all its citizens (to the horror of the big insurance companies who used to funnel millions of dollars to prevent precisely this), and Arizona is on the way. Even more importantly, both states agreed to abide by the Kyoto protocol and reduce their CO2 emissions to 1990s levels urgently. As the state assembly member Loni Hancock says: "Clean money [is] the reform that makes all other reforms possible."

Next week, buried in the news of a Democratic resurgence, there will be a result that might, in the long term, have greater consequences. The people of California will vote on Proposition 89, the Clean Money and Fair Elections Act. It proposes Californians buy their politicians back by increasing corporation tax from 8.84 per cent to 9.04 per cent, and using the cash to pay for political campaigns. If the biggest state of the union - and one of the most politically influential - goes clean, this soapy water may yet wash over America in replica-referenda.

A Democratic victory will be a sweet moment, but it is certainly not enough. The glorious silent liberal majority of Americans need to reclaim the American state from unaccountable corporate power - by demanding to pay for their own political parties. Only then will the Land of the Fee be transformed, finally, into the Land of the Free.