Jim Hightower's new book and progressive politics:

'If we can get it loose we can move it'

Jim Hightower celebrated the publication of his new book, There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos, in early October. The Progressive Populist caught up with columnist Hightower, who also has a daily talk show on the United Broadcasting Network, at a book-signing at Bookpeople, one of the last independent bookstores in Austin, before he embarked on a 22-city tour to raise hell and hawk the new volume, which is published by HarperCollins. Excerpts of his remarks follow:

We are in a period of unprecedented prosperity, but the gains generated by the many are not going to the many. Instead they are being hauled off by the few at the very top.

Indeed, we hear about the great economy that we have. The Dow Jones is absolutely skyrocketing, corporate profits are soaring, chief executives are getting fatter than a butcher's dog, but the majority of people are being knocked down and stomped on.

I'm not just talking about poor folks, I'm talking about the great majority of people, the 80 percent majority that make less than $50,000 a year, the 80 percent who do not have college degrees, the 80 percent who have seen their incomes go down over not just the last four years but the last 20 or 30 years.

Sure Wall Street is whizzing, it's whizzing on you and me. And people out there in the countryside know about the truth of this and are ready to begin to fight back.

The economists have a technical term for what people are experiencing: "stealing" is the term. Faster than a bob-tailed wood cat, they are stealing from us, right and left, and I think we've got to begin to call this what it is: It is class war.

Unfortunately, no political party is willing to touch this issue, much less talk about it, which is why a majority of people are unwilling to touch either of the major political parties.

Certainly the Republicans are not eager to touch it, the party of Newt Gingrich, the Loudspeaker of the House, who has been a corporate wet dream the past few years. And I don't know if you've noticed, but Newt's polls, his favorable ratings, are now lower than Richard Nixon's was at the time when he resigned 20-something years ago. But you know they say: "The higher the monkey climbs, the more you see of its ugly side"? That's what happened to Newt Gingrich.

D's Not Much Better

Unfortunately my party is also not willing to touch this fundamental issue of class war. My party, the party of Jefferson and FDR, the party of Sam Houston and Ralph Yarborough. Instead, we've got New Democrats -- Nuvo Demos, they like to call themselves -- Clinton the Quisling in the White House, a Quisling in the Class War.

He feels our pain, but he's unwilling to do anything that might actually assuage that pain. He campaigned on creating good jobs at good wages and he gave us NAFTA and the World Trade Organization and "most favored trade" status for China and now Fast Track.

He campaigned on lifting the poor and then he dumped a million welfare mothers on the streets, saying "get a job" when he knew there were no jobs out there. Then he joined George Bush and Colin Powell in a national plea for charity to take care of all the people's problems. ...

Unfortunately, these new Democrats have abandoned the Kmart crowd and they have run off with the same Gucci and Pucci set that the Republicans are waltzing around with. ... And the result is unfortunately the corporatization of our country and the corporatization of our whole society and that's really what this book talks about, with its opening chapter about the corporate world. right on through the corporate polluters, the corporate media, the corporate politics that we have.

It's replacing "We the people" with "Me the CEO." The corporatization of our sports, the corporatization of our politics, the corporatization of our food, the corporatization of our schools.

I remember my old daddy -- and you've got to beware of Texans telling old daddy stories but I've got a bunch of them in this book, but I had a heck of a daddy -- and some years ago we were watching a baseball game at his home up in Denison, Texas, kicked back in his Lazy Boy there and we were sipping on a couple of cool ones when an ad suddenly blared on, one of these fast-food fish chains, and the ad said "Our fish doesn't taste fishy." And daddy blinked a couple times and turned to me and said, "Well Jim, I like my fish to taste fishy," realizing as he said it that the corporations were willing to tamper with even life's small pleasures. But that is the reality that people are experiencing.

Progressives Are Out There

The good news is that the people are revolting -- in the good sense, I mean. And I tell all kinds of stories of folks who are fighting back. Because that's the story that is unreported in this country: that there is a progressive movement that is alive and well at the grassroots.

People not only are fighting back but they are winning. And in the book I get to relate some of our local stories. ... I tell the story of East Austin, of PODER [People Organized in Defense of Earth and its Resources] and the great fight over there, of impoverished, low income folks, working families who suddenly found their children to be sick and were wondering "What in the world is going on? Why is my child sick?"

