Last year in California I attended one of Jim Hightower’s public lectures, which feel like a cross between a revival and a town-hall meeting. It was August, the presidential campaign was heating up, and Hightower was rallying the troops at Santa Barbara’s Trinity Church as part of his “Show Bush the Door in ’04 Tour.”
A fast-talking, cowboy-hat-wearing, all-denim-all-the-time radio commentator and writer, Hightower doesn’t mince words. “Bush is like a sand flea on steroids,” he told the group of fifty or so supporters. I’m still not sure what he meant, but his Texas accent and Southern charm made it go over well.
Hightower’s plain, albeit colorful, way of speaking reflects his populist roots. He was born in Texas to a tenant-farming couple who had started a small business in the town of Denison. One of Hightower’s early mentors was his Uncle Earnest, who raised cotton, corn, chickens, a few pigs, and a cow. “I spent a lot of time on his farm in my formative years,” Hightower says. “He was the kind of person I wanted to be, though I didn’t particularly want to be a farmer.”
Away from his uncle’s farm, Hightower lived a childhood centered on family, friends, school, and baseball. As he entered high school, he began to take an interest in the larger world, keep up with current events, and drink beer. “All eye-opening experiences,” he says. Hightower first got involved in politics as a high-school sophomore, during John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign.
At his Methodist church Hightower was exposed to sermons on economic justice, and at home he listened to his parents talk about battling the banks to keep their business going. Hightower also attributes his populist leanings to the rural Texas music he heard while growing up. “All blues music is about battling the system in one way or another,” he says. Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys used to play barn dances in Hightower’s part of the world, singing “Take Me Back to Tulsa”: “Little bee sucks the blossom, / big bee gets the honey. / Poor man picks the cotton, / rich man gets the money.”
Together, these experiences primed Hightower to fight for the common man and woman. But it was the civil-rights movement that really cinched it for him. Hightower attended the University of North Texas, which had been the first college in the state to integrate. The schools in Denison had been segregated, and it was at UNT that he first got to know African Americans from his hometown. “By then I’d already been through a political awakening,” he says, “but sitting next to black kids from my town in college classes was a powerful personal experience, bringing home the big lie we’d been taught from childhood, which was that black people were somehow inferior and unworthy of mixing with us.”
After graduation, Hightower headed to Washington, D.C., where he spent a week and a half at law school before going to work for Ralph Yarborough, a populist Democratic senator from Texas. Inspired by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, Hightower went on to cofound the Agribusiness Accountability Project to battle corporate power in the food industry. In 1976 Hightower was the national coordinator of former sharecropper Fred Harris’s presidential campaign. He then returned home and became editor of the Texas Observer, an alternative biweekly. In the 1980s Hightower served as director of the Texas Consumer Association and was elected to two terms as Texas agriculture commissioner.
In the nineties Hightower began spreading his populist message via his monthly newsletter (the Hightower Lowdown), his newspaper columns, and his national radio commentaries. Hightower’s latest books are Thieves in High Places: They’ve Stolen Our Country and It’s Time to Take It Back and Let’s Stop Beating around the Bush (both Viking Books). He is currently working on a book, due out next year, about rebuilding America from the ground up by creating successful alternatives to corporate domination. His daily radio spots began airing on Air America this fall.
When I first met Hightower in Santa Barbara in August 2004, I was struck by his casual, self-effacing demeanor. He could speak with me only briefly that day, but he continued the conversation after the election with a series of phone interviews from his office in Austin, Texas. Though we discussed mainly serious issues, he often had me grinning.
Cooper: You call yourself a “progressive populist.” How is that different from being a liberal?
Hightower: Populism is an economic-fairness and social-justice movement that focuses not on providing government aid to people who fall through the cracks, but on filling in the cracks. It calls for the decentralization of political power and economic power — specifically the global corporate powers.
The populist movement started back in the 1870s and sprang initially out of the hardscrabble farm country just two counties west of where I sit, in Lampasas, Texas, where small farmers were being driven out of business by the bankers, the railroad monopolies, and other corporate entities. Finally four farmers gathered around a kitchen table and said, “We’ve got to do something.” From that initial conversation emerged a movement that spread rather rapidly through the South, up through the Plains states, and into the upper Midwest. The movement took on the combines and trusts and robber barons that were squeezing out the small farmers and running roughshod over labor. The populists developed cooperative financing for farmers. They started their own magazines and newspapers. They invented the first syndicated news service. They trained forty thousand public speakers to deliver their message at grange halls, county fairs, and chautauquas.
