There is no one like Jim Hightower on the American scene today. Clever and impassioned, this folksy populist may be the best advocate for progressive politics in the country.
Hightower began as an aide to the great Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough. In 1972, Hightower founded the Agribusiness Accountability Project. Four years later, he was campaign director for Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris in that populist's Presidential run. Following Harris's defeat, Hightower became editor of The Texas Observer. Ditching journalism to return to electoral politics, he twice won public office as agriculture commissioner of Texas in the 1980s. Touted as a potential Senator or more, Hightower lost his bid to be elected ag commissioner a third time after a certain Republican strategist named Karl Rove engaged in some dirty tricks. Hightower then took to the airwaves, doing a national radio program from the Chat and Chew Café in Austin. Today, he still does radio commentaries that air around the country. In addition, he puts out The Hightower Lowdown, a newsletter with more than 100,000 subscribers. He's also a best-selling author. His previous books include There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos and If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates. His latest is Thieves in High Places: They've Stolen Our Country and It's Time to Take It Back. (In Thieves, he mentions a telling comment George W. made at a dinner of his fat cat contributors back in 2000. Said Bush: "This is an impressive crowd. The haves and the have-mores. Some call you the elite. I call you my base.")
Most of all, Hightower is an agitator in the tradition of Mother Jones and Big Bill Haywood. Or think of him as Woody Guthrie without the guitar. Hightower goes from town to town, visiting union halls, walking picket lines, and entertaining activists with his humor and his bite. On what he calls his Rolling Thunder Down-Home Democracy Tour, he holds huge public festivals that feature not just political speeches but music and food and beer "to lubricate the movement," he says.
I caught up with Hightower on September 6 when he came to Baraboo, Wisconsin, to participate in Fighting Bob Fest, named after Robert La Follette, a leader of the Progressive movement and the founder of this magazine. (Fighting Bob Fest, by the way, is the brilliant creation of Ed Garvey, who upholds the progressive banner in Wisconsin's Democratic Party.) Hightower gave a barnburner before a crowd of 2,000 people. "Bush has usurped power faster than a hog eats supper," he said. The next morning, I spoke with him in Madison, right before he was kind enough to do a fundraiser for The Progressive.
Question: How are your Rolling Thunder events going?
Jim Hightower: We're drawing thousands of people, almost despite our inept organizing. Our slogan is let's put the party back in politics. Politics ought to be fun. It shouldn't be just boring meetings.
Q: But the mainstream media looks across the land and sees apathy. What's going on?
Hightower: The media's asleep. The media is also corporate. It doesn't get this. When we started Rolling Thunder, the first one we had was in my hometown of Austin, Texas, and the daily newspaper, a Cox tentacle, didn't cover it. They didn't get it. Why would people come to this? But 6,000 people did come, the biggest political event in the history of Austin. And yet they still couldn't figure it out.
The media isn't only asleep; it doesn't want to know this news, that the people are revolting, in the very best sense of the term, revolting against the thieves in high places and reaching out to each other, which is our great strength. When you can draw that many people, you've got something going. You don't have to worry if the guys in suits are going to put it on the front page or not.
Q: What's behind this revolt?
Hightower: Bush and the corporate kleptocrats have stomped on too many people and left too many people out of the system, and those people are now in rebellion. It's not just poor people they are holding down but the middle class, as well. I have a favorite bumper sticker I saw on a pickup truck last year in Austin. It said, "Where are we going? And what am I doing in this hand basket?"
Most people have a sense that things have gone terribly wrong. It's not just some giveaways to the rich and the rigging of regulatory rules. It's something fundamental. The very idea of America is being stolen, and people are sensing that with a tremor within their hearts. They are taking away this core notion of the common good, this idea that we are all in it together. They are diverting America from our historic striving towards egalitarianism, which is why America exists. It's the thing that makes us unique in history. That's what people are sensing. We are going down the wrong path.
Q: Is "Bushco," as you call it, a mere continuation of corporate dominance of our politics or is there something unique about it? You write in your book, "The White House has been the corporate feed and greed store for some time now, way before Bush," and yet you seem to see something new here.
