Jim Hightower pulls no punches while defending America’s progressive values.
Thursday, January 26, 2006
Jim Hightower is sharp, combative, witty and unabashedly liberal. Yet what makes the prolific author and pundit vital to today’s national progressive movements is his contagious optimism.
After the Democrats’ crushing defeat of 2004, Hightower, 63, jumped on the scene like a Civil War general, saying what needed to be said: Buck up! Get over it! The war is still on! Get up and fight, you fools!
Hightower shouldn’t be confused, however, with a starry-eyed dreamer. He’s been around the political block a few times. And although he’s won his share of battles, he’s also been knocked down, hard.
The most famous of his defeats came in 1990 when he was running for a third straight term as Texas agricultural commissioner. Hightower’s opponent, whose campaign was managed by a then-obscure political strategist named Karl Rove, ran a smear television ad campaign just before the election implying that Hightower supported flag burners. Hightower lost by a slim margin.
After his defeat in 1990, Hightower began writing columns and books, and hit the radio airwaves. This was a homecoming; before his political career, Hightower had been the editor of The Texas Observer, a progressive monthly that also served as the journalistic home of the brilliant political humorist Molly Ivins.
Today, Hightower’s still based in Austin, Texas and writes and records a daily commentary that is carried in nearly 100 newspapers and more than 130 radio stations (including KPIG 107.5 FM). He also publishes a monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown. He’s constantly traveling across the nation, delivering speeches at political festivals, often with a beer in his hand and almost always with that oversized cowboy hat on his head.
Hightower, who speaks with a folksy Texas twang, has published four books, and is working on a fifth, tentatively titled, Buck the System. He says he’ll spend much of 2006 writing the book, which will highlight “the resurgence of people’s interest in the common good by showing individuals who are living a different kind of life with different values.”
Hightower is a long-time defender of organic farmers, and on Saturday, he’ll be the keynote speaker at the Ecological Farming Conference held at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove.
Weekly: Progressive Americans still struggle over whether to view the Democratic Party as friend or foe. Is it smarter for progressives to work within today’s Democratic Party ranks, or to build a third party?
Hightower: Some people say they wish we had a third party. I wish we had a second one. I was elected twice in Texas to statewide office as a Democrat. And I’m proud to be a Democrat. But I look at my party now in Washington and it’s mired in the same swamp of money as the Republicans. I’m fighting within the party as an insurgent Democrat, to bring it back to its populist principles and roots.
But I can appreciate young people who’ve had no positive experiences with the Democratic Party, and who say they’re going to go to the Green Party or the Working Families Party. And I say to them, good for you. But don’t be mad at someone else if they’re not on your particular team right now. We’re all on the same team, because we share these progressive values we’re fighting for. So let’s fight the true enemy and not each other. And then we can get together later and decide what to call it.
Weekly: What does it mean to be a progressive today in America? What are some core values?
Hightower: It comes down to four things to me: economic fairness, social justice, equal opportunity for all people, and good stewardship of nature. When I look at a candidate, I look not at whether the candidate mouths platitudes about those values—though most of them don’t even talk about them anymore—but rather if they are doing anything to implement them. That’s what we got to get back to. Today we have a lot of five-watt bulbs sitting in 100-watt sockets. But these progressive values are enduring and endearing to American people. I believe them to be the core values of the vast majority of American folks.
Weekly: What makes you think that?
Hightower: In my last issue of the Hightower Lowdown, I ran data from several establishment polls that never get reported. It’s really astonishing when you look at it, because the American people, far from being egocentrics who are behind the Bushites, are in fact tub-thumping, FDR radicals, wanting far more populism and governmental action than any Democratic presidential candidate has put forth in the last 30 years.
It’s something like 89 percent of the American people think oil companies are gouging us. More than two-thirds of people favor an increase in the minimum wage. About 77 percent say government should do “whatever it takes” to protect our environment. Nearly 70 percent believe everyone should have health care even if it means raising their own taxes to get it. Yet the Democratic Party, not to mention the Republicans, act as though that support doesn’t even exist. So as a result we don’t have a real debate going on.
Weekly: As the keynote speaker at the Ecological Farming Conference on Jan. 28, what are you planning to say to the gathering of small, organic farmers?
