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Can Capitalism and Real Democracy Coexist?

By David McNair
May 23, 2003

There's a temptation to dismiss Greg Palast's whistle-blowing theatrics and meticulous, conspiratorial fact-gathering by pointing out that powerful corporate and political insiders have always run the show and will do just about anything to keep running it. So tell me something my mother hasn't warned me about for years, Mr. Palast. As Mark Twain said about 100 years ago, "The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet." But I'm not going to be that cynical. Besides, there's evidence that our democracy might not survive if we continue to live in a dream world of consumer bliss and ignore the fact that our government is being run more like a corporation than the sloppy, messy, beautiful democracy it was meant to be.

With this in mind, to read investigative reporter Greg Palast's book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy is to invite a headache-causing array of facts and complex connections to alter your perceptions of American democracy in the 21st Century. Unless, of course, you don't care or think Palast is a freak liberal with a flare for the dramatic, a la Michael Moore—a condition and point of view that Palast alludes to strongly in his scatologically styled introduction, boldly and appropriately called Who Gives a S***? That title takes its cue from one of the many provocative quotes in the book. (Palast seems to have a knack for tracking down confidential documents and getting establishment figures to say the darnedest things.) During the Clinton years, a Newsweek reporter offered to pass on to Palast some disturbing information on President Clinton. "But why don't you print this?" Palast asked. To which the reporter answered, "Because no one gives a s***."

But after a fair reading of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy , it's hard to ignore the damning evidence of corporate and governmental wrongdoing. However, according to Palast, that's exactly what the mainstream media and the general public have been doing—ignoring the voter purge story behind the 2000 election, ignoring how Clinton and Bush killed off the FBI's investigation of the bin Laden family prior to the September 11th terrorist attacks, ignoring the truly twisted facts surrounding the Enron scandal, ignoring the extent of Exxon's culpability in the Exxon Valdez crack-up, ignoring stories about the business dealings of America's premiere televangelist Pat Robertson, ignoring the way pharmaceutical companies coerce the government and manipulate the public, and ignoring a host of other stories that point toward the escalating corporatization of American politics. As Palast quotes former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, "They've eliminated the middleman. The corporations don't have to lobby the government anymore. They are the government." (Palast points out that Hightower used to complain about the way the company Monsanto used to lobby his office. Today, Monsanto executive Ann Venamin is the secretary of agriculture.)

And as if the corporate takeover of our government weren't enough, Palast quotes news anchor Dan Rather, who was a guest on his BBC television show, Newsnight , on American journalism's inability to present the whole truth: "It's obscene, but there was a time in South Africa when people would put flaming tires around people's necks if they dissented. In some ways, the fear is that you will be neck-laced here, you will have a flaming tire of lack of patriotism around your neck. It's that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions and continue to bore-in on the tough questions so often."

Well, Palast seems to have taken up Rather's admission as a challenge, because he is one of those few journalists who 'bore-in' to a story. For his efforts, Palast has been effectively exiled to Britain where his bold investigative reporting is welcomed by the Guardian and BBC television. Here in America, where journalism is more like entertainment and where journalists seem to worry more about career moves than the truth, editors don't seem to know what to do with Palast. (However, he has become somewhat of a star in the world of Internet journalism. He has his own website at and a quick Google search yields pages of praise for Palast.) Despite his excellent reporting about the use of voter purge lists in the 2000 presidential election, the national media never took it up as a viable story, instead focusing on hanging chads and the U.S. Supreme Court decision, even though Palast's story uncovers a far more pressing threat to American democracy.

For example, in a documentary Palast did for BBC television, he uncovers a contract agreement between the State of Florida and ChoicePoint DBT, the computer firm hired by the State to 'purge' ineligible voters from the rolls prior to the 2000 presidential election, which proved to be glaringly inaccurate and particularly damaging to African-American voting rights, and presents it to Clayton Roberts, the director of Florida's Division of Elections (and an underling of Secretary of State Katherine Harris). Almost immediately after reading the confidential document, Roberts rips off his lapel microphone, demands that the cameras be turned off and locks himself in his office. Apparently, the contract required ChoicePoint to check the accuracy of their purge lists (which eliminated about 50,000 Florida voters from the rolls) by using telephone calls and statistical sampling. For this, they were to be paid $2.3 million, nearly ten times the amount normally paid for such services, according to industry experts. Although ChoicePoint never checked the lists, they got paid anyway. But why did Roberts lock himself in his office? Because both he and Katherine Harris testified under oath to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that country election supervisors were in charge of verifying the purge lists, not ChoicePoint. "You know if y'all want to hang this on me that's fine," Roberts blurts out just before the tape is turned off.

It's air-tight reporting like this, along with a willingness to root through filing cabinets and stacks of documents that makes it hard to turn away from the conspiratorial picture Palast paints. However, Palast is no conspiracy nut. One of the more refreshing aspects of his progressive reporting is that it refuses to indulge in Bush-bashing or the demonizing of powerful men for its own sake. (Whenever Palast does let loose it's usually in the wake of a set of undeniable facts that would make any decent American want to scream.) No, Palast's beef is with the system and with the 'disposition' of the ruling class. In his provocative report about how Bush killed off the FBI's investigation of the bin Laden family prior to the September 11th terrorist attacks, he makes a point of saying early on that "we uncovered no information, none whatsoever, that George W. Bush had any advanced knowledge of the attacks." He also refuses to let Clinton off the hook, citing his administration's 'make-a-sheik-happy' policy in the Middle East. Palast is concerned more with the lucrative, decades-old relationship between American and Saudi Arabian oil elites, and how that relationship may have blinded those in power to the evidence that their wealthy Arab friends may have been funding and facilitating a terrorist attack against America.

Ironically, Palast's own prejudice, or "disposition," mirrors the one he assigns to the corporate big shots and political elites he's out to embarrass. The son of working class parents, who went to the University of Chicago on a scholarship, and whose first job out of college involved investigating corporate wrongdoing for labor unions, Palast can't help saying things like "the privileged little pr**** that call the shots on this planet, whose daddies could make the phone calls, write the checks," just as the wealthy corporate elites he's investigating can't help using their government connections to preserve their wealth and power and take care of their families and associates. 

The difference is that Palast's prejudices make for some bold, provocative reporting, whereas the prejudices of the corporate and political elites that run this country may be defrauding Americans and endangering our democracy. So can 21st Century capitalism and real democracy coexist? Only if we decide it's worth knowing what's really going on. And Palast's book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, is a good place to start.



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