Passing the bucks
Bushwhacked: life in George W Bush's America
Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose Allison & Busby, 350pp
Molly Ivins is Michael Moore withbrains. The sassiest and sharpest of America's embattled progressive commentators, she has been following George Bush on her home patch in Texas since he was elected governor there in 1994. Her biography of him, Shrub, written for the last presidential election campaign (you remember - the one Bush lost by half a million votes), was the clearest warning of what was about to hit America. She and her writing partner Lou Dubose were tempted to begin this new book - an account of Bush's record halfway into his term - with the line, "If y'all had've read the first book, we wouldn't have had to write this one".
Bushwhacked tells a simple story. Bush's presidency has completed America's transition to a "cash-and-carry model of government where . . . government has served less and less as a brake on corporate behaviour and more and more as its auxiliary, because of the corrupting effects of the system of legalised bribery we call 'campaign financing'". Across almost every core policy area - from food standards to tort reform to education - Ivins shows how Bush has repaid fat campaign donors with public policy wildly skewed in their favour.
The effect of this on US environmental policies is of greatest significance for an international readership, since it isn't just the poor old Americans who will pay for the results. As governor, Bush's policy of "encouraging" his friends and paymasters in Texas's toxic energy firms to adhere to voluntary regulations on pollution was as effective as its makers intended. In Bush's home state - "the National Laboratory for Bad Policy" - only three of the 8,645 most polluting refineries changed their behaviour: the rest carried on merrily pollutin'. This is now Bush's favoured approach across the rest of the US, after another election campaign (this time nationwide) was bankrolled in large part by the energy companies.
It is getting harder and harder to deny that the US has, in Ivins's words, "a government of big corporations, for big corporations, by big corporations". It is a horrible fate for a great democracy. Ivins is far too smart to argue that all this began with the current president. The present corporate occupation of Capitol Hill commenced with Jimmy Carter and was intensified in many ways by another Democrat, Bill Clinton. Bush's role was not to initiate this change but "to pretty much embody it". Using an old journalistic tactic, Ivins and Dubose cut repeatedly between descriptions of the rich, cosseted men in the Bush circle - born into vast wealth - and the straightforward, irrefutable stories of poor people hammered yet further since Bush came to power. It's not just that the policies are worse since Clinton left office; it's that the contrast between Bush's talent-free profit-raking and the victims of his semi-corporate government is more jarring than ever.
Ivins's analysis of US capitalism seems now to belong to the European social democratic tradition. "Capitalism is a marvellous system for creating wealth. On the other hand, unregulated capital-ism creates hideous social injustices and promptly destroys itself with greed. A market place needs rules . . . When those who are regulated by the government buy the government, the people get screwed," she explains. It is a sign of how staggeringly far to the corporate right the US has drifted that this has come to be considered a far-out, lefty position. These views were held even by the US right for decades; it was the Republican president Theodore Roosevelt, after all, who challenged the overwhelming interests of the big trusts at the start of the 20th century.
The only chapter where Ivins falters is with her exposition of the second Gulf war. As with so many opponents of that conflict, she refuses to acknowledge that sometimes there is something even worse than George Bush's hyper-corporatism, such as Saddam Hussein's fascism.
While the clear, witty exposition of Bush's public policy vandalism in Bushwhacked is valuable, it is in the final chapter that the book offers an essential message. Ivins provides a progressive manifesto that focuses on an agonisingly dull but inescapable issue: public campaign financing. This is simply a prerequisite for any significant progressive change in the United States. "When we pay for the campaigns, the politicians work for us. When big money pays, the politicians work for them," Ivins says bluntly and she is right. Until this issue is resolved, it will continue to disfigure global politics.
Anybody thinking of picking up Bushwhacked be warned: Molly Ivins makes you feel you have no choice but to quit your job and fly to the States to volunteer for the presidential campaigns of Howard Dean or Ralph Nader.
Johann Hari is a columnist on the Independent