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They Grow 'em Populist in Texas
Published on Monday, June 4, 2001 in the Chicago Tribune
They Grow 'em Populist in Texas
by Salim Muwakkil
 
In 1986 when Jim Hightower was Texas agriculture commissioner, he told the Dallas Chamber of Commerce that "the only difference between a pigeon and the American farmer today is that a pigeon can still make a deposit on a John Deere."

The line drew many chuckles from the fat-cat Texans in attendance, according to the account in The New York Times. But Hightower was after more than laughs. A self-professed populist who already had become known for his fiery but funny attacks on corporate power, he sought to turn sympathy for the farmers' plight into farmer-friendly policies.

That deft combination of humor, insight and political purpose is Hightower's method, and it has made him one of the most popular progressive writers in America. Author, journalist, public speaker, radio commentator and host, Hightower is billed as "America's Number 1 populist." He has gained a well-deserved reputation for speaking hard truths with a soft delivery.

Chicagoans will get a chance to hear Hightower at 2:45 p.m. Thursday when his speech concludes the Making Media Connections Conference at Malcolm X College. Organized by the Community Media Workshop, the conference is part of the workshop's continuing effort to help non-profit community groups get the kind of media skills that will make them more effective.

The demand for Hightower's humor-tinged analysis has grown with the ascension of a fellow Texan to the presidency. The former editor of the Texas Observer, a left-leaning alternative magazine, Hightower observed both George Bushes before either became president. He often regales audiences with tales of George W. Bush's reign as Texas governor.

Incidentally, another of the most popular populist writers is fellow Texan Molly Ivins, whose column appears on Thursdays in the Chicago Tribune. The Lone Star State seems to be on a roll these days: Not only did Texas pass New York as the second most populous state in the nation in the 2000 census, but it is also the home of the last two Republican presidents. Perhaps as a corrective, the state also has produced two of those presidents' most effective critics.

Hightower was first elected state agriculture commissioner in 1982 on a platform that expressed solidarity with small farmers against corporate agribusiness. He promised to defend farm workers and protect consumers.

Hightower was one of the few white elected officials in the nation, much less the South, to support the insurgent 1984 presidential candidacy of Jesse Jackson. Despite what some would call his apostasy, Hightower was re-elected in 1986, but lost his 1990 election.

This left-wing populist is more palatable to Texans than others with similar ideological leanings are, because of his ability to couch his messages in the kind of barnyard bromides and folksy asides that connect with working people.

In 1997 he wrote a book titled, "There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos," which made a deadly serious point about corporate abuse and class warfare in America. His most recent book, "If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote, They Would Have Given Us Candidates," takes the two political parties to task for their utter subservience to corporate interests. He attributes the public's lack of participation in the electoral system to the increasing corporatization of politics.

"The impact of this mercenary invasion of American democracy has been devastating," Hightower writes, "reducing elections to computerized cynical exercises in which the people are irrelevant and such niceties as issues, ethics and the future of the nation are beside the point."

Just as the U.S. population has shifted southward, so has the political center of gravity. Except for an eight-year break during the reign of Californian Ronald Reagan, every U.S. chief executive since Jimmy Carter in 1976 has hailed from below the Mason-Dixon line. It's only natural that some of the best critiques of our political system also are emerging from Southern thinkers.

Jim Hightower is one of the best of those thinkers.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times

Copyright 2001 Chicago Tribune

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