Hightower: What's new is that the White House itself has now been corporatized. It's not politicians working for the corporate interests. They are the corporate interests. That's where Bush came from, and Cheney and Rumsfeld.
Q: In 2000, they bragged that they wanted to run the country like a company.
Hightower: And which company did they have in mind? Enron? But that's exactly the point. The corporation is a very narrow, autocratic, secretive, hierarchical organization that exists only to fatten the bottom line of the biggest investors, which include the top executives, of course. It has no other purpose.
It's not surprising we see this gang looking very tense any time anybody asks them a question. They're not used to being questioned. It's not surprising that they would act in secrecy because that's how they operate. It's not surprising that they would declare a war and expect everyone to go along with it because that has been their experience as corporate executives.
Q: One point you drive home in your book is that the things that progressives stand for are really things the majority of America support. Can you explain that?
Hightower: Yes, I have a section called, "Even the smallest dog can lift its leg on the tallest building." I looked at several different issues we are told we cannot address in any progressive way because people are too conservative for that. For example, Bush's tax cut giveaways: 67 percent of people would rather have more spending on health care and education than have tax givebacks. Or take health care. We're told we can't talk about universal health care because that'll scare people, but 64 percent of the people believe it is the federal government's responsibility to make sure that everybody in the country has health care. Right on down the line. Public education: 84 percent would be willing to pay more in taxes if the money went to repairing dilapidated schools, raising teachers' salaries, and shrinking class sizes. Issue after issue, the people are overwhelmingly progressive. So we have this deep pool of political possibility out there waiting on us.
Q: Why aren't we achieving more if the people are with us?
Hightower: We don't have enough politicians going out there willing to tap that pool. This Democratic Leadership Council bunch, those in the corporate wing of the party, they say: You can't attack Bush; look how popular he is; he won a mandate in those 2002 Congressional elections. What they don't tell us is that only 33 percent of the people voted in those elections. So Bush is the political choice of only 17 percent of the people. That's no political juggernaut. The DLC wants to try to get some of his 17 percent rather than go out and tap into the 67 percent of the people who are now politically homeless.
Q: Why did the Democrats lose the 2002 elections?
Hightower: The reason the Democrats got 15 percent of the eligible voters and the Republicans got 17 percent is that the Democrats didn't campaign. Their bumper sticker was, "We support the Iraq Attack, and the Homeland Security thing, and yes we did vote for those tax giveaways to the rich but we aren't quite as enthusiastic about it as the Republicans are, so vote for us." It's hard for the donkeys to win the race if they're going to carry the elephants on their backs.
Q: What do you make of the donkeys in the race now?
Hightower: I'm actually encouraged because at least we are having the Democratic flag raised to various heights by most of these candidates. Dennis Kucinich has it at full tilt, all the way up there flying high and proud. Howard Dean, on issues like health care, on the war, on gay and lesbian issues, is right in the President's face and proud to be a Democrat. And he's tapped into something huge, which is this discontent that is searching for some home. The significant thing about the Dean phenomenon is not Dean; it's the phenomenon. And he's being carried by it.
Q: I'm not sure he fully understands it.
Hightower: And I'm not sure, either. But it has carried him forward, and he's adjusting as he rides that wave. He's taking more and more progressive positions. Gephardt's good on a number of issues. John Kerry, I love how he's standing in front of that aircraft carrier when he made his Presidential announcement pointing out that he had actually been on one before, unlike our President. Al Sharpton gets ridiculed and set aside, but he says good things and is saying them well.
At least we're going to have a debate this time. These issues are not going to be shoved down like in past Presidential campaigns. And I do believe that Bush is a one-term President.
Q: Why do you think that?
Hightower: Because in the 2000 election he got every vote he was going to get. He ran against a divided and very weak Democratic Party. He used soft phrases like "compassionate conservative" and "leave no child behind" that appealed to a lot of people. But since then his policies are absolutely nutty, bullgoose loopy, and completely out of the mainstream of what Americans believe. He's now got trouble within his own party: Republican moderates who don't like what he's done in the environmental area, who do not approve of this perpetual war and bloated military budget, Republicans who don't like Ashcroft's attack on civil liberties.
