WASHINGTON - It is no secret that George W. Bush's current poll ratings - transient though they may be - have caused many Washington progressives to lose their nerve. As a ridiculously complacent broadcast media tries to fit every D.C. dispute into an "America Strikes Back" frame, too many labor, environmental and civil liberties groups since the Sept. 11 attacks have chosen the path of least resistance.
The kid gloves approach has allowed the Bush administration and its congressional allies to roll over opposition and common sense on the $15 billion airline CEO bailout, federalization of airport security, diminution of civil liberties with the "anti-terrorism" bill and a host of other critical matters. Confusing patriotism with complicity, the loyal opposition - in Congress and out - has proved so loyal on so many issues that it cannot truly be said to be an opposition.
All of this has Jim Hightower worried. Indeed, says the veteran activist, Sept. 11 and its aftermath have seen "a crisis for our democracy."
"Among the people, there is an awakening to the fact that there is something bigger going on in the world than what we've been told about," he explained. "But, in Washington, too many members of Congress and activist groups have been too quiet. They have let George W. Bush do all the talking."
The Texas populist's home state experience with the Bush family and its political operatives makes him something of an expert on how to deal with America's political aristocracy - he earned election twice as the Lone Star State's agriculture secretary and was once seen as a possible contender for the governorship GW eventually won. To Hightower's view, sitting on the sidelines is the worst possible response when George W. Bush is riding high in the polls.
"The American people do not confuse patriotism with conformity. Yet that's what a lot of our groups are doing," Hightower argued, referring to reports that mainstream environmental advocacy groups and other organizations had tempered their criticism of Bush administration initiatives in order to avoid appearing to threaten national unity.
"Too many of our groups have said, 'sit down, shut up.' If the meek ever inherit the earth, these guys are going to be land barons," Hightower said. "For us to be quiet now, when our voices are most needed, is to reject not just our heritage but our responsibility in a democracy."
Hightower made his remarks at a gathering marking the 30th anniversary of Public Citizen, the Washington-based group founded in 1971 by Ralph Nader to advocate for safe products and workplaces, a healthy environment, clean energy and corporate responsibility. In recent weeks, as many D.C. groups have been lying low, Public Citizen has been loudly challenging Bush administration initiatives to limit access to information, use tax policy and government grants to enrich multinational corporations, and secure "fast track" negotiating authority to expand free trade.
Hightower expressed pride in the unflinching activism of the group, one of the few in Washington to which he has lent his name - as a member of the board of directors. Public Citizen, he said, "is still doing the kind of work that helps us take our democracy back from the greedheads and the boneheads."
As Public Citizen backers celebrated three decades of activism over the weekend, Nader noted that the group faces more challenges now than perhaps at any time in its history. "Citizen groups have, increasingly, been shut out in this town," said Nader, noting that even before the current crisis, the growing influence of special interests over Congress and federal agencies, and the collapse of major media's watchdog role, had reduced the ability of citizen-based advocacy groups to influence the process. "It is an extremely inhospitable environment here in D.C. these days, and we have to think seriously about how to reinvent ourselves," Nader said.
Reinvention, renewal, that's all fine, countered Hightower. Just so long as it challenges those in power - no matter what their political affiliation. "Public Citizen has always given us the ammunition we need for agitation in this country," Hightower said.
But, in these troubled times, he added, something more than traditional activism is needed. "We have been progressive for a long time," Hightower explained. "Now we've got to be aggressive."
Copyright 2001 The Capital Times