The populists eventually gained so much strength that they created their own party, the People’s Party, and ran candidates for president several times. More importantly, they elected significant numbers of state legislators and governors and members of Congress.
That’s the kind of structure we’re lacking today, though we have the elements. The political descendants of those dispossessed, displaced farmers are out there.
Cooper: What happened to the People’s Party?
Hightower: It was ultimately crushed by the Democratic and Republican parties’ coming together to forbid what was called “fusion voting,” which still exists in New York state, where the Working Families Party (WFP) is a strong third-party force. The idea of fusion voting is that each party gets a line on the ballot, but they can nominate candidates from other parties on their line. So the WFP can nominate Hillary Clinton for Senate, and her name will appear on the WFP line as well as on the Democratic Party line. That allows WFP members to show their strength without abandoning their party affiliation. They can vote their party line and then say to Hillary Clinton, “Look at the number of votes you got from our members; you need to be responsive to our issues.” This mechanism allowed the populists to gain strength as a third party in the late nineteenth century, but it has been done away with, with the exception of New York and two or three New England states.
Cooper: Is there still a true populist movement in the U.S. today, or just elements of populism in other movements?
Hightower: There is a broad and deep populist constituency, but I can’t say there’s an effective movement to rally and organize that constituency. There’s a strong populist element in the broad-based opposition to the World Trade Organization, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and other “globs of globaloney,” as I call them. We have expressions of populism in people like Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, who take on corporate money in politics. And we have it in the form of groups that battle corporate power internationally, fighting such giants as Union Carbide in Bhopal, Occidental Petroleum in Colombia, and Monsanto everywhere.
Cooper: Is there any sign that we’re moving toward an organized populist movement?
Hightower: I think we saw it in last year’s presidential election, where the typical top-down presidential campaign run by the Democratic National Committee was the least of the effort. The real campaign was led by organizations like MoveOn.org, True Majority, Progressive Majority, and the League of Pissed-Off Voters. [Laughter.] This last one is a great group of young people, and its members not only turned out new voters for Kerry, but also ran candidates for such local offices as school boards and won. These were true grass-roots efforts, not operating under the umbrella of the Democratic Party or the Kerry campaign, but totally separate. And they’re still active, organizing, and growing.
Cooper: You’ve said that the true political spectrum is top to bottom, not right to left.
Hightower: Right and Left, conservative and liberal are theoretical divisions. Top to bottom, however, is the reality in which people actually live.
Cooper: Where does that put wealthy or upper-middle-class liberals?
Hightower: Well, having money doesn’t mean you can’t rise above your class interests. [Laughter.] Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt are two sterling examples of people who did. The Bible doesn’t say that money is the root of all evil; it says the love of money is the root of all evil. That’s what we have today: an orgy of people who love money and are willing to abandon the common good in pursuit of their own individual fortunes.
Cooper: Do you think it’s possible for a capitalist system not to evolve in such a way?
Hightower: Yes, but it takes constant effort both on the regulatory and also on the small-d democratic side of capitalism. Wall Street likes to say we have democratic capitalism already because 60 percent of the population owns stock. Well, most investors own very little stock and have no control over any of the companies whose stock they own. It’s not an issue of mere ownership but one of control.
I believe we are essentially a capitalist people. So are the Chinese, even though they’re technically a communist nation. As a people they are inherently entrepreneurial, and it’s pretty impossible to suppress that spirit, as the Chinese government has found. They have their problems, just as we have ours. That’s why politics is so important in a democracy: because it allows the larger population to control individual greed, whether through legislating a living wage to promote a middle-class economy, or through public financing of elections, or through challenging the notion of corporate personhood. All of these are part of the grass-roots struggle for democracy, which is ultimately the fight to have a say in decisions that affect your life.
Cooper: Do you really believe that there’s not a Right and a Left?
Hightower: I think there are many Rights and many Lefts. On the Left, for example, are the liberals, the populists, the environmentalists, some libertarians, and a wide range of other progressives who don’t share a single philosophy but still fit within that progressive context. Most people, including myself, are really a mix of ideologies. I’ve got a lot of libertarianism within me, as well as liberalism, and a ton of populism.
