Activism

Hightower: What Populism Really Is—And It Is Not Mobs, Rants or Opinion Polls

The true political spectrum in our society does not range from right to left, but from top to bottom.

Waterkeeper Alliance and the Catawba, Cape Fear, Yadkin, French Broad, and Waccamaw Riverkeepers banded together to expose coal ash pollution and file citizen suits against Duke
Photo Credit: Waterkeeper Alliance

If a political pollster asked whether I consider myself a conservative or a liberal, I'd answer, "No."

Not to be cute -- I have a bit of both in me -- but because, like most Americans, my beliefs can't be squeezed into either of the tidy little boxes that the establishment provides.

I've observed that the true political spectrum in our society does not range from right to left, but from top to bottom. This is how America's economic and political systems really shake out, with each of us located somewhere high or low that spectrum. Right to left is political theory; top to bottom is the reality we actually experience in our lives every day -- and the vast majority of Americans know that they're not even within shouting distance of the moneyed powers that rule from the top of both systems, whether those elites call themselves conservatives or liberals.

For me, the "ism" that best encompasses and addresses this reality is populism. What is it? Essentially, it's the continuation of America's democratic revolution. It encompasses and extends the creation of a government that is us. Instead of a "trickle down" approach to public policy, populism is solidly grounded in a "percolate up" philosophy that springs directly from America's founding principle of the Common Good.

Few people today call themselves populists, but I think most are. I'm not talking about the recent political outbursts by confused, used and abused Trumpian ranters who've been organized by corporate front groups to spread a hatred of government. Rather, I mean the millions of ordinary Americans in every state who're battling the real power that's running roughshod over us: out-of-control corporations. With their oceans of money and their hired armies of lobbyists, lawyers, economists, consultants and PR agents, these self-serving, autocratic entities operate from faraway executive suites and Washington backrooms to rig the economic and governmental rules so that they capture more and more of America's money and power.

You can shout yourself red-faced at Congress critters you don't like and demand a government so small it'd fit in the back room of Billy Bob's Bait Shop, but you won't be touching the corporate and financial powers behind the throne. In fact, weak government is the political wet dream of corporate chieftains, which is why they're so ecstatic to have Trump out front for them. But the real issue isn't small government; it's good government.

This is where populists come in. You wouldn't know it from the corporate media, but in just about every town or city in our land you can find some groups or coalitions that, instead of merely shouting at politicians, have come together to find their way around, over or through the blockage that big money has put in the way of their democratic aspirations. Also, in the process of organizing, strategizing and mobilizing, these groups are building relationships and creating something positive from a negative.

This is the historic, truly democratic, grassroots populism of workaday folks who strive to empower themselves to take charge economically as well as politically.

With the rebellious spirit and sense of hope that has defined America from the start, these populists are directly challenging the plutocratic order that reigns over us. This populism is unabashedly a class movement -- one that seeks not merely to break the iron grip that centralized corporate power has on our country, but also to build cooperative democratic structures so that ordinary people -- not moneyed interests -- define and control our country's economic and political possibilities.

It's necessary to restate the solid principles of populism and reassert its true spirit because both are now being subverted and severely perverted by corporate manipulators and a careless media establishment. These debasers of the language misapply the populist label to anyone who claims to be a maverick and tends to bark a lot. Although the targets they're usually barking at are poor people, teachers, minorities, unions, liberals, protestors, environmentalists, immigrants, LGBTQ or other demonized groups that generally reside far outside the center of the power structure -- the barkers are indiscriminately tagged as populist voices -- even when their populist pose is funded by and operates as a front for one or another corporate interest. That's not populism; it's rank hucksterism, disguising plutocrats as champions of the people. And it is important that we call them out on it.

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker and author of the book Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow (Wiley, March 2008). He publishes the monthly Hightower Lowdown, co-edited by Phillip Frazer.

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