And they began to talk over the back fences to each other and realized the one thing they had in common was that gasoline tank farm over there, holding millions of gallons of gasoline, all the gasoline that was sold in Central Texas was right there in a 14-block radius of where these folks lived. And so they went from not even knowing that the world benzene was to one year later having driven Exxon, and Texaco and Chevron out of that neighborhood, and having made a difference and created an organization at the grassroots level that continues to fight over there for economic and environmental justice. People fighting back to make a difference.

My point being: We don't have to create a progressive movement in the country. It's out there, wondering where the hell we've been. What our job is to do is to organize that, to rally it and to give it focus. That's why I'm on the electric radio every day with a gang down at the "Chat and Chew," down at Threadgills [restaurant] ... out there just talking with America.

What we're finding, of course, is that Americans are not liberals, but neither are they conservatives in the Newt Gingrich sense.

The true political spectrum isn't right to left, it's top to bottom and that's who we're talking to, that 80 percent majority that's been run over out there.

It's not a matter of going to the left, it's going to the people, going out there to the Kmarts again. And that's the kind of politics that I'm advocating and that I think we've got to recreate in this country.

And one more daddy story: Basically, my daddy had a political philosophy. He wouldn't have called it that. He's certainly no intellectual and no do-gooder by any means. But his philosophy was this: "We all do better when we all do better."

It's that simple. We're a united people and we should help each other. Nobody's better than anybody else and we've got to work together. And we've got to be a united people. And that's what is being rended and rendered in our society today -- the notion that we are together.

The few think they separate themselves from the many and still prosper, but that has never worked anywhere in the world and it won't work here, no matter how many gates they build around their homes and how many guards they have for themselves. We have to have an economic democracy in the country again. That is what my book is dedicated to.

There used to be here in Austin a moving company that had a wonderful advertising slogan ... This moving company said "if we can get it loose we can move it." That is what my book is about. My book is a crowbar to get this country loose at the grassroots level so the people can move it for themselves.

Hightower on the Issues

On campaign finance reform: The establishment media and the economic and political establishment in Washington want us to believe it is only an inside the Beltway issue, that nobody out here cares about [campaign finance]. Of course we care about it, of course we know that the corruption is butt-deep among both political parties in Washington, D.C., not just the White House but the Congress as well.

Astonishing to watch these senators chastise [former Clinton aide] Harold Ickes, to say "You're telling me that access was sold for crass money? At the same time their pockets were bulging with some of that access money and at the same time that their man Trent Lott ... on the floor of the Senate in a cynical move to kill a vote on campaign finance reform ...

This is just another reason why I believe we're not going to achieve fundamental reform to have this progressive movement within the existing two-party system. It's going to have to come from the outside. Some people say they wish we had a third party. I wish we had a second one. It used to be my party, the Democratic Party, but I think that push is going to have to come from outside forces making it happen.

There are all kinds of initiatives ... all across the country called "clean election campaigns." Maine passed one last year [providing public funding for state candidates who agree to limit their fundraising and spending] and I think it's in 20 states right now. It can be done at the local level, the county level and state level. That's where we're going to have to make that fight and gradually build a progressive movement that will result in real campaign finance reform.

It's not a matter of what is illegal -- that's what the Republicans want to focus on. It is a matter of what is legal that is the damning thing in our society. The whole system is corrupt and it's legal.

On whether the "Kmart crowd" understands that when it buys goods made in the Third World it hurts American working people: The Kmart crowd we talk to absolutely understands that. One [problem] is: Where are you going to find the Made in the USA products? ... One thing we do in addition to advocating that people confront not just the salespeople, who are mostly just minimum-wage folks anyway, but that you get to the sales manager and tell them that you want products made in the USA and you're not going to buy these [foreign-made] things. ... We have to find ways to allow people to find the marketplace for Made in the USA products. When given a choice, they'll make that decision. And the products are not more expensive because they're made in the USA. Just because Nike can pay a Chinese 14-year-old 11 cents an hour to make the Nikes it doesn't mean that pair of Nikes is cheaper in this country.

On whether he felt threatened: The truth is I've been doing this so long, even before I was doing electoral politics and being in politics and in office and now on the electric radio, I don't know ... They can't crush me. They can't stop my voice. When Mickey Mouse took over ABC they punted my scrawny butt off the air but within a year's time I was back through the United Broadcasting Network. So we've just got to keep coming at them. Yeah, you get some heat, but you know there's an old saying from World War Two that if you're getting flak it's probably because you're over the target.