Cooper: Do the Americans on the bottom really resent the wealth of those on top? Many of them seem, instead, to take vicarious pleasure in it. There are magazines and television shows based entirely on celebrities showing off their wealth. What causes some poor people to worship the wealthy?
Hightower: I don’t think they worship them at all. I don’t think they spend a lot of time resenting them either, mainly because they’re too busy trying to make ends meet and hold everything together. But I think that there is a small-d democratic spirit in people that rebels against plutocracy, or rule by the rich, which is what we had from the robber-baron era to the 1920s and what the New Deal was designed to eliminate. Now here we are again with this increasing concentration of wealth. It’s not that people resent wealth; they resent greed.
Cooper: What about other divisions, such as rural and urban, religious and nonreligious?
Hightower: I don’t think those are fundamental divisions. It all boils down to who has power and who doesn’t. When you talk about redistributing democratic power, it allows inner-city residents and rural farmers to find common ground.
A good example is the living-wage campaigns, which have forged coalitions of inner-city residents, African Americans, women’s organizations, small businesses, labor, and environmentalists, and have won sweeping victories. The possibility is there, but we have to make the effort. Affluent liberals have an extra responsibility to reach out. Don’t ask, “Why don’t black people come to our meetings?” Go to their meetings and ask, “What are your issues, and how can we help you?” That’s how you develop trust: by reaching out and showing people that you are on their side.
Cooper: What’s it like for you being a progressive in Bush country?
Hightower: I don’t consider Texas “Bush country.” I know these people around here, and I know how to reach them. You’ve just got to be able to talk to them. When I first ran for office in the early eighties, I did it in part to show others that Texas was not as conservative as the liberals were complaining it had become. Texas was, and is, a populist state. My own daddy would’ve called himself a conservative if a pollster had shown up at the door, but if you talked to him about the ability of the banks or the chain stores to drive a small retailer like him out of business, or the power of the oil lobby, or how the Texas legislature taxed small-business owners more than the wealthy, then you’d find you weren’t talking to a conservative at all, but to a radical. I find that Texans, like most Americans, generally are not liberals but radicals. It’s part of our history. The Boston Tea Party was not about British taxation. It was about the British East India Trading Company squeezing out the domestic producers of tea. So the radicals went onboard that ship and took private property and threw it into Boston Harbor.
The Bible doesn’t say that money is the root of all evil; it says the love of money is the root of all evil. That’s what we have today: an orgy of people who love money and are willing to abandon the common good in pursuit of their own individual fortunes.
Cooper: Do you think people today are actively involved in civic life and in touch with the issues?
Hightower: Not enough, but more so than we give them credit for — “we” being the media and the politicians, liberal as well as conservative. As I travel around the country giving talks, I find a very different America than the one described by the media. People are engaged and active at a grass-roots level, but it doesn’t get national media attention, or even local media attention. When people feel that their participation can make a difference, they get involved, and more often than not they win.
Cooper: And that was part of your goal for your Rolling Thunder speaking tour: to get people involved?
Hightower: The concept behind Rolling Thunder was that politics ought to be fun. It shouldn’t be just a series of tedious meetings. My friend John Richard once heard an organizer complain that people wouldn’t come to meetings, and John said, “You know, if you’d pour a little bit of red wine every now and then, I might come to one of your meetings.” [Laughter.] I made it a point that if we were going to get people together, then we were going to have food, some beer and wine, and some music to make it as enjoyable an experience as possible. Our slogan was “Let’s put the party back in politics.”
The problem with developing a progressive movement is that we’re not a unified, march-in-step sort of people. What I’ve found in my travels is that we have all the elements of a progressive movement in place in this country, but the elements don’t know each other; they’re not connected. So why not give people a reason to get together? A good way to start building a coalition is to form a partnership and to throw a citywide event.
It can be an ongoing effort. There’s a group in Seattle called Seattle Thunder that has events every month. A group in Baraboo, Wisconsin — the old home of the Ringling Bros. Circus — draws four thousand people a year to its annual Fighting Bob Fest [named for “Fighting” Bob LaFollette, the Wisconsin senator who ran for president in 1924 as a Progressive Party candidate].