But the other thing, and this is what the pollsters don't measure, is the intensity of opposition that Bush has generated among labor, environmentalists, women, gays and lesbians. I know people now who are lined up at their polling place and are not going to go away until they have a chance to vote against this guy.
Q: Last time around, I personally went for Nader, and you were one of the most high-profile people to do so. I remember seeing you on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer debating the late Senator Paul Wellstone on the Nader question during the waning days of the 2000 race. Do you still feel supporting Nader was the right thing to do?
Hightower: Yes. I think Nader was the best Democrat in the race. But it's not helpful for us to continue to fight that last Presidential election. There are those who say Nader cost Gore the election. Come on! Gore's got to take responsibility for his own campaign at some point.
But all of that aside, now we face the reality of an Administration that is absolutely nutty. There's that old country song, "It felt so good when it stopped hurting." So we've got to stop the pain. But in doing so, we should not fool ourselves that we have gained some progressive victory. What we will have done is to get us back to a ground level where we can build again for a progressive victory that is several years down the road.
You don't build a movement by running for President. It's got to be built by good organizing at the grassroots level around issues, bringing people in across lines, like privacy, like NAFTA and the WTO, like the USA Patriot Act. And then running people for mayor, state rep, then moving up to Congress, then to the Senate, and then President. I think we are eight-to-twelve years away from electing a President. But we are far along now because insurgent Democrats, Greens, the Working Families Party, the Labor Party, and others are making strides and winning seats and showing that government can indeed be different.
Q: Are you advising the Greens to run someone for President?
Hightower: I hope they don't. I think the Greens probably will, but the question is will they run someone of the stature of Nader. I hope not because I think it is detrimental to their cause, to building a progressive party for the future.
Q: You call yourself an inveterate optimist. What keeps you optimistic?
Hightower: The people themselves. I've been able to travel the country a whole lot over the last several years, just about every place that has a zip code. Out there, everywhere, there is somebody or some group of somebodies who are lighting little prairie fires of rebellion against this economic and political exclusion.
Folks are out there fighting for living wages. They are passing public financing of their elections. They are taking on the Wal-Marts and beating them. They are battling the toxic waste dump. They are banning sweatshop goods from their campuses, towns, and states.
Q: But we don't hear much about these successes. Why not?
Hightower: Part of the failure of the corporate media is that they don't dig out stories anymore. They are looking down from the top floors. Media work used to be something that was down on the ground level. Now they are looking out of the windows in the top suites, and they don't know what's going on out there. And then there are the corporate owners who don't want this stuff reported because if one town learns that the next town has defeated Wal-Mart or stopped sweatshop goods, then other towns are going to want to do the same thing.
Q: What do you tell someone who says, "I don't like Wal-Mart, but hey, it's cheaper there"?
Hightower: Well, there's no free lunch. And there's no cheap prices, either. Wal-Mart advertises low prices always. How do they get those low prices? Does the CEO make less money? No, he makes $11 million. Does the ruling family practice the old Sam Walton humility and the simple lifestyle of "ah, shucks, we're just simple folk from Arkansas"? No, of the ten richest people in the world, five are Waltons. Does the corporation make less profits? No, Wal-Mart makes more profit than the next ten retailers combined. Wal-Mart is the largest corporation in the world. Wal-Mart makes its low prices by exploiting its own workers. They average $15,000 a year with puny health care benefits.
Q: It's one of the most anti-union companies in the country.
Hightower: Virulently. They have a hit team that cranks up the corporate jets any time someone somewhere in one of their stores whispers the word "union." Immediately, they bring the people in to watch anti-union videos that they have produced. Then they begin to interview the employees who are accused of having whispered the word "union." People do mysteriously get dismissed, even though that's illegal under the unenforced labor laws of this country.
Q: In the happy event that Bush loses, what is our next task?
Hightower: We will continue to have to build at the grassroots level. If we elect a John Kerry or someone like that, we'll be back to a Clintonesque style of government. No longer can we be fooled that that's any progress. So we've got to then redouble our efforts. But at least we will not be having to fight all the negative battles that we now do with Bush. We can be back to building that organized base, electing people, and moving toward that progressive future that I think is ahead of us.
People get it. People get that their country has been stolen from them. And they're the ones who have to take it back.