Hightower: There’s a myth being perpetrated by the agro-business establishment, and repeated by establishment media, that the family farm’s time has come and gone when, in fact, family farmers are being mugged by people from the agro-business establishment, chemical companies and Wal-Mart. We can wring our hands about that, or we could also look at the reality, which is a farm revival taking place at the grass roots by the kind of people who are going to be at the conference. This is an exciting time for American agriculture.
Weekly: At the same time, groups like the Organic Consumers Association, joined by many small organic farmers, have complained of recent attempts by big food companies to try and loosen federal organic standards. What can these farmers do in the face of that to keep their good food good?
Hightower: Don’t be afraid of labor, or environmentalists, or your own customers. And don’t be afraid of political action. You need political action because you have a number of the agro-business giants claiming that they are organic now. Small, organic farmers need to stress through marketing that they are who they are. Organic is more than just not using chemicals. It is truly a holistic concept that involves the success of the small farm as integral to it. Americans have a lot of faith in that and that’s why we have farmers markets. Customers are pretty savvy, and they are voting for what they want with their dollars.
Weekly: In California, agriculture is the top money-making industry. What would happen if it was no longer dominated by big farms, as it is now?
Hightower: It would be dramatically improved. Both in terms of the quality of the product, but also in terms of our communities. Because having small, localized farms versus agro-business giants means that the money spent on food products stays in the community. The food giants don’t invest locally. They’re extractive.
Weekly: What do you think of the recent political troubles plaguing California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was voted into power as a sort of pseudo-populist candidate?
Hightower: He seems to be sort of stepping in his own chewing gum. He was flying high for a while, smoking in his cigar tent, talking about girlie men, having a gay old time. But when it came down to governing, it turns out he’s not very good at it. He was sniffing his own fumes, thinking he was a lot more important than he is.
Weekly: You had a famous experience with Karl Rove when you were running for reelection as a Texas Agriculture Commissioner in 1990. How would you best describe Rove: boy genius or turd blossom?
Hightower: A bit of both. What he really is, he’s a weasel. He’s what’s wrong with politics. The notion that you go after people personally, whether it’s me or [Sen. John] McCain, or [former Sen.] Max Cleland or [Sen.] John Kerry. He creates these wedge issues, like gay marriage. Now we have intelligent design to divide us. Those are Karl Rove tactics. He is despicable and completely without ethics. He would do anything to anyone to advance his own interest and his political interests.
Weekly: George Bush can be an easy target, for sure. And you pull few punches. But do you have anything nice to say about him, given that you’re both Texans?
Hightower: [long pause] He seems to love his wife and children. He sure likes his dog.
You know, he’s not even from Texas. He was born in Connecticut. [laughs]
One point I make of Bush is that calling him stupid is stupid. While he sure doesn’t have the brain muscle for any heavy lifting, that’s not his role. And I think he plays his role very well. He’s always been a front man. Even when he was in the oil business running three companies into the ground, he didn’t really run them. Think about it: if Cheney were president in name, they wouldn’t be able to pull it off. Cheney’s got the smile of a landlord who just evicted another widow.
Weekly: In 2004, liberals were shell-shocked when Bush won his second presidential term. Yet you were one of those who said he was destined to be a one-term president. In hindsight, what the hell happened?
Hightower: What happened was Kerry. First of all, I do have mixed emotions about that election. They say mixed emotions is when you see your daughter come home from the prom with a Gideon bible in her hands. On the one hand, Bush is still in the White House. But on other hand, Kerry lost, and he was always the least of it. Let’s be honest, Kerry couldn’t connect with working people if we put him on the street corner handing out Bud Lights and Slim Jims.
In 2004, we had a 25 percent increase in the number of young people who voted from four years earlier. Those people aren’t going away. By losing the presidency, we won 13 state legislatures. And the state of Montana, which voted solidly for Bush, also voted in a good, solid Democratic Governor. We did not lose.
Weekly: But Bush’s victory certainly took the wind out of a lot of liberals.
Hightower: We have to suck it up and realize that building a progressive movement has always been a long-term development in this country. We didn’t get civil rights in the 1960s because Martin Luther King, Jr. made a speech in Washington, DC. We got civil rights because generations of African-Americans in backwater-southern town after backwater-southern town put their lives on the line to make a movement.
