Why don't American politicians just flog government policies on eBay?

Corporations are not donating this sea of money because they have a disinterested affection for democracy
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The Independent Online

As I scribble this from the floor of the Republican convention here in New York City - surrounded on all sides by cheering Republicans - I feel like I have been pickled in cool, hard cash. At European political conventions, we have debates. At American political conventions, they have fundraisers; money, money, everywhere. Want a lunch? Have one free, courtesy of Haliburton. Fancy a Broadway show? Here's one, courtesy of Pfizer. Corporate logos are everywhere twinned with the Stars and Stripes, and delegates worship them both.

As I scribble this from the floor of the Republican convention here in New York City - surrounded on all sides by cheering Republicans - I feel like I have been pickled in cool, hard cash. At European political conventions, we have debates. At American political conventions, they have fundraisers; money, money, everywhere. Want a lunch? Have one free, courtesy of Haliburton. Fancy a Broadway show? Here's one, courtesy of Pfizer. Corporate logos are everywhere twinned with the Stars and Stripes, and delegates worship them both.

After two days at my first US convention, the culture shock is still smacking me in waves. Sure, a week ago I could have recited with some conviction the argument that the US political system is becoming a fully-owned subsidiary of corporate America. But it is only here - at the heart of American politics - that I have really absorbed this cold truth. American democracy is slowly being auctioned off to the highest bidder, and Madison Square Garden, the Republicans' opulent convention centre, has become a gigantic till.

From the warmth of this cheering, whooping crowd, it is easy to forget there is a world out there. It seems like an impossible journey from Madison Square Garden to the factory-workers of Detroit, never mind the Aids-slaughtered villages of Africa. But there is a straight path from the neat, corporate-sponsored events lauding "loyal" Republicans to corporations to the deaths of innocent people.

Listen, for example, to the journalist Chris Floyd, who recently explained the logical result of a few of these kind corporate donations. "Last November, President George W Bush decided some of the lowliest labourers in America should be allowed to sicken and die from forced exposure to filthy rags dripping with toxic waste. Why? Because those workers' bosses paid him money." Floyd was not exaggerating. US laws introduced to protect minimum wage workers from deadly chemicals in towels they are handling in America's industrial laundries were repealed. Just two weeks before, one of the major industrial launderers in the US donated $1.7m to Bush's campaign.

Cancer-causing toxins are building up in those workers' skins as you read this. The laundry firms are sponsoring events here, so I visited one. It was full of smiling people reciting charming aspirational rhetoric about democracy. It would be possible to tour every corporate event here, and explain how each donation leads to stripped-away rights and weeping mothers.

Remember the Aids crisis in Africa, always reported as an insoluble plague? Cheap protease inhibitors - drugs that slow down the HIV virus - could easily be manufactured in Africa. They would extend the lives of innocent HIV-positive people by decades, and allow devastated African communities to begin the long, slow process of rebuilding their lives.

But the big Western pharmaceutical companies - so kind to delegates here - have donated a fortune to both big US parties. In return, both Democrats and Republicans obediently follow the script laid down by their corporate friends. They do not allow Africans to infringe the copyright of their corporate paymasters and manufacture their own cheap version of these drugs. The US governing party rigs the World Trade Organisation in favour of the property rights of a few extremely rich Westerners. Who cares about the competing right to life of millions of Africans? A bunch of dying black people aren't going to donate hard cash to the party.

But this isn't just another feel-bad story about people Out There. The road from Madison Square Garden runs to your front door, too. The climate of Britain and every country on Earth is slowly changing, unleashing wild and unpredictable forces on us all. So why is the most powerful government on Earth doing nothing? Because they've been bought by big corporations who want to carry on polluting for profit.

Look at one small example. Anthony Alexander is President of FirstEnergy - a company that has broken even the US's extremely lax pollution laws. Rather than punish him, Bush placed him on his energy transition team. By an extraordinary coincidence, Alexander donated $100,000 to Bush's election campaign in 2000, and then Alexander threw in an additional $100,000 for Bush's inauguration celebrations.

Of course, this doesn't mean American democracy is totally empty. There are issues where the main parties' corporate paymasters disagree - like gay marriage or the Iraq war - and these are debated fiercely. But democracy is caged within a corporation-friendly agenda; corporate support is the baseline for any political discussion. If you don't read from the corporate script, you don't get money and you are locked out of the democratic process. This is having terribly disfiguring effects; does anybody seriously think 40 million Americans would have no healthcare if it wasn't for a system rigged in favour of the rich?

Yet it doesn't look that way from here. From the inside, all this money spread thickly over US politics has a tranquilising effect. Here in this perfectly air-conditioned cash-bubble on the island of Manhattan, the world seems like a beautiful place. Of course corporations are totally benign - didn't they just give me a free trip to Cats? I didn't understand before this week quite how any Republicans live in this bubble. They are rarely consciously malicious. It's just that from gated community to swish office, they see only their own privilege reflected back at them.

This mentality is tempting; there are moments when I feel my brain being dulled, my spirits stirred by sweet patriotic songs, my affection purchased by a shiny logo. You have to force yourself to remember that corporations are not donating this sea of money because they have a disinterested affection for democracy. No; they donate because they fear democracy, and want to guarantee they have a far larger seat at the table than their paltry numbers would guarantee.

We must not kid ourselves that this issue will wither away on the glorious day when Bush loses; the Democrats are often just as bad. John Kerry actually raised more money from his new corporate bosses in every month from March to May this year. All these corporate sponsorships had their twins at the Democratic convention; it is now normal for big donors to give equally huge sums of money to both parties.

As one of the most distinguished US economists, Paul Krugman, says: "We're living in a replay of the Gilded Age, in which robber barons openly bought and sold government officials and their policies." Why not just sell off US government policies on eBay? Campaign finance reform in the US might be the biggest issue in the world right now, and the meagre measures introduced two years ago have achieved almost nothing.

Until the US government is reclaimed from corporations and returned to the American people, there is little hope for progressive reform. But don't mention it here in Madison Square Garden - we're too busy queuing to claim our corporate-freebie tickets to Phantom.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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