Fight the Freebooters,
Get the Word Out

This issue marks the second anniversary of the Progressive Populist as a publication. It is said that less than 10 percent of periodicals survive two years and we are proud to have made the cut. We undoubtedly have surprised a few skeptics as we have published every month and slowly built our circulation to a little more than 2,000.

We appreciate all our subscribers. We particularly thank those charter subscribers who not only took a chance on our new Journal from the Heartland but now have chosen to renew for another year or two. For those who have held off on subscribing, wondering if we would last, let the word go forth: We're here to stay.

Not everybody has been happy with our work. Occasionally we get a note from somebody who thinks we are too liberal, or even socialist. About as often we get a note from somebody who thinks we are not radical enough. But the great majority of our correspondence is appreciative of our efforts to revive democratic political debate, and that is gratifying.

Some enquiring minds wonder why we started a journal of politics and economics. Lord knows, starting a political magazine that starts off by alienating corporations is a good way to lose a bundle and we're not wealthy. But we grew up believing that in America individuals can make a difference, and if you believe in something you should go for it.

We also grew up in a relatively small Iowa town that reflects the changes going on in rural America. Storm Lake in the 1960s, when I was growing up there, was probably as close to an egalitarian community as you're likely to find. We knew the grocer, the butcher, the banker, the hardware store owner, the newspaper publisher, the radio station manager and the local meatpacking plant executive. Anybody who tried to put on airs likely would be ridiculed for their pretension. Some of the wealthiest people in the county, at least on paper, were farmers and you wouldn't want to put on their airs, particularly if they raised hogs. But in the businesses along the main street, Lake Avenue, everybody pitched in for the community. If a business manager laid somebody off, he or she would have to look that person and their families in the eye when they passed on the street.

The town still looks the same, but chains have turned the groceries into supermarkets; they took over the newspaper and radio station; they're moving in on the local banks; they've placed the discount stories on the outskirts of town and driven the dime stores and hardware stores out of business. You still know who works at the chain stores but you don't have a clue who owns them or who issues the order to "downsize." The phone company is diversifying its services in more lucrative markets and cutting its local staff. The meatpacking plant changed hands, drove out the union and cut wages to the point where they had to bring in workers from out of state. They include immigrants from Mexico, Asia and Africa who make more in an hour there than they made in a day or even a week back home. Storm Lake has a lot more colorful festivals than we used to have, but it also has the state's largest share of students taking English as a second language -- and growing ethnic hostility.

Now the factory farms are moving in, threatening to replace the family-owned farms, feed stores and stockyards that have served small towns in the Midwest for generations. Change is inevitable; it's progress, we are told. But in the new integrated agribusiness, farmers will grow crops from seeds sold by the gene-altering bioengineers and they'll raise livestock to specifications set by the meatpacking corporation. If the farmers balk, the bank will call in their loans and sell the farm to somebody who will be more cooperative. Everybody will work for Wall Street. The Company Store will be Walmart. Vertically integrated sharecroppers will end up owing their souls to MasterCard.

This is progress? More importantly, how did we come to this in the span of one generation?

In the case of the farmer, first we ran him into debt in the 1970s. We made him dependent on credit and chemicals in the 1980s. Then we exposed him to global competition in the 1990s and replaced the local bankers with executives from Minneapolis, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.

The New Deal, coming out of the Great Depression, helped small farmers climb out of their sharecropping condition and put some stability into agriculture. It has taken 50 years for big business to put farmers back "in their place."

As the independent farmer goes, so goes the small towns. There's still nothing wrong with Storm Lake that $5-a-bushel corn and $60 a cwt hogs couldn't cure. But when Wall Street owns the crop from seed to cereal and the hogs from birth to bacon, Storm Lake won't see those premium prices. It will only see the minimum-wage jobs of the farmhands, meatpackers and the fly-by-night industries looking for cheap labor and tax breaks. It is time to stand up and demand social responsibility in corporations toward workers, small businesses and family farmers.

SOME THINK WE are too hard on President Clinton. We get no satisfaction out of blasting the President, but we have seen little to cheer him on lately. He rode a populist campaign into the White House, only to end up looking like an Eisenhower Republican and a cheerleader for a brand of capitalism that has more to do with freebooters than free markets. He has embraced the global trade policies advocated by multinational corporations and offered little more than lip service to the workers and small businesses who have the most to lose from globalized trade. He has accepted the Republican ideology that government spending must be reduced so that the wealthy can have tax cuts. Even what may have been a well-meaning attempt to reform health care was botched by his attempt to appease insurance companies, of all things. When his or other Democrats' policies favor big business over the workers, small businesses and family farmers, we will call them on it.

As the Democratic Party has strayed from its populist roots, it seems to us that progressive populists have two options: organize a third party or take back the Democratic Party. The two courses are not necessarily exclusive.

We believe progressives should support initiatives to open ballots to alternative parties, both on the left and the right. We believe in proportional representation, which would do away with winner-take-all elections, as well as the need to gerrymander election districts, and would give minority political movements a voice in local, state and national government. And we believe in public funding of campaigns to eliminate the need for candidates to scrounge for money from special interest groups.

In the meantime, progressives should take back the Democratic Party from the monied interests. The corporations may spend their millions to control the American political debate, and neither Congress nor the courts will do anything to stop them, but we don't have to lie down. The corporations may rent our legislators, but they can't buy our votes. They may shut us out of TV, radio and the monopoly daily newspapers, but they can't stop us from putting our newspaper on the street and on the Internet.

Cynicism and despair are poison to democracy, but that is what the corporations pour into the American debate via the daily news and infotainment. Fifty-one percent of the American electorate voted with their butts in 1996, in dissatisfaction with the choices they were offered. If we can give them better choices we can declare independence from corporatized plutocracy. It will take a guerilla operation to mobilize them, but that's the way of all revolutions.

Nowadays, deregulation has allowed huge corporations to gobble up TV and radio stations -- in some cases allowing one corporation to control every major radio station in a metropolitan area -- and broadcasters have dropped even the pretense of a public service responsibility. A few of the smaller markets remain in the hands of independent operators and Jim Hightower can be heard on more than 100 of them through the United Broadcasting Network. If he isn't on in your area, but Rush Limbaugh and other right-wingers are, demand that your local radio station give Hightower a try.

Also, you can give us a hand in getting out the word about the Progressive Populist. We are about half-way to the break-even point and you can get us there either by buying a friend (or your public library) a gift subscription for $12 or sending us the addresses of five friends who might be interested in our Journal from the Heartland. We'll send each of them a free sample. Just call 1-800-205-7067 for details. Ultimately the success of the Progressive Populist is up to you. We appreciate your support.

-- Jim Cullen

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