That’s where we are again. We’re at another one of those points in the course of human events that Thomas Jefferson wrote about. The thieves, by which I mean corporate powers and political elites, have stolen our very country from us. They’ve stolen the very idea of egalitarianism and the common good. So we’re in a big fight. And we made great gains in 2004.
Weekly: Congressional Republicans are heading into the 2006 mid-term elections with some big wounds, thanks to their own corruption scandals. Some say those scandals are evidence that Republicans are more innately corrupt than Democrats. Is that true? Or is it just about who’s in power?
Hightower: It is about what power does to you, particularly in a political climate that is now almost strictly about money. But it’s also Republican focused. It’s because of what they love. [President Bill] Clinton got into trouble because of sex. Republicans are now in trouble because of money. There’s the difference. It’s all in what you love.
I fought ferociously against many of Clinton’s actions, because he was selling out the public interest. But while Clinton and the Democrats in Congress served corporate powers, there’s a big difference between them and the Bushites, who are themselves corporate powers. The Republican leadership keeps saying that they need to run government like a business. How? Like Enron, Halliburton, your HMO?
Weekly: Is that what you mean when you say the US is becoming a fascist state, as in “corporate fascism”?
Hightower: Yes. We need to run government like a government. Because government, ideally, takes everyone’s interests in mind. Corporations take only the wealthiest shareholders in mind, which inevitably includes the CEO and top executives. So it’s a hierarchical, dictatorial, secrecy-obsessed organizational structure that has no democracy in it.
Weekly: In a recent column you deride the whole idea of the “pursuit of happiness” as meaning the pursuit of money and expensive things. So, what makes Jim Hightower happy?
Hightower: A sense of community, a sense of belonging to a place that is genuine. That’s why whenever I go into a town for the first time I look for three things: 1) a good pub, 2) a local farmers market, and 3) a good independent bookstore. Having those things says it’s a community and not just a collection of national branches of conglomerates that were thrown together by whatever forces. People today are looking for more value in life, and that’s a measure of happiness.
Weekly: One of progressive Americans’ big problems at the national level seems to be that there are too few voices hammering away for progressive issues. In that sense, do you ever feel lonely?
Hightower: I don’t get lonely because I don’t spend much time focused on Washington. I do a lot of traveling, and I find groups of people lighting little prairie fires of rebellion against the economic and political exclusion that our political leaders have been shoving down on us. The progressive fight has shifted out of Washington, and the Democratic Party establishment still doesn’t seem to realize that.
One of the most important economic stories in America today is the living wage, which provides like $7.50, $9.50, or $11.50 an hour, often with health care benefits and in many cases indexed to inflation. More than 130 cities have already passed it. It’s a tremendous movement. And we now have about eight states who’ve passed public financing laws for their elections. Those are the biggest reform movements. And they’re taking place at the grassroots level.
Weekly: Immigration is one of those issues that cuts across political lines and has turned into a hot potato for many politicians across the nation. What position do you, as a progressive, take on illegal immigration?
Hightower: The truth is you can’t wall people out. If I was in Mexico, in one of those impoverished villages, and I had my family to take care of, I would find a way to get here. So one, building a wall along the border is not going to be effective. And two, it goes against everything that America stands for, so we violate our own values by pursuing a path that is not going to lead us anywhere. To me the only thing that will work, where our energy should be, is in helping Mexico develop its own economy, its own democracy, so there’s no economic need for people to come here.
Weekly: The irony is that US policies in the early 1990s, like NAFTA, helped ruin Mexican agriculture, which in turn spurred more immigration.
Hightower: Right. Being effective means not letting our corporations, through NAFTA or the World Bank or the IMF, cut deals with the Mexican elite. That’s not going to help. We have to give Mexican people a reason not to come. That’s the only effective policy.
Weekly: Some people believe to achieve power you have to treat politics as very serious business. You, on the other hand, insist that it can and should be fun, too. How can you have both?
Hightower: Politics has to be more than just meetings. We need to have music, a little beer and wine, to lubricate the movement.
Jim Hightower speaks at 10:30am Saturday, Jan. 28, during the plenary session of the Ecological Farming Conference at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove. Tickets to attend the conference on Saturday are $50. Call 763-2111 or visit eco-farm.org.