With the Party Back in Politics, Populism Is Reborn

When you're sitting in the grass on a warm sunny day, surrounded by happy kids and their parents, eating free organic cheese sandwiches and talking about saving the country from "greedheads" -- well, it's pretty hard to feel depressed about the current state of affairs in America.

That's exactly the point of "The Rolling Thunder Down-home Democracy Tour," the traveling county fair of progressive politics, music and community revitalization organized by populist writer and commentator Jim Hightower. Rolling Thunder, Hightower says, "is designed to start a coalition process, simply by giving people a reason to be together. Let's put the party back in politics."

Promised an all-day extravaganza of progressivism without platitudes, an estimated 6,000 people showed up for the tour's March 23 kick-off at the Travis County Expo Center in Austin, the liberal capital of conservative Texas. Clad in his usual cowboy hat, button-down shirt and blue jeans, emcee Hightower warmly introduced the day's special guests, including author/filmmaker/rabble rouser Michael Moore, Austin-based columnist Molly Ivins, socially responsible ice cream man Ben Cohen, campaign finance activist Doris "Granny D" Haddock and U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr.

While speakers and musicians performed on a patriotically decorated stage set up amidst livestock pens and a sawdust-covered floors, activists belonging to over 130 local organizations hunkered down in a smaller, secondary buildings to give educational workshops on community radio, health care and other causes. Between buildings, a grassy patch featured a farmers' market, poetry circle, carnival games like "Knock a Nuke, Build a School," and a tent set up by Wisconsin-based Organic Valley Family of Farms (hence those free cheese sandwiches).

The Rolling Thunder tour takes much of its inspiration from similar populist festivals that first sprang up in the small town of Chautauqua, New York in 1874. "Chautauquas," as the gatherings came to be known, brought rural families together for conversation, entertainment, politics and community discussions. Over several decades, the Chautauqua movement evolved into 21-company effort that attracted 35 million people annually.

Today, the spirit behind those original Chautauquas -- constructive, direct dialogue between folks of disparate races, creeds and ages -- has largely been lost in American culture. To help regain it, over 40 organizations have signed on with the Rolling Thunder folks as "planning partners," including the Communications Workers of America, Working Assets and the Ruckus Society.

But as a self-described "populist road warrior," Hightower knows about the difficulties progressives face in maintaining viable coalitions to "win the country back" from conservative zealots and corporate special interests.

"From my experiences traveling, I see there's a lot of energy and a lot of agitation," Hightower says, "But agitation without organization is frustration." Furthermore, activist groups have a nasty tendency to get mired down in arguments about process, slogans and other internal affairs. "Keeping our side together," he says, "is like trying to load frogs in a wheelbarrow."

Of course, in the land of George Dubya, Enron, weekly death row executions and abysmal social service spending, there's more to depress progressives than just internal quibbles. Possibly in response to the cloudy outlook, many of Hightower's special guests told stories of silver linings and successes to the Austin crowd. With a bill banning soft money about to be signed into law, Granny D -- who walked across the country at age 90 for campaign finance reform (she's now a spry 92) -- spoke enthusiastically but realistically about her recent victory. "[The bill] does have holes in it, but it's a start," she said.

Jesse Jackson -- one of the 240 representatives who approved the soft money ban -- used his time at the podium to emphasize "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," along with racial and gender equality. A majority of Americans support those ideals, he said -- proof that the conservatives running the country are out of step. One of the most glaring examples of D.C.'s ignorance, he added, was the Bush Administration's decision to spend $95 billion of taxpayer money -- including $15 billion for the airline industry -- to fight the war on terrorism.

"All instigated by one terrorist in a cave in Afghanistan," he said, provoking wild cheers from the audience. "We come to this Chautauqua because the 53 million children in public schools across our country and 45 million Americans without health care deserve the same kind of response that bin Laden got."

Throughout his speech, Jackson validated Hightower's mission by repeatedly referring to the event as part one of a new Chautauqua "movement." For six months, Sept. 11 derailed people's attention from domestic issues. But now the dust has settled over Ground Zero, he said, "and folks like Hightower and Granny D are beginning to sharpen the pencil and refocus on everyday issues that matter ... Progressives must begin to fight for fundamental rights like the right-wing does, and move the vast majority of people towards accepting a new family values platform" -- a human rights initiative that advocates housing, education, and health care instead of corporate subsidies, gun rights, and pro-life initiatives.

The day's biggest crowd-pleaser turned out to be Michael Moore, who instantly ingratiated himself with the audience by relating tales from the dark side of politics and (for anyone who hadn't heard) the publishing world. With gusto and a lingering sense of incredulity, he recounted his harrowing ordeal with HarperCollins in getting the original version of his latest best seller, Stupid White Men, published. Citing Sept. 11 and the country's sensitized climate, Moore's editors told him last fall to rewrite 50 percent his book, "tone down the dissent," and pay up $50,000 to cover costs incurred by running off copies already printed. "They wanted me to pay them to censor myself," he said, adding that HarperCollins intended to "pulp," or recycle, the discarded copies. "Do I drink or laugh?" Moore asked the crowd, pausing for a moment before concluding, "Both! It shows how far we've come -- even the oppressor is recycling now!"

HarperCollins reneged on their threat, Moore explained, after a group of librarians ("one terrorist group you don't want to mess with") reminded company execs about the Constitution. "HarperCollins has stopped fighting me, but they're not supportive," Moore asserted. "They don't like what I'm saying, but they're making millions off it." Millions indeed; Stupid White Men is currently in its 15th printing and has topped both the New York Times' and Amazon.com's best seller lists.

Of course, Hightower is not making millions off Rolling Thunder -- but that's not his goal. During the evening-capping performance by singer/songwriter Michelle Shocked, Hightower stood behind the stage, talking with a couple of the tour's 300 volunteers, his famous mustache turned up in a smile. "I'm thrilled," he said. "The progressive movement has always been sustained by a small group ... and when I say 'progressive movement,' I'm going back to 1776."

Hightower and his tour are now headed to various cities around the country (for a schedule of tour stops, see www.rollingthundertour.org). Following him will be the Organic Valley "magic bus," a brightly decorated kitchen-on-wheels that will carry the equipment needed to make those free cheese sandwiches for thousands of Americans. For those who would like Rolling Thunder to come to their cities, Hightower advises creating an actual coalition focused on actions and solutions intended to wrest power from corporations and restore it to communities. Such coalitions should pick local reform issues to ensure that when the Thunder passes, the momentum and unity remains intact. And they should include -- "from the get-go" -- low-income familes, farmers and "others who sometimes are called in only as afterthoughts."

Estimating that 80 percent of donations to progressive organizations go to Washington and 20 percent to the rest of the country, Hightower advocates flipping those numbers as a better investment in the grassroots "movement." Several D.C.-based organizations, including the Campaign for America's Future, have begun to see his point, he says. "No movement has ever come from the top down," Hightower said. "There's too much progressive energy focused in D.C., but our power is out here. We have to fight locally, without being drowned out by money."

Lauri Apple is the Associate Politics Editor at the Austin Chronicle.

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