Hightower Power

Radio gadfly and author Jim Hightower discusses his talk show, the fate of the populist movement and the perils of the middle of the road

Can we talk for a moment about the rhetoric of populism? In your book, you're proud to brandish terms like "civic rebellion" and "class war." In light of the "middle of the road" that your book's title cites, does populism need to modify that rhetoric or merely wait for the wind to change enough to let it fly again?

I think (the wind) is there right now. It didn't go anywhere. And the fact that the Democratic Party is collapsing in state after state is not the result of Republican strength but the result of Democratic abandonment of populist principles, rhetoric and constituencies.

Just to give you an example: All the buzz in national political circles is about George Bush, the governor here in Texas -- "Little George," as we call him here -- having achieved such a stunning sweep of the electorate here in our state. But we had only a 26 percent turnout. That means that he's really the choice of about 15 percent of the people of this state. The real damning statistic is that the Democrats were so weak in their appeal to the people that they couldn't get 15 percent of the people to vote for them. The constituency that is not voting is that populist constituency that's looking for somebody who's going to slap the establishment right upside the head and say, "I'm for the working stiff and the family farmer and the environment." When that happens, and in some degree it did in Minnesota in this last election, you see an entirely different turnout and an entirely different result. Jesse Ventura produced a 60 percent turnout in Minnesota, where the rest of the country was doing 36 percent.

Not that you're doling out endorsements yet for the year 2000, but are there genuine voices that you see out there that reflect this stance?

Paul Wellstone, for sure, who's the senator from Minnesota and likely to be a candidate. He certainly comes from genuine populist roots and has been true to them in his two terms as U.S. senator. In Southern Illinois, there's Rep. Lane Evans, who's been another true voice. There's Rep. Marcy Kaptur in Toledo, Ohio. You've got Rep. Bernie Sanders in Vermont, and Sen. Byron Dorgan in North Dakota. There is a sincere populist minority within the U.S. Congress. It's not going to be more than 10 percent. Nonetheless, there are living, breathing examples.

I want to take you back to your book's title. Most politicians, and certainly the media, head for the middle of the road. Do you think that political honesty really does put people on opposite sides of a divide? The rhetoric behind the middle-of-the-road stance -- "consensus," "cooperation," "working together" -- is so strong, but it's something that your formulation implies is not quite "right."

Not only is it not "right," because it is dishonest, but, yes, they're "working together." They're working together to steal the country from the people on behalf of their campaign-contributor list.

Also, it doesn't work. It fails to create a politics that involves "we, the people." Again, you've got two-thirds of the American people not voting in a major national election. Even in presidential elections, we're getting less than half of the people. So, we have this massive act of civil disobedience taking place, because (the electorate) knows that the platitudes that "we're working together" and "seeking consensus," and -- What's the phrase that (President Bill) Clinton uses? "The vital center," I think he called it -- they all know that that doesn't include them. They know it because of the policies that result from the politics of the middle.

We talked about low turnout, but Democrats claim this year's election was a victory for them -- even with those margins -- in the same way that the GOP claimed that 1994 and the "Contract with America" was a victory. If Clinton escapes with a censure, does he have any power or agenda left?

His presidency is over. He will be able to move on the agenda that the Republicans have already agreed to, which is primarily the corporate agenda. There may be some kind of a patients' rights bill that gets passed, but it will be a patients' rights bill that will be a pale imitation of the real thing. There may be a slight increase in the minimum wage but certainly not enough to raise the full-time worker out of poverty. It'll be classic Clinton: talking big but delivering little.

My last question is about something I think you know a little about: Texas. I wonder why the perception of Texas in the rest of the country is that it's so conservative, and yet it keeps producing rock-ribbed populists like yourself and Ann Richards and Molly Ivins and -- if you stretch it a bit -- LBJ? What's wrong with our perceptions of Texas, if you can correct them in a few minutes?

Well, for one, we have managed to elect John Connally and deliver votes for Richard Nixon and Bob Dole. We delivered majorities for Nixon and Dole, and we've managed to elect goofuses like Phil Gramm to high office. So you can look at the surface, and say, "That's a very conservative state." But if you're actually in the state and go to the chat 'n' chew cafes, or get out on the campaign trails or into the bowling alleys and saloons, and actually talk with people, then you find that this is a state made up of establishmentarians and mavericks and "mad-as-hellers" who mostly get run over by the power establishment.

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