Cooper: The Left seems to have trouble reaching out to the common person. Why is that?
Hightower: I don’t think the Left has that problem. I think some of the people who are cast by the media and by the political establishment as the leaders of the Left — say, John Kerry in last year’s presidential campaign — are clueless about reaching out to common folks. Let’s be honest: Kerry couldn’t connect with working stiffs if we put him on a street corner handing out free Budweisers and Slim Jims. [Laughter.] But I would say the majority of people on the Left are common folks.
Cooper: The Republicans and the Right seem to have co-opted populism’s appeal to the working class without actually borrowing its positions.
Hightower: They have not stolen populism. They have stolen some of its constituency by making an appeal against cultural elitism, but they cannot steal populism because they are antipopulists.
Cooper: But they’ve certainly done a good job of portraying liberals and progressives as elitists.
Hightower: Yes, they have. And the Democratic Party leaders have allowed this to happen because they have tried to be social liberals and economic conservatives, thus abandoning the one appeal they have to common folks: economic populism. And they’ve abandoned it because they are mired in the same corporate money that the Republicans are.
Cooper: You wrote in your book, “I wish for the good ol’ days of environmental protection . . . under Nixon.”
Hightower: Nixon signed the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, and the legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency. So he did have some redeeming values. Bush’s environmental policy is essentially to open all the doors for corporations to do whatever the hell they want, and goodbye and good luck to everyone else who needs air, water, and food.
Cooper: Yet Bush has a “green” ranch.
Hightower: That’s because it’s become a status symbol. Cheney’s mansion in Washington, D.C., was retrofitted for conservation purposes as well. There are all kinds of rich people here in Austin and elsewhere who build these green homes. It’s like a toy to them, the SUV of homes. They can say, “Look at what my house does. I’ve got a rainwater-collection system.” But if you ask, “Shouldn’t everybody have a system like that?” they’ll say, “Sure, go out and buy yourself one,” rather than creating the means for widespread energy and resource conservation.
Cooper: Is money the primary motivation behind the administration’s attempts to undermine environmental protection, or do you think it’s an inherent denial of the environmental crisis?
Hightower: I think it’s first and foremost a corporate imperative. I have no doubt that there are CEOs who write out an annual check to the Natural Resources Defense Council and worry about their children’s future, but once they take the elevator up to the executive suite, a different set of values comes into play. They worry about the stock price going up and the shareholders being happy — which means they need to build that waste dump as cheaply as possible, in the place of least resistance, using the least-effective pollution-control devices, and hiring as few employees to maintain it as they can.
Cooper: How is this administration different from previous administrations in that regard?
Hightower: The difference is that previous ones, including Clinton and Carter, were merely in service to corporate power. This one is corporate power. Bush himself was head of three failed oil companies. Dick Cheney, of course, was CEO of Halliburton. Donald Rumsfeld was CEO of Searle Pharmaceuticals and others. They all came out of either the executive suite or the boardroom or the corporate lobbying firm. They are “business more than usual,” is how I put it.
When the Bush administration first came into office, we heard all this talk about “running the government like a business.” My first question was “Which business do you have in mind? Enron?” But really it doesn’t matter. We ought not to run a government like any business. We ought to run a government like a government. A corporation is by definition a secretive association whose sole goal is to fatten the pocketbooks of its wealthiest investors. By its very nature, it will pursue shortcuts on workers, the environment, product safety, taxes, and every other measure in order to fulfill its bottom-line commitment to make the maximum profit for its shareholders, a group that invariably includes the CEO. So CEOs operate in secrecy, demand absolute loyalty on pain of banishment, and grab all they can at whatever expense to others — and that’s pretty much the government we now have.
Oil companies are generally willing to sacrifice the environment in pursuit of their bottom line, whether they’re polluting the groundwater in west Texas or drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They simply want to pump the oil out of the ground in the cheapest, fastest way possible. You see the result of bottom-line thinking also in the deaths of workers. It is simply cheaper for some U.S. chemical companies to let the occasional worker get blown up than to adopt the same safety precautions companies follow in Germany, Japan, and elsewhere.
