Jim Hightower's Tips on 21st Century Populism, and Obama's Rare Opportunity


The following is an interview with Jim Hightower, radio commentator and author of Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow, just released in paperback.

 Mark Karlin: First off, as a native Texan, you must be celebrating George W. Bush's return to your home state. 

Jim Hightower: We're all so very excited.  He's in his little ghetto in Preston Hollow and we're totally sure that he'll not be bothering us here in Austin or any other part of Texas. 

Karlin: What happened to his Prairie Chapel Ranch in Crawford? 

Jim Hightower: He keeps insisting that he's going to go back and forth to it pretty much as he did during the Presidency. His ranchero, as I call it, is a curious ranch in the sense that it has no cattle on it.  That's kind of rare in Texas to have a ranch but no livestock whatsoever on it.  And in fact, of course, he built that in 1999 when Karl Rove was trying create an image for him as the cowboy president.  But Laura doesn't like the ranch, so I don't think he's going to be spending a lot of time there either. Maybe he'll spend time at the library, I guess, reading his book. 

Karlin: Isn't the Bush "library" going to really be a Disneyesque fantasy ride? What do you think of this whole enterprise to build a post-facto Bush legacy? It reminds me of what they did with the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Silicon Valley. He was an actor, and the museum is somewhat of a Hollywood tribute to him. 

Jim Hightower: Yes. Well, this is exactly what you would expect from the corporate-financed monument to the sheer brilliance, incredible insight and balls of President Bush 43. And it is unique among libraries at the institutions at higher learning. It will be located at Southern Methodist University in Highland Park in Dallas, but the University has no control whatsoever over it. It's a totally private entity, essentially set up on campus, with the imprimatur of a university, but without the university exercising any influence, and no academic standards bearing on the exhibits or on the so-called scholarship, that they insist will be coming out of there. And Karl Rove is overseeing the Institute of Higher Bushism that will be generated from this edifice.   

Karlin: You've been an important part of the landscape of populism in the United States, and way beyond Texas, and a great friend of the late brilliant journalist Molly Ivins. What do you see in this election with Obama? It certainly was a grassroots movement. But in the governing side we've seen so far, would you call him in any way a populist or progressive?  What's the difference in your mind between populism and progressivism? 

Jim Hightower: No, I don't call him a populist -- not yet.  I think he has some populist instincts, including his upbringing and his experience as a community organizer in Chicago. But from what we've seen thus far, he has presented himself as a centrist Democrat who is showing way too much Bill Clintonism and Robert Rubenism and way too little of the populist positions and populist embrace that he exhibited in the campaign. 

I think it's still too early to say that he's not going to get to that point. But as, as I said when I endorsed him back in the Texas primary, the significant thing about the Obama phenomena is not Obama, it's the phenomenon that millions of people, particularly young folks and especially out of the Netroots segment, came forth to create this guy as their candidate. It's our candidate, because I did embrace him. And that was the significant theme -- that without big money, without professional organizing, without established progressive organizations, even -- they put this guy over the top. 

To me, the main thing about the Obama presidency, is not going to be him, but the grassroots forces that compel him to be better than he otherwise would be. And he's gone into a Washington that has 13,000 corporate lobbyists, that has a locked-in, recalcitrant Republican barrier, that has way too many weak-kneed corporate Democrats, and that has a White House with too many Larry Summerses and Timothy Geithners. So the only progressivism we can expect to get out of him is what we force out. 

To me, he opened the door to the White House, and I do believe he remains open to all of these progressive ideas, including a big blue-green program that can remake and revive the American economy. I think he's that open to a brand-new way of looking at the world. He's open to just about any progressive idea, I think.  But he has said pretty clearly in the old FDR manner, you have to make me do it.   

So to me, that's our role. We as progressives cannot just to settle back into the Lazy Boy and say, oh, Barack's in there now -- he'll take care of it. No, that's not how democracy has ever worked, and it's certainly not going to be the way it's going to work under Obama. We have to be more aggressive than ever. And I think that a lot of the progressive community has sat back somewhat dazed, wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt, yet befuddled by the shortage of full-blown populist, progressive forces on the inside. Many are still not pushing the way that we have to push.

