Five Minutes With
Five Minutes With Jim Hightower
Before The New Yorker made right-wing billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch the subject of every progressive's ire, there was Jim Hightower's February 2010 edition of his Hightower Lowdown newsletter. The populist commentator accused the brothers of posing as “enlightened industrialists” while they quietly give major donations to “hard-core anti-government” right-wing organizations. Ending that month's meticulously researched newsletter, he accused the brothers of “surreptitiously skew[ing]our public debate, agenda, and policies to their self-serving agenda.”
Hightower began his political career as an aide to former Sen. Ralph Yarborough (D-Texas). He later founded the Agribusiness Accountability Project, watching corporate influence in agriculture, and served as editor of the Texas Observer. Hightower was a popular agricultural commissioner in Texas; he served two terms (1983-1991) before being toppled by "Bush's Brain" Karl Rove.
While Hightower's ideology comes off as vaguely libertarian, there is no doubting his truly progressive politics. He likes to distinguish himself from the usual “liberal” though, saying that politics is not about left versus right — “that's theory” — it's about top versus bottom, “where people are.”
Campus Progress: You hear the term progressive more than populist these days. Why do you identify as a populist?
Jim Hightower: Populists take a different approach than, say, liberals. Populists understand that the real fight is not ideological but about good government. More importantly, it's about power and money. The corporate interests have all of that essentially. And they're trying to get more. So populists take a structural approach to achieving that. You can't just regulate Wall Street or health insurance companies; they have battalions of lawyers whose specialty is wiggling out of regulations. Instead you have to restructure those industries, bring them down to earth so that economic and political power is decentralized, so that ordinary people have the mechanisms to take control of their own destinies. Populism exists to challenge the economic structure that is monopolizing our political and economic life.
How do we promote a more inclusive vision of ordinary people that includes, say, Muslims?
I think we have to accept the wisdom of what Jesse Jackson once said: “We might not all have come over on the same boat but we all are in the same boat now.” We must appeal to the fact that it's our total values at stake, like social justice, equal opportunity for all. So this squabble generated by right-wing political operatives over whether a mosque could be built on the site of the 9/11 disaster is totally phony. Of course, the mosque is not being built on the site. Nor is it intended as a poke in the eye to the people who died. It's a fight between people who are intolerant on both sides. And a good number of people whose families died at the World Trade Center recognize that and see the potential for healing.
Many from the Tea Party do not hold populist values, yet they say they're populists.
Some in the Tea Party are populists, part of the spontaneous combustion over the Wall Street bailout. They saw in a raw example of corporate and governmental collusion that the people who caused a disaster for our economy are the ones who got rescued while the rest of us were told to "wait and it will get better." They rebelled against that, and good for them. But that got captured by corporate interests. The very first rally, for example, was sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, a right-wing group funded by the Kochs, who also fund corporate lackey Dick Armey's little empire called FreedomWorks.
So what do you say to someone who says that the bank bailouts were inevitable?
I'm not against the bank bailouts per se, what I'm against is that we did not use them in a constructive way. The banks have so much power over not only our financial institutions but also our lives. That is too much power into too few hands. Instead of putting more power into Wall Street giants, we should have put more power into community banks. There, credit flows where it actually needs to go, like to productive enterprises rather than the casino gambling scheme that Wall Street continues to play.
What do you think then of the recently passed financial reform package?
There are certainly some good reforms in it, like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau if we can get Elizabeth Warren to run it. But essentially, it was written by Wall Street, Timmy Geithner, and Larry Summers — the disciples of Robert Rubin who caused the crash. And big surprise: They wrote most of the real structural reforms out of it.
Is your agricultural background what makes you an advocate for structural reform?
Well, you know, agriculture certainly is structural, natural, [and] organic. It's about us all being together with Mother Nature, the art of cooperating with nature. It's a rhythm. And we have rhythms in our economy that need concentration of economic power. In the game of Monopoly, the goal is to wipe everybody out, to control it all. And that's what happens in the economy. That's why we need periodic structural reform — not unlike [Thomas] Jefferson saying you need a little rebellion every now and then. Because when power concentrates whether in a government or in a corporation — in this case that's redundant - you have to break up the concentration of power so that enterprise might flourish.
How can young people carry the populist spirit forward?
Young people are already engaged in that spirit. They don't call themselves populists, but that doesn't matter. It's reflected directly in things directly with them like how many of them don't have jobs. Many are seeing it, comprehending it, and are now in rebellion against it.
And millions of those young folks continue to battle against everything. Take, for example, the battle against sweatshops. It's led by students from college to the elementary level. Or their work against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though we don't have the draft this time, for young people it's merely the injustice of being part of those wars. Draining the Treasury for adventures that enrich Halliburton and Blackwater is clearly ensnaring students – and they also know it prevents the country from spending money on our real needs, like jobs and schools. So I think that young people do get it.
To end, what do you see young people doing that will impact the future?
Young people are not just battling; they're forging new forms of our economy and politics too.
The co-op is phenomenal in America. Co-ops are a boldly new way for organizing our economy; they're the un-corporation. And that trend is spreading mostly because of young people. There are 73,000 co-ops in America. That doesn't get much attention. And something like 120 million people take part. I'm part of a food co-op, and I broadcast to co-op radio stations. And I am proud to announce that I'm also a member of the first co-op brewery in America. I've always been about lubricating the movement, and now I've brought beer directly into my politics.
James M. Russell is a writer based in Fort Worth, Texas and is interning with truthout.org.
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