There was a whole session on tort reform at Bush’s December 2004 Economic Summit. Bob Nardelli, CEO of Home Depot, drew guffaws from the handpicked crowd, including Bush himself, with his remarks about how his company is a target for trial lawyers in whom “deep pockets collide with shallow values.” But in fact Home Depot does endanger its customers and employees, because it engages in what’s called “high stacking.” Such stores stack product on very high shelves, and when things fall off, people can be maimed or even killed. So the reason Nardelli’s being sued all the time is not because there are some dishonest lawyers out there, but because his stores keep harming customers. Still, it’s cheaper for Nardelli to pay off the occasional bereaved family than it is for him to change his business practices.
Wal-Mart does the same thing, moving product into their stores in bulk and then stacking it in ways that might cause it to fall and hit somebody. I mean, shopping should not be a dangerous experience. [Laughter.]
Cooper: This brings to mind an e-mail that was going around calling for people to support businesses whose owners voted Democratic.
Hightower: I think where companies put their money is a legitimate concern to the consumer. We should have more information about what companies do politically.
Cooper: But what about the workers? They’re not necessarily on the same team as the company, and they can be hurt by a boycott.
Hightower: But they can also be a part of the effort to reform these companies. I think workers have every right to say to the executives, “Why are you giving money to politicians who vote against our interests?”
We’ve got to recognize that consumers and workers are allies. I don’t necessarily advocate boycotts, but I think consumers should have more information with which to make their own judgments about where to shop. And they should let the company know why. It’s no good to go to Costco instead of Wal-Mart unless you tell Wal-Mart why you’re not shopping there.
Cooper: Could it be that corporate-run government is simply capitalism’s natural evolution?
Hightower: [Laughter.] No, there’s no natural order at work. This is the culmination of a thirty-year concerted effort by corporate interests. The right-wing ideologues took over the Republican Party using corporate money. You can trace it from Ronald Reagan’s campaign for governor of California in the 1960s all the way up to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who’s now trying to take over other state governments like he’s done here in Texas. And then there’s the Cato Institute, which has for years been pushing for privatization of Social Security.
Cooper: What’s wrong with privatizing Social Security?
Hightower: It would be the undoing of the ethic of the common good, the idea that we’re all in this together. Bush says he wants to give us “ownership” of Social Security, but we have ownership right now. We’re all contributing to the fund in the belief that it’s going to be there for us in retirement, and for future generations as well.
Social Security is one of the most successful government programs in terms of meeting its objective: keeping the elderly out of poverty. Bush says privatization would take only a “small percentage” of the Social Security fund and give it to citizens to invest, but it’s at least a third of the money, which means that, aside from the fact that those who take their money out of the fund may not be able to make a profit in the stock market, the fund will be unable to pay the large number of people who do not want to gamble with their retirement.
Privatization is just code for “You’re on your own, buddy,” and that’s not the American way. Yes, we’re a nation of rugged individuals, but we’re also a nation of barn raisings and communities that take care of each other. Pulling together is an integral part of our success as a nation.
But now that corporate ideologues have assumed control of our government, we’re seeing more and more privatization, and more backlash against it. There’s a picture in the paper today of Bolivian citizens who won a battle against the president of their country, who was planning to privatize the water system by selling it to the French company Suez. The people rebelled, and the government had to back down. Both Chile and England privatized their social-security systems and later had to return the systems to the government.
I think some of the people who are cast . . . as the leaders of the Left . . . are clueless about reaching out to common folks. . . . Kerry couldn’t connect with working stiffs if we put him on a street corner handing out free Budweisers and Slim Jims.
Cooper: So the privatization movement is not just in this country?
Hightower: Privatization is the horrific offspring of the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. They’ve taken away people’s sovereignty and placed control in the hands of secretive entities that the people have no access to. And it’s going to come to a head the way it always has: there’s going to be a buildup of pain and anger until it crests into a movement. We’re not there yet, but we’re building toward it.
Cooper: Are there any positive aspects to privatization?
Hightower: I’m sure there are success stories here and there, but overall it’s been a failure. Take the public schools: Channel One is a company that tried to operate some public schools. Now its stock is in the tank, and the schools have either failed to produce anywhere near the academic achievement of the other public schools or failed to serve all students by cherry-picking only the best and kicking out the ones who didn’t perform. Anyone can run a successful school if they don’t take students with educational difficulties or emotional problems, but a public school has got to educate everybody.