Karlin: You cover this concept of ongoing progressivism in what is now the paperback version of your book with Susan DeMarco, Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow. You talk about empowerment not just being the election of officials, but the choices we make as populists and progressives. Can we talk a little bit about that?  For instance, the other day, I was reading an article that if Americans, and particularly progressives who are of this mind, really want to take back the Wall Street culture, they should start putting their money in community banks and in credit unions, and things that reinvest in communities, and close their checking accounts at Bank of America or Morgan Stanley. They should start supporting alternative systems of savings and financing. 

Jim Hightower: Exactly. And our side has just beaucoup bucks to be able to do that. Most of the individual dollars are very small, but it adds up to billions of dollars, as well as the progressive businesses and unions that necessarily do banking. So rather than putting that into Citigroup or Wells Fargo, Bank of America, let's literally put our money where our mouths are -- into community banks and union-backed banks and others that are more in our vein. 

Not only does that make good political sense, but it also makes good economic sense.  These are the banks that did not get in trouble. They don't have to be bailed out because they're connected to the communities in which they operate. And we have access to them. We can have a big influence on their lending policies by putting more of our dollars into them. Because they're smaller, our impact can be greater. 

You know, if I was Obama, I'd pick up the phone and call Lake Shore Bank in his home town of Chicago. It has a multiple concept of the banking bottom line -- not just how much you can squeeze out for the big shareholders and chief executives, but especially the environmental impact that a bank can have, and the social impact it can have in the community that has great need for economic growth. It's a model of what can be done. And these are people who I would trust as bankers, and that's a hard phrase to come out of my mouth -- bankers and trust. But there are banks like Shore Bank all across the country, and just about in every community, that are much more in the model of what we would like to see in the way of a financial system.   

So we should be investing and evaluating what we do in other aspects of our lives. People on our side often whine that the media's controlled by a handful of conglomerates.  Rather than wringing our hands, let's reach out to the alternative media that already exists in our culture, which is growing by leaps and bounds. It includes everything from community radio to the independent weeklies, and most importantly, the Internet-based publications, and independent bookstores and newsletters, and publications that are out there. Any one piece of this is relatively small, but you add it up and we're reaching millions and millions of people every single day. We need to expand that and invest in that -- in other words, build our own alternative channel to the conglomerate powers.   

We've had to do this throughout history.  The old-time populists in the 1870s and ‘80s -- they were shut out by the establishment media of their time. But they didn't whine about it.  They went out and built their own. They created the wire service concept -- the first UPI or AP of the time came from the populist movement.  They had a speakers bureau with 35,000 people in it. Any one night, 35,000 people could be out spreading the message. It isn't all just high tech. 

And, you know, my old mama taught me that two wrongs don't make a right.  But I soon figured out that three left turns do. And we've got to have that kind of savvy and figure out our way around the blockages to a progressive future. Most of those blockages are corporate, whether they're in the media, the healthcare system, in the food system, in the banking system -- whatever. But we're not helpless. We are pretty innovative, slightly scrappy Americans. We've got the ability to find our way around those blockages, and that's what progressive groups should commit to do. 

Karlin: I might mention to regular readers of jimhightower.com that BuzzFlash readers should take a look at your site and sign up for your alerts, because they're extremely informative. And I think Alan Greenspan, of all people, must be reading your site, because he recently came out in the Financial Times for at least a temporary nationalization of many of the banks. 

Jim Hightower: Yes, Alan quotes me on a regular basis (said in deadpan sarcasm).

Karlin: You've been battered and bruised by the Bush "fossil fuel, God and Guns" crowd down there in Texas, and you still have that bounce and optimism to you.  How do you keep that? 

Jim Hightower: Because I don't get all my information from the nightly news or reading TheNew York Times. And I do a lot of traveling around the country. Certainly here in Texas, I'm in touch with things that are going on, where they're very encouraging. I say the greatest thing about America is Americans. The people themselves, at a grassroots level, are doing the most extraordinary things. We wrote about a number of those in the book. 

