The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: An Investigative Reporter Exposes the Truth about Globalization, Corporate Cons, and High-Finance Fraudsters by Greg Palast. Published by Constable Ltd., London, 2003. Pp: 400. Pbk: £7.99.
By Iqbal Siddiqui
This is an expanded edition of a book that was first published, to considerable acclaim, in 2002. Greg Palast, an American journalist who writes for British newspapers because he is seldom able to get his material into American publications, has produced an impassioned expose of many of the lies and myths that the West’s financial and political elites (which are closely linked) peddle in the name of democracy. In doing so, he is following the established tradition of Western dissident intellectuals and journalists such as Naom Chomsky, Howard Zinn, John Pilger and Michael Moore.
Many of the topics that Palast discusses are well known to readers. The great service he performs is to bring together diverse information on them, and to focus on the key points of issues on which massive amounts of information, misinformation and disinformation, argument and counter-argument, are in the public domain.
The topic of his first chapter, the facts behind the Republican theft of the Florida vote in the 2000 presidential election, is an excellent example. Palast is the journalist who did most to expose this matter, pursuing it with the support of British news organizations, primarily the Guardian and the BBC, when the US media were not interested in what should have been a great political story.
The fact that there were massive irregularities in Florida, and that Bush was awarded the state’s electoral college votes (and with them the presidency) despite not having won them, are well known; his critics routinely say that he should not be in the White House. Many people are aware that the US Supreme Court (dominated by Republican appointees) awarded the votes to Bush without permitting a full recount. Many also point to the stupidity of Gore initially conceding defeat on the basis of exit polls, before withdrawing his concession as the vote counts became known. They are probably also aware of the role played by Bush’s brother Jeb, the governor of Florida, and Katherine Harris, his secretary of state, in this episode. All this was widely reported and analysed at the time.
The real story, however, as uncovered by Palast, is much less known, and far more serious. This is how the Florida administration, headed by Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris, systematically fixed voter-registration procedures to ensure that tens of thousands of Floridans, predominantly black, predominantly poor and predominantly Democrat supporters, were excluded from voter-registration lists and so were unable to vote on the day. Palast calculates that between 57,000 and 90,000 people may have been improperly disenfranchised; Bush was awarded Florida’s electoral college by an official majority of 537. It is generally accepted that a proper count of all votes would have given victory to Gore.
Palast provides a detailed analysis of some of the ways this disenfranchisement was achieved. The main one was by the improper interpretation and enforcement of local regulations preventing convicted felons from voting. A private company — with close Republican links — was hired to ‘clean up’ the voter list (i.e. ensure it is as accurate as possible), even though it was the most expensive bidder for the contract; it was deliberately given instructions that ensured that as many poor and black people as possible were excluded.
Another tactic was different electoral procedures in different areas. In Republican areas, electronic voting machines were programmed to return improperly completed ballot forms to the voters to be corrected, thus ensuring that as many votes as possible were counted; in Democratic areas (i.e. poor and/or black ones) machines were programmed to accept but disregard improperly completed forms, thus ensuring that as few votes as possible were counted. After the elections, state election officials blamed the disproportionately high number of Democratic votes recorded as ‘spoiled’ on the fact that poor and black people were less able to complete ballots correctly. Palast does not try to calculate how many votes this cost the Democrats.
These are just two of several procedural shenanigans that Palast has uncovered in Florida alone; he does not extend his investigation to other states. His indignation that such tactics can be used in the home of democracy is exceeded only by his indignation that the culprits have not only won the election, but have faced absolutely no censure for how they did it. Indeed, the company responsible for the ‘cleaning’ of Florida’s voter lists has been hired to do the same for the next election, and is being hired for similar jobs in other states. Meanwhile the US’s much-vaunted ‘free press’ is absolutely uninterested in the issue.