The municipal water supply’s another great example. Companies come in with big proposals to privatize water systems, and the local politicians are just in awe of them, because they say they will cut the cost in half. How can they do that? Because they’re going to add to the consumer’s expense. After all, the company’s got to make a profit, and the CEO has got to have a multi-million-dollar salary. So they raise the rate on water, and they fire the knowledgeable, experienced employees and bring in low-wage workers without any training, and the system goes to pot. You get brown-water days and fire hydrants that don’t work, and then you get rebellion. After the city of Atlanta privatized its water system, service was so bad and rates were so high that Shirley Franklin ran for mayor on a platform of returning the water system to the public, and she won overwhelmingly.
This push toward privatization has not come about by accident. The neocons’ domestic goal has always been to destroy government, rescind the New Deal, and take us back to the robber-baron era, when corporate power was unrestrained.
People are . . . active at a grassroots level, but it doesn’t get national media attention, or even local media attention. When people feel that their participation can make a difference, they get involved, and more often than not they win.
Cooper: If it took them thirty years to get this far, then how long is it going to take to undo it?
Hightower: Actually it can happen in a hurry, as it has at various points in our history. The New Deal itself was passed in a rush, not because of Roosevelt — he didn’t run on the New Deal — but because of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The CIO conceived of the New Deal early on, or at least had put components of it into place, and it was passed quickly because there was a depression, and because we had Eleanor Roosevelt living in the White House and some other strong-willed people in Congress who pushed it forward.
Another example is the civil-rights movement. After generations of struggle that got nowhere, it finally changed in a hurry — a “hurry” being four or five years.
Cooper: What should be the role of religion in politics?
Hightower: I’m a separationist when it comes to organized religion and government, just as the Founders were. I think any attempt to unify the two is very dangerous. But we should respect people’s right to practice whatever religion they want. Populism’s fundamental cultural expression is tolerance. I grew up in the little Texas town of Denison, where the Methodist church my family went to didn’t get along with the other Methodist church in town, much less the Baptists and the Catholics, and, my goodness, there were even some Jews. We differed, often quite vociferously, about religious matters, yet everyone agreed that it was none of our business what our neighbors did in their church. There was an innate tolerance that allowed people to get along, go to school, play games, and be a community without breaking apart. That tolerance is essential to America and is ingrained in our people.
Cooper: How does tolerance apply to divisive issues like gay marriage?
Hightower: If you frame the issue as a question of “Do we have any right to be prying into people’s bedrooms?” then I think people would answer no. Here we have this right-wing political movement trying to divide us with the rhetoric that “marriage is under assault.” Are they saying that marriage is under assault by serial divorcers like Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich? [Laughter.] No, they’re saying that marriage is under assault by people who want to get married. It’s ironic.
Cooper: Do you think President Bush is really as religious as he says he is?
Hightower: I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt: that he’s a genuinely born-again Christian who believes he communicates on some level with God. There’s nothing wrong with that. Jimmy Carter was pretty open about his communication with the divine.
Cooper: What about Bush’s comment to journalist Bob Woodward? When asked if he’d consulted his father about invading Iraq, he said, “There is a higher father that I appeal to.” Does that disturb you?
Hightower: If he means simply that he’s guided by his religious beliefs, then OK, but if he means it literally, the way Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell do when they say, “I spoke to God last night,” then that is disturbing in a leader. It’s one thing to say you appeal to God for guidance, but it’s another thing to say, “This is what we’re going to do as a nation, because God says it’s right.”
Cooper: You appeared on the Fox News talk show Hannity & Colmes last summer. A lot of people on the Left think Fox News is a mouthpiece for the Bush administration, while right-wing pundits frequently refer to CNN as the “Communist News Network.”
Hightower: Well, that’s ludicrous. Time Warner, which owns CNN, is not going to air anything that’s not in the corporate interest. The real bias in the media is not to the left or the right. It’s to the top. A corporate-owned media cannot, in any significant way, challenge corporate hegemony.
