A conversation with Jim Hightower
Jim Hightower, a syndicated columnist and national radio commentator, is the bestselling author of Swim Against the Current and Thieves in High Places. A former Texas agriculture commissioner, he’s spent some 30 years fighting for the rights of consumers, working families, environmentalists, small businesses and just plain folks. A favorite saying of his is, “The water won’t clear up until we get the hogs out of the creek.” Hightower is the 2009 recipient of the prestigious Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship.
Why do you consider populism the people’s rebellion against the corporate powers-that-be and how do you define it?
Populists have historically understood that the real battle in America is not an ideological fight of conservative versus liberal. Rather, the battle is over money and power, and populists are engaged in a fight against corporatists to create a democratization of both our government and our economy. Too few people control the money and power at the expense of the rest of us.
In this country, populism began in Texas in 1877, when farmers, who were going broke because of railroad monopolies, realized they had to do something about it. What began as a farmers’ movement quickly spread throughout the country. The movement later evolved into the People’s Party and had a powerful impact on women’s suffrage, the direct elections of senators, wage and hour laws and the nationalization of railroads and public resources. It was very progressive.
How is your work helping individuals to swim against the political currents, work for the common good and make a difference in their communities?
Essentially, I consider myself a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, with a populist viewpoint. I try to inform people, rally them and help them see that they’re not alone, despite the power of the establishment trying to teach them that the corporate way is the only way.
Why do you say that politics is more about top versus bottom than right versus left?
Right versus left is what we’re told politics is all about—you’re either a conservative or you’re a liberal. But those are tiny little boxes that few Americans fit within, and this ideology is what divides us in this country. Most of us are a mix of both. The real political spectrum is in fact, top to bottom, because that is [the paradigm] where most people live; most folks know they are way down in that top-to-bottom spectrum.
What do you mean when you encourage people to be agitators, much like a metaphor of the way a washing machine agitates the dirt out?
First of all, the powers that be try to make the term “agitator” seem pejorative. But, in fact, agitation is what America is all about. Agitators created America itself, first with the Continental Congress, and then with the American Revolution. It was agitators who democratized The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It also took agitators to form the suffragist, antislavery, populist and labor movements—and later, the civil rights, women’s and environmental movements. It takes people willing to stand up to the establishment and say, “No.”
How can we individually or collectively work to improve the world?
First of all, assess your own values and what matters to you. If you think there’s something that strikes you as particularly unfair or not right or that could be done better, then look at that and begin to build on what you really care about. Inform yourself and then look around in your own area. It’s likely there is someone working on the very issue that bothers you. You’ve got to reach out to make those connections through places like your church, local groups and independent bookstores.
How do we create a government truly of, by and for the people?
Democracy is not a quick fix; it requires a lot of citizen involvement, and you’ve got to find ways to become a part of that. You can’t do it alone. I often talk about Harrell’s Hardware store, in Austin. They’ll loan you a tool to take home for a project or sell you two nails. Their slogan is, “Together We Can Do It Yourself,” and this is exactly the operating principle of a progressive movement. We can’t do it ourselves—it takes all of us together, as like-minded people of goodwill. The possibility of self-government comes from this.
For more information, visit www.JimHightower.com.
Ellen Mahoney teaches writing at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.