How “Democracy” Is Bought and Sold in America

Long ago, at school in Jamaica, I was taught that democracy is “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” And I keep hearing that America is the world’s greatest democracy. But in America democracy is government of the people by the people who contribute to politicians’ campaign chests. Sometimes, it’s “for the people,” but most often it’s for the people who put up the money.

democracyThe election of Barack Obama as President was possible only because millions of  individuals dug deep into their pockets to fund his campaign. I understand the final cost was something like $750 million. That was a refreshing change from “politics as usual.” Most politicians are funded primarily by special interests and do the bidding of those interests when they get into power.

The health care debate is a case  in point. Politicians who received large contributions from insurance companies and for-profit health care providers are vigorously supporting proposals to block publicly provided insurance. They want a system that will subsidize the special interests that funded their campaigns. The irony of this situation is that the people who will end up paying for the campaign contributions are the customers of the insurers and health care providers, as the cost of buying political influence will simply be added to patients’ bills.

Another blatant example of special-interest “democracy” was provided by recent legislation to place tobacco under government control – like other drugs. You would think that nobody could oppose that kind of “motherhood.” But, for decades, the tobacco industry has enjoyed the freedom to deceive the public and inveigle children into using its poisonous products despite widespread public outrage. It was not until the biggest tobacco company saw an advantage in government “regulation” that the industry is being reined in.

In an article today for McClatchy Newspapers, Halimah Abdullah details how it works. He explains that the Altria Group, the company that owns Philip Morris, wanted the regulation. I know it sounds goofy that a tobacco company would want government regulation, but when you peel off another layer of the onion, you find that Philip Morris will actually benefit from the regulation. They can afford the tests and red tape the legislation will impose, while their smaller competitors can’t.

Here’s a revealing excerpt from Abdullah’s article:

Over the course of his nearly quarter-century Senate career, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who hails from the tobacco-rich state of Kentucky, has received $419,025 from the tobacco industry, more than any other member of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that analyzes the influence of money on politics and policy.

North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who led the opposition to the bill, is the second highest recipient and netted $359,100 from tobacco-related political action committees and individual contributions. His state is the nation’s largest tobacco grower and is home to R.J. Reynolds, the nation’s second largest tobacco manufacturing company, which contributed $196,850 to Burr’s campaigns.

Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, is the third highest recipient with $228,700. Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning, who’s up for re-election next year and is considered the most vulnerable Senate Republican, ranks eighth with $194,166.

All oppose giving additional tobacco regulatory powers to the FDA, an agency they argue doesn’t have adequate resources for the task. They say cigarette companies’ campaign contributions didn’t color their positions on the legislation.

And here’s an excerpt showing the other side of the coin:

Virginia Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb supported the measure, as did Altria Group, the Richmond, Va., company that owns Philip Morris. Altria contributed $78,418 to Warner.

“We think it’s important to stay active in the political process,” said William Phelps, an Altria spokesman. “We’re proud of our commitment to the political process on behalf of our employees and shareholders.”

Critics say the measure gives Altria a competitive advantage in using its deep coffers to meet FDA requirements.

It seems to me that true democracy will be possible in America only when campaign contributions are regulated to create a level playing field. Until then, if you want elected representatives that support your interests, you know what it takes. If you’ve got the money, honey, they’ve got the time.