What’s missing from the news are the people of this country: working folks, small farmers, consumers. Their absence is why the news media rank in popularity polls beneath mad-cow disease. [Laughter.] The charge that Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and the rest are “liberal elites” is half true: they are elites, very removed from workaday America. That’s one reason that you don’t get a lot of stories on free-trade agreements: they don’t affect the lives of anyone the TV newspeople know, whereas NAFTA is a pressing concern to small tomato farmers in Florida, and fruit-and-vegetable farmers in the Pacific Northwest, and grain farmers in the Midwest, because it’s costing them their livelihoods. There ought to be a weekly NAFTA news show, but it’s not going to happen, mainly because Time Warner, General Electric, and Disney, the owners of the media chorus, are strong supporters of NAFTA, so reporters and assignment editors don’t see any promotion potential in covering such stories. And the journalists themselves are no longer in touch with working people.
Cooper: What about those who take a humorous approach to political issues, like Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, and Al Franken?
Hightower: I think they’re very effective commentators. Michael Moore and Molly Ivins use humor, too. It’s a hell of a lot easier to get someone to listen to you if you’ve got something funny to say.
Cooper: It seems like most of the political humorists today are on the Left.
Hightower: It’s kind of ironic, because in the nineties Rush Limbaugh was always saying that the Left doesn’t have a sense of humor.
Cooper: Are these left-wing humorists guilty of “Bush bashing”?
Hightower: Well, the Right spent eight years bashing Clinton and liberal Democrats, so I don’t think they have any room to complain. But no, I don’t think the humorists we’ve mentioned are knee-jerk Bush haters. Jon Stewart, in particular, reaches an audience that’s been grossly turned off by both parties, and he’s able to engage them using satire. There’s a long history of satire as a means to inform people.
Cooper: You use a lot of satire yourself. How did that start?
Hightower: It started because I had a father named “High” Hightower and I grew up in a culture where self-deprecating humor was very appreciated. So I saw no reason, as I began to write and participate in politics, to downplay that part of me.
Cooper: In addition to humor, your commentaries are filled with facts, but are facts enough to win an argument?
Hightower: No, facts are not enough. You have to present a vision of what America could be, in contrast to what your opponent is offering, and you have to do it in a likable fashion. Some liberals thought calling Bush “likable” was a back-handed compliment, but being likable is a good strategy in politics. Kerry was not likable, and he lost. That’s just political reality. In my time as a politician here in Texas, I got some support from people who did not particularly agree with me on the issues but who liked my attitude and my forthrightness and my humor.
Cooper: Did you actually win conservatives over to your position, or was it just respect between enemies?
Hightower: I think a lot of populist positions are ones that conservatives, even right-wing conservatives, might agree with. I just did a newsletter on how cities and states offer tax breaks to large corporations to entice them to build factories and create jobs. Meanwhile local businesses, which also create jobs, don’t get any government subsidies. In fact, they are taxed more to pay for the subsidies given to their competitors. You could create a constituency on that issue that cuts across party and ideological lines.
Again, if you want to demonstrate to people that you’re on their side, you need to find out what their issues are and how you can help. I think the Democratic Party and liberals in general make a mistake in not reaching out to small businesses and entrepreneurs. Yes, small businesses can be small-minded, but they have an extraordinary amount in common with progressives, not just in terms of issues, but in terms of philosophy and culture as well.
Cooper: What’s your take on why President Bush was re-elected?
Hightower: It’s because Kerry refused to be a Democrat. He never called on the working stiffs to rally around and take our country back from, as I call them, the “thieves in high places” — Washington and Wall Street — who have stolen our country and turned our democracy into a plutocracy. It’s not just that Kerry voted for the war; he voted for too many elitist economic policies that benefit the rich at the expense of everyone else. Because he’s been tied to corporate money his entire political life, he couldn’t take on the corporate interests, which is what working people would respond to — including some Evangelicals.
Cooper: What’s your opinion on the voter-fraud accusations? Do you think the 2004 election was stolen?
Hightower: I think it was stolen in the sense that people were illegally and unconscionably prevented from voting. There were not enough voting machines in many lower-income districts in Ohio, and that’s a scandal in this day and age. I also think we need to have an auditable paper trail in the electronic machines and full public access to the inner workings of those machines. The argument that the voting-machine programs are “proprietary software” is horseshit. Proprietary interests shouldn’t have any role in a public election.
Cooper: Do you think the Left fails to send forth a cohesive message?