If you're looking at Texas from a distance, you might not know that. God, the right-wing Republicans, Congress, and Tom DeLay, and of course, the Bushes and that sort of thing. But I see it coming back from a grassroots level. First of all, people here have a very strong populist streak and instinct.  Unfortunately, it's rarely appealed to. But the people of our state are mostly mavericks and mutts, just working stiffs and small business folks, poor folks.  Three-quarters of our population is in three cities. It's not inherently a right-wing state.  Indeed, our first state constitution outlawed banks. You were not allowed to create a bank in our state. And to form a corporation, you had to get a two-thirds vote of both houses of the legislature. We're not a state that loves big business. 

But what's happened here from my time back in politics in the Seventies and Eighties, when I was running and people like me and Ann Richards and others were getting elected -- is the Democratic Party started taking money from corporate interests and hurling that at TV stations and abandoning their grassroots organization. That is, as you know, the total height of ignorance because, of course, the other side got the fat cats, but we got the alley cats. 

But that's our strength -- organizing those alley cats door to door and block to block, and precinct to precinct and town to town -- that's where we build our power.  And we're now seeing that come back. We did it in Dallas in 2006 -- just one example.  Got in a good progressive attorney up there, put the money up, and gave it the impetus. Got some people.  And in a county that had no Democrats in county office, in one cycle, 2006, every county office is now held by Democrats. We have a Latino lesbian as the sheriff of Dallas County. We've got a black district attorney. It's just a total turnaround by going back to old-fashioned, grunt level, grassroots politics. And the same thing occurred in Houston. In this last election, not total success, but some gains. And now, even in the House, we are within one vote of taking that over. 

We're making gains here, but doing it the old-fashioned way. And that's the way the national politics has to be, as well. Obama showed a way to do it. But what people don't understand is that Obama didn't organize that campaign.  The people organized it themselves. That's what we've got to keep going, not merely for elections, but also for governing. 

Karlin: You wrote in 1998 a book which illustrates, I think, what you're talking about: There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos. What does that speak to, in terms of President Obama seeking bipartisanship and getting slapped down on the so-called stimulus bill?

Jim Hightower: Well, most aren't bipartisan at all.  They're not even ideological. They're not right wing, left wing or even chicken wing. The true political spectrum, in my view, is not right to left. The true spectrum is top to bottom. That's where people live. That's experience. And a good 80% of them know they're not in shouting distance of those powers at the top, whether these powers call themselves Republican or Democratic or liberal or conservative. So the kind of politics we have to have is one that pulls out that pragmatic maverick streak that is in people. 

Obama did that, to a large degree, in his campaign. Now he has to get back to that in terms of governing, because what he did on the stimulus and now on the ongoing bailout, is to pull himself back, not put forth his boldest ideas, and to do what Leo Gerard, President of United Steelworkers, said the other day -- piddling plans that aren't going to excite people.  You've got to put forth your boldest thing. Obama put forth an $800 billion stimulus, but it didn't have any heart to it. It didn't have any story behind to it.  It's just this money -- where are you going to put it? Are you going to put it here? Are you going to put it there? Are we going to do this? Are we going to do that? But there wasn't any theme. 

The one great theme that he had in his campaign is the notion of green jobs in America -- not only creating jobs immediately that need to be done in America, but that would pay well. Have union trainers involved in establishing this greening workforce -- jobs that have a future to them. But also jobs that create a whole new economy for our country based on energy independence, based on sustainable production. That would have been a theme that I think he should have carried forward. 

If he would have said, I'm going to take $800 billion of this and do green energy, and then we're going to do the other things as well. And people would sign on to that. They're ready for it. They want it. And the reason they would sign on to it is it would be good for them. They would be the ones doing this energy work, this conservation work, this retrofitting of every building in America for conservation purposes. Almost just by that would eliminate the need for foreign oil.

Karlin: Right. 