On health care: This is one of the great embarrassments of our country, that we don't have universal health care. Even the minimal amount of effort that was made in the last Congress just before the election, when the White House and the Republican Congress got together to pat themselves on the back, "We've passed a provision that would extend health care to maybe five million children" -- never mind that 12 million children are without health care, even their ambition was to do less than half of it. Now it turns out that the insurance companies have found a way around that. Yes, they have to offer health care to people, but they can charge a premium that is 10 times what the normal premium is, meaning you can't afford to buy the health care, so it's not advancement at all.

Again this is where I get back to the failure of the Democratic Party. We cannot expect the Republican Party to carry anything like this. They have always represented the elites, the corporate interests, the geezers in golf pants, and these same people are always Republicans, but we think that the Democratic Party is going to stand for those people who are without the basics in life, one of which, of course, is health care.

However, when Clinton came in ... his proposal was a bureaucratic nightmare that was going to enrich Prudential and Travelers and the largest insurance companies in the country. It was not an honest health care program. And that's what I say in the book: When you've trimmed yourself so much and you've made your compromises up front, then anything you're going to achieve is a compromise with the devil.

You don't make your compromises up front, you put your boldest program forward. But Clinton said, "Oh, the people would never stand for a single-payer program, like they have in Canada." Well, ask the people! We talk about it every day on the radio and people are for that. "Yes, we would like it."

Let's have a system that gets the middleman out, gets the profiteers out of the system. It's more efficient, it's more productive, it results in better health care. It results in preventive health care, it results in all the things that we need. But instead we -- being the Democratic Party -- did a half-assed compromise that then the Republicans were able to say, "See look, it's going to create this bureaucratic nightmare." And then, of course, meanwhile they were going around behind to create not a socialized health care but a corporatized health care system, which is what we have now, and all the politicians are backing away from it, saying "My goodness, I didn't know this was going to be so bad."

So all I'm saying is people are still out there saying "What about the single-payer system?" That is a political program we can run on, the progressives need to put forward our best program, our boldest program, or most imaginative program. If we don't do that, why should people stand with us? What are they going to rally around?

On third parties: [Hightower said they are the fastest-growing thing in the whole political arena, with two-thirds of the people saying expressing support for alternative parties. He cited the Labor Party, New Party, Greens and the Reform Party, now that it is distancing itself from founder H. Ross Perot, as having potential.]

One of the most promising things I have seen is a half dozen or so of the third parties are now teaming up together to try to change the process and, believe it or not, their champion is [U.S. Rep.] Ron Paul from right down the road [in Lake Jackson, Texas], the former Libertarian, who is carrying a piece of legislation that begins to remove the barriers to third parties getting on the ballot and the other discriminatory hurdles that are put in place and he's got another provision in this legislation that no presidential candidate can get matching federal money if they participate in a presidential debate that excludes third parties, which is pretty clever.

This coalition ranges from the Taxpayers Party to the Greens. They need to get together on these procedural issues, where we have common ground, and work together and open the system up for all of us.

On the Balkanization of the left, where progressives are consumed with attacking each other: It is hard for us -- it's kind of like loading frogs in a wheelbarrow for us to get together. But nonetheless, that's again what I'm trying to preach in this book. ... We're looking side to side and worse, we're looking down at people who are trying to come up on the economic ladder, and what I'm saying is, everybody look up. That's where the power is that's running roughshod over us.

The central issue in this country is too few people control too much of the money and power. And they're using that control to get more for themselves at the expense of the rest of us. Jesse Jackson says we might not all have come over on the same boat but we're all in the same boat now. That is a powerful economic reality and that's what I'm trying to get our eyes focused on: Who is the enemy? There is a real enemy. Who are the bastards?

Let's stay focused on that and later on we can have a convention and break up into committees and debate the components of the platform, but right now our platform should be: Get the Bastards.

On whether he is accused of being a Marxist with his talk of a class war: Yes, on a fairly regular basis. But it is so ludicrous. I've got a listenership and a following around the country that knows what I'm really talking about. When they do it, of course, we say "Was it Groucho you meant?" But the truth is, we could come back and say "If standing up for the middle class in this country is Marxist, then you call me whatever you want to."

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