Hightower: I think we have a cohesive message, but our “messengers” at the presidential-candidate level have failed miserably to get it out. We had a unified progressive effort behind John Kerry despite John Kerry. Nobody was wildly enthusiastic about him; they were wildly enthusiastic about ending Bush’s presidency.
Cooper: Was there someone in the pool of Democratic candidates in 2004 who could’ve pulled it off?
Hightower: Howard Dean would at least have been a true Democrat. He had a grass-roots focus and a willingness to stand on populist principles. He inspired passion in his supporters.
Cooper: The London Daily Mirror ran a headline after the election: “How Can 59,054,087 People Be So Dumb?”
Hightower: Obviously that’s insulting, and we should reject that notion, because if we go around saying that people who don’t vote for us are stupid, then we’re not going to win any elections.
Cooper: Do liberals think that Bush supporters are stupid?
Hightower: No, I think what happened was the working-class Evangelical voters went with Bush for religious reasons, and some commentators on the Left said they were dumb to vote against their own economic self-interest. But the Kerry campaign did not appeal to their economic self-interest either. John Edwards could have appealed to them, but the campaign managers seemed to have duct-taped his lips. We need to talk about reinvesting in working people, healthcare for all, good jobs for good wages, free public education, and so on.
Cooper: But there’s a strong thread of pride in working-class culture: they want “a hand up, not a handout.”
Hightower: We can avoid injuring that pride by first acknowledging it, and then appealing to it. For example, I’m proud to be an American, and I’m proud to come from a farming family.
I just did a radio commentary on an IBM internal memo that disclosed the company’s plans to shut down thirteen thousand high-tech and engineering jobs here and in Europe — some of the very best middle-class jobs around. Meanwhile IBM is hiring fourteen thousand new employees in India, for one-fifth the salary paid to the laid-off American workers. An IBM executive said, “It’s really not just about the money; it’s about the skills.” So that’s a direct insult to the American workers: we don’t have the skills. Meanwhile IBM, along with many other corporations, is short-funding the education system in this country, making sure the next generation will have fewer skills.
Cooper: On your “Show Bush the Door in ’04 Tour,” you said that defeating Bush was only a first step. So now what?
Hightower: We have to recognize that we did extremely well in that election. Kerry lost, but we didn’t. We put together a terrific grass-roots organization with many new volunteers, all of whom have gained experience and will fight even harder and smarter next time. And we also won a lot of state legislative seats and some governorships. For instance, Montana is supposed to be a solid red state, but it’s got a Democratic house and senate and a Democratic governor, and it recently passed a law legalizing medical marijuana use.
Privatization is just code for “You’re on your own, buddy,” and that’s not the American way. Yes, we’re a nation of rugged individuals, but we’re also a nation of barn raisings and communities that take care of each other. Pulling together is an integral part of our success as a nation.
Cooper: I get the impression that you’re an optimistic person. What do you have to be optimistic about these days?
Hightower: Let’s start with the approximately 58 million people who voted against Bush. They get it, and they’re not going to go away. They’re as angry as they were before, and they’re going to be more so as the Right pushes to privatize Social Security and the war gets worse.
Then there’s the significant percentage of Bush voters who voted for him because of cultural issues such as gay marriage and prayer in school, and because Kerry offered them no economic populism as an alternative. Cultural issues are always going to be there to tempt people to vote against their economic interests. We have to counter them with issues of our own that are ultimately more powerful, like taking on the WTO and NAFTA, and making sure that every kid goes to college for free, just like returning soldiers were able to do after World War II thanks to the GI Bill.
Cooper: But how do you take on, for example, the WTO, when you can’t physically get near its meetings to protest?
Hightower: That in itself becomes another issue to take to the people: they’ve even stolen our fundamental right to speak our minds and say no to the government and the monetary establishment. They won’t let us within shouting distance of them, and we’ve got to take back that right.
We’ve also got to stop talking in the abstract and instead talk about the jobs that are being lost and the environmental laws that are being overturned. Those subjects really outrage people, and there’s no coverage of them on the TV news. If there were, it would start a prairie fire of rebellion, which is why the media are not covering it. We have to find ways to tell those stories and feed people’s outrage. At some point that wave of outrage will crest, and then somebody in power will do something incredibly stupid, and it will break. It’s happened before, and it will happen again.