Jim Hightower: The Apollo Alliance was an early proponent of a green job strategy, to relate back to the Apollo mission and the moonshot program. And the thing about the moonshot was America got caught up in that some, but all we did was watch it. We weren't really part of it. This project would be different because maybe you or certainly people you know would be working in this effort. We'd all be a part of it, not just laborers or skilled workers but small business people, entrepreneurs, Internet people, design folks, doctors, the healthcare system -- everybody could be brought into this program. It would excite America. We would be remaking our economy in a productive and a forward-looking way.

Karlin: Let me ask you one final question. I wrote an editor's blog on BuzzFlash about Obama's choice -- FDR's first hundred days or a "team of rivals." My point was that Obama's a fan of both the team of rivals concept and the boldness of FDR's first hundred days, and what I said was you really can't do both. In a 1936 campaign speech by FDR which we posted on BuzzFlash the other day, he said of Wall Street that the bankers, the finance industry, are out to get me. They are responsible for the financial ruin of the country. The government has yet to step in. And he said, "They hate me, and I welcome their hatred." 

That was pretty strong language. But he was clearly saying I cannot be bipartisan with people who have done this economic ruin to America. And I am bringing back America. I'm implementing these bold programs -- the Conservation Corps, the National Recovery Act and so forth. Obama is seeming to try to combine both that concept and the team of rivals, where he selects someone like Judd Gregg, who is opposed to every sort of basic labor union worker, to head the Department of Commerce, which oversees our treaties in terms of NAFTA and so forth. He selects him, and thinks, well, this is team of rivals. But you can't do that and also have the boldness of the FDR one hundred days. They seemed to be concepts that just are diametrically opposed. 

Jim Hightower:  Exactly. It's not like Gregg was the only genius at commercial development. He was just a guy in the Senate that most people never heard of, including some of his colleagues. I think what Obama's doing is he's playing to Washington, which is the exact opposite of how he got to the presidency. And he can't win inside sides. No progressive can win on the inside. You have to have the outside doing this. 

I experienced this myself when I was Ag Commissioner here in Texas, elected to two terms of that in the Eighties. Among the things we did was to use the authority pretty much for the first time that was in that office to regulate pesticides in Texas. This caused a furor among the chemical lobby and types like that, and so they came out to get me. Republicans lined up -- some Democrats, too. I told one guy the odds are against us, and he said, "Some of the evens are against us." 

They eventually got the pesticide-making authority removed from my office, and wanted to make my office appointed rather than elected, so there was a legislative hearing. They were going to ram this thing right through in the House. But it turns out they couldn't hold the hearing in the committee room because so many people showed up to this hearing they had to open the House chamber, and people filled the gallery. Well, my first witness was Willie Nelson.  My second witness was Barbara Jordan. My third witness was the head of the Republican women's organization in Dallas. As it turns out, Republicans don't want their babies using pesticides either.

So we backed them off from that, but only by bringing the outside in. And that's Obama's strength. By saying, well, I'm going to have Republicans just for the sake of having Republicans, and then getting stiffed by that, is a Washington thing. The American people overwhelmingly don't give a damn, you know, how many Republicans he's got supporting them. They want things to work.   

If Obama would do what Roosevelt did, and say I welcome their hatred, I'm not going to put the CEOs in charge of the bailout, and, yes, we're going to have salary caps on these banking positions when they get bailout money, and, yes, we're going to fire the executives who caused the problem -- why would we hire them? -- if he would do that, it would tap directly into the overwhelming public sentiment against Wall Street. He's got an opportunity here that's just remarkable, really. 

The whole Wall Street scam is exposed and they have no place to hide everything, from them calling themselves geniuses, to the "magic" of the marketplace. All of that has had the mask ripped off of it. And he has a chance to make huge changes of great benefit to just regular people, smaller business, dirt farmers, and consumers, the environment and all of that, to be wrapped into it.  You know, you don't get many chances in life to make that kind of a difference. And right now, you know, he's squirreling it away. It doesn't mean it's done.  He can still come back.  And people are patient. But it's not going to last that long. He needs to be pushing much stronger, I believe. 

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