Palast’s frustration at the inability or unwillingness of the American press and media to expose such improprieties, on this issue and others, is a constant theme in the book. On the Florida story, they persistently refused to accept Palast’s investigative articles. Only after electoral problems in Florida had been exposed in Britain, and had been acknowledged by officials in Florida and Washington, did some papers publish articles that Palast had sent them months earlier: a tendency Palast characterises as a reluctance to take the lead in controversial stories, but a willingness to kick the wounded once they are down. By this time, however, the story was regarded as ‘yesterday’s news’ (so where were you yesterday? Palast asks ironically), and so given minimal importance. For Palast, this weakness of the American media can be attributed to their close links with the US’s economic and political elites.
The links between the Bush family and those close to the current administration with the country’s financial elites are the subject of Palast’s next chapter, ‘The Best Democracy Money Can Buy’. In this chapter, newly published in this edition , Palast documents carefully the massive influence corporate money had on securing Bush’s election, the reasons individual companies had for supporting him, the ways they did so despite the rules of campaign finance, and the paybacks they got after his election. Going into details is impossible, but the names Palast gives —from Chevron to Koch Industries to Californian electricity-suppliers — and the documents he cites to support his argument that American politics exists almost entirely to serve the interests of big money are impressive and (in this age of litigation) entirely convincing.
The myth of globalization is another of Palast’s targets, in a major chapter, ‘Sell the Lexus, Burn the Olive Tree’, in response to Thomas Friedman’s pro-globalization book The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Palast examines the claim that “globalization is all about free trade and helping the poor”, and shows, with reference to documents from the IMF and major international corporations, how the global economy is being manipulated for the benefit of major Western companies and their owners. In the process, the rights, interests and resources of the world’s poor are exploited ruthlessly, with the result that millions are living in far greater hardship— or not living at all—to secure the profits of Western corporations. Even governments are exploited; Palast cites the examples of Ecuador and Argentina, pushed to economic ruin by policies imposed by the IMF.
It is impossible in a short book review to do justice to the detail and argument that Palast provides. In other chapters he looks in detail at the realities behind California’s well-known power-supply problems, at the influence of large corporations such as Walmart, Wackenhut, MacDonalds and BP on all aspects of American life, on the links between evangelical Christianity, big money and politics, at the emptiness of small-town America, and at life in Britain, where he now lives.
Every chapter is informative, incisive and enlightening, despite the fact that many of Palast’s arguments are well known to informed readers. The great contribution of this book, and others like it, is to draw them together in one readable volume, to provide convincing evidence to back up the arguments, to articulate them in terms understandable to ordinary readers, and to provide convincing answers to the smooth and plausible counter-arguments routinely trotted out by apologists for the elite systems.
The problem, however, is one that Palast himself acknowledges: that there is little point in all this information being freely available in the public domain, through books such as this and other high-quality dissident literature, in print and on the net, when none of it seems to have the slightest effect on the perceptions of most people in the West, sated as they are by a constant stream of propaganda from mainstream, corporate-financed newspapers, publishing companies and television channels.
This is the basic reality behind the corporate elites’ manipulation of and mastery over the ‘democratic’ West. While informed minorities welcome books such as this, and flock to lectures by intellectuals such as Naom Chomsky, even if they are blacklisted by the mainstream media, and take to the streets in droves to protest against globalization and foreign wars, far greater numbers watch CNN and Fox news, believe everything they hear, and are concerned with nothing but their own standard of living.
Palast is perfectly aware of all this. He writes regularly for the Guardian, Britain’s best and most critical mainstream newspaper, and is widely respected for his writings. But the Guardian has less than 10 percent of the readership of the Sun, a racy rightwing tabloid best known for its pictures of topless teenage girls. Along with all his sharp dissection of the reality of Western capitalism, Palast’s book is shot through with frustration that nothing is likely to change.
A wise man once warned that “you can’t fool all of the people all of the time”. What the western elites long ago realised is that you don’t need to; all you need do is fool enough of the people enough of the time, and that they achieve despite the efforts of writers like Greg Palast.