It is hard to imagine a better setting for Jim Hightower to renew the populist call to action than Fighting Bob Fest, the county-fair-style outdoor gathering of 10,000 progressives where the agitator from Austin will appear Sept. 11.
And it is hard to imagine a better time.
Hightower has for almost three decades — since his election as Texas agriculture commissioner in the second year of the Reagan/Bush era — been America’s best-known and most ardent progressive populist.
Along the way, he has defended family farmers and factory workers, small-business owners and teachers, neglected rural communities, and inner cities from the ravages of the Wall Street speculators and their political handmaidens in Washington. During the farm crisis of the 1980s, it was Hightower who rallied activists across the country and forced Democrats to get serious about tackling the abuses of big agribusiness. That initiative spawned a renewed rural populism that produced a new generation of candidates in the Hightower mold: Minnesota’s Paul Wellstone, Wisconsin’s Ed Garvey, Iowa’s Tom Harkin. In the 1990s, he warned that trade agreements like NAFTA would devastate farm country and factory towns, and, like Wellstone and Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, he condemned not just the Republicans but Democrats like Bill Clinton for selling out America’s economic future.
Of course, Hightower was a critic of bailouts for Wall Street and, with Feingold, he was a critic of the so-called banking reform that Congress passed this summer. Of that legislation, Hightower observed: “The regulatory reforms were hailed by Democrats as possessing powerful cleansing power, while Republicans wailed that the new rules were overly caustic, imposing such a heavy-handed governmental scrub that the delicate layers of Wall Street innovation, competitiveness and profitability will be rubbed away. Meanwhile, the big bankers were grinning from ear to ear, for the bill requires no restructuring and decentralizing of the monopolistic grip that these giants have on America’s credit system. Thus, they still retain the power to rip off consumers, gamble with depositors’ money, haul in exorbitant profits and pay themselves ungodly bonuses — all while remaining ‘too big to fail.’ ”
That’s the truth, not the spin.
We will need more of that if we are to stand a chance in the great wrestling match over how the banking bill will be implemented — with real regulators or toothless tigers in charge of key agencies, with consumers calling the shots or lobbyists continuing to define things, with Wall Streeters forced to take responsibility for their greed or with taxpayers facing the threat of another “bailout” raid on the treasury.
When Hightower appears at Fighting Bob Fest events (Sept. 10 with Feingold at the Barrymore in Madison; Sept. 11 with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and others at the Sauk County Fairgrounds in Baraboo) he won’t tell anyone to trust the Democrats or the Republicans. He’ll do what progressive populists going back to Robert M. La Follette have done: shine a light on the honest players and shine an even brighter light on the banksters and the unindicted co-conspirators in both parties.