Johann Hari: The hard cash that wins the vice-presidency

We can't solve challenges until we have broken the lock the super-rich have on US politics

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The Barack'n'Roll jet has returned to the United States, and it's just one hundred days until we know how the tour tee-shirt will end: Kabul, Baghdad, Berlin, London ... the White House? Now we are poised for their next move: the unveiling of the Veeps. In the next fortnight, John McCain and Obama will pick their number two, the man or woman who will take the keys if they take a bullet. While the debate has mostly been a personality-obsessed tide of tedium, if we blow off the froth we can find hints about the future of US politics – and the world.

The Republican hunt for a Vice-President has focused on one word: money. Panicked conservative commentators and senators have urged McCain to find a super-rich man to bolt on to the ticket, fast. Why? Because he could "invest" tens of millions of his own cash in the campaign – and persuade his friends to do the same. George W Bush's former chief speechwriter David Frum says megabucks Mitt Romney is the current favourite for Republican number two. It seems the Reagan-Clinton-Bush years have made Big Money so central to the US political system that, in Frum's words, "the Pluto-Vice Presidency" is back.

The last time the top 1 per cent owned a tottering 50 per cent of America's stocks, Charles W Fairbanks was put on to the Republican ticket simply because of his towering wallet. It was normal then. Plutocracy was so integral to the political system that it was standard practice to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency just because you were super-rich and prepared to spend, spend, spend to protect your interests. Enter Mitt Romney, stage right.

McCain has already sailed full-speed in the direction of his super-rich donors. His campaign has taken a fortune from the oil companies. In return, he promises to give them $4bn in tax cuts a year, to drill off the coast of the US, and to maintain US troops in Iraq even as the country's prime minister asks them to leave. It's a logical next step to put a representative of the super-rich on the ticket.

Yet some naïve observers are shocked – shocked! – because McCain built a reputation as a campaign reformer. But they forget the context. McCain only began to call for restrictions on corrupt donations after he was revealed to have taken a great tide of them. In the late 1980s he took money from a fraudster called Charles Keating, and in return lobbied hard for the government regulators to stop looking into his affairs. It worked. Keating went on to steal billions. McCain's reputation was busted – until he tried to make Big Money itself the issue.

But even as he was apparently campaigning for change, McCain continued taking donations from the super-rich and then lobbying federal regulators on their behalf. Now he even says he will appoint Supreme Court justices like Antonin Scalia, who is committed to striking down campaign finance reform. Pairing McCain with a super-rich tycoon would be a perfect symbol of what the world can expect from his presidency.

What about Obama's hunt? We're told to expect the unexpected, with whispers he may appoint recent or current Republicans such as Michael Bloomberg (yes, a billionaire plutocrat), Ann Veneman, or Chuck Hagel. The Democratic Party has long been enmeshed in the same corrupt hunt for money as the Republicans: Obama himself took money from the coal industry and in return opposed Kyoto until 2004. He has spoken out against this kind of corruption – but he keeps Hoovering up the cash, even now.

Why? Because it is these big moneyed interests that end up defining what counts as the "political centre" in US politics. For example, 80 per cent of American citizens consistently say the government should guarantee healthcare for everyone – yet this is considered left-wing and way-out-there. The New York Times says there is "no political support" for it, and Obama doesn't advocate it. Why? Because no huge corporations or super-rich donors will cough up cash for campaigns calling for it. They make huge profits from the current system – so they only support its political defenders. When Obama is applauded by pompous pundits for moving to The Centre, they don't mean he is getting closer to centre of The People, but to centre of The Money.

Yet the politicians who have best articulated this seem to be dropping out of the Veepstakes. John Edwards has apparently been outed as having a love-child. Al Gore doesn't want to do it. And Jim Webb – the senator from Virginia – has said firmly he won't do the job.

But it's worth dwelling for a moment on Webb, because he showed it is possible for a Democrat to win in long-time Republican states by crowbar-ing open these taboos. Webb is one of the most striking figures in US politics: a boxer-novelist, an ex-Marine-intellectual, a "redneck with tattoos" (his words) who quotes Tolstoy. Webb grew up in a military family, moving all over the South. He was intensely conscious of being part of a poor but tough Scots-Irish tribe that had migrated to America from the Highlands of Scotland. He fought in Vietnam and became a Republican, serving in the Reagan administration – until he realised his tribe was being scammed by the right.

When running for the Virginia senate seat in 2004, Webb started off 33 per cent behind. Today, "populist" is an all-purpose swear-word, shot at any politician who tries to mobilise popular support against an entrenched elite. But Webb picked it up from the gutter and pinned it to his chest as a badge of pride. The great movement of Populists who emerged in the 1890s across the South were the first to fight for the direct election of Senators, a graduated income tax, and an eight-hour working day. What's to be ashamed of there?

Webb repeated their cry, warning: "The existing law in America has become class law, a disguise that allows certain privileges to flow to a few dominant groups at the expense of the many." The US system is filled with politicians "who have made Faustian bargains in order to obtain the vast sums of money necessary to fund their campaigns" and are "akin to mouthpieces for special-interest groups". He warned that the Iraq War was being promoted for profit and would be "a disaster", creating even more jihadis. Result? He trounced his money-bloated Republican opponent.

We can't solve any of the great challenges of our time – global warming, or jihadism, or spiralling inequality – until we have broken the lock the super-rich have on US politics. McCain very obviously won't do it. Does Obama want to begin the slow work of picking that lock and tossing it aside? (Yes we can, Barack.) If he does, he mustn't appoint a right-wing Veep, just to appease an artificially-constructed centre set up by the super-rich. The US should be the Land of the Free – not the Land of the Fee.

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