Populism with a progressive edge


Phillip Frazer

Jim Hightower is one of the most exciting and knowledgeable commentators on American politics and tomorrow night he’ll be in conversation with Kerry O’Brien at the Byron Community Centre.

It’s a rare opportunity to gain insight into the inner workings of the biggest economy/country on the planet.

Hightower was elected Texas commissioner for agriculture – twice – and in that office he advocated for sustainable local and organic farming for small farmers mostly running family farms, and for the rights of immigrant labour, all the while working to curb the powers of agribusiness. Not surprisingly, this landed him ‘in the sights of the corporate sharpshooters’.

Specifically, George Bush Jr and his campaign manager Karl Rove, who saw Jim as a potential big-vote-winning Democratic governor candidate. Back in the 1980s, Rove got his FBI pals to try to ruin Jim with scuttlebutt and lawsuits. That failed, but a couple of Hightower’s staff members had their lives made miserable and Hightower opted out of electoral politics.

‘These guys can be seriously bad for your health,’ he reckons, so he resumed his career as a writer and public speaker – an agitator in fact, which, as he likes to point out, is the post in the middle of the washing machine that gets the dirt out!

His radio commentaries, delivered in his lively Texas accent over peppy music, play every day on dozens of commercial AM stations not usually given to airing the views of (American-style) liberals… but Hightower says he’s not so much a liberal as he is a progressive populist.

What’s a progressive populist, you ask?

Here’s how Hightower put it in a recent issue of his monthly newsletter The Hightower Lowdown:

‘These days, there’s a whole flock of politicos and pundits [claiming to be populists] – from Sarah Palin to Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich to Glenn Beck. They are abetted by a media establishment that carelessly (and lazily) misapplies the populist label to anyone who claims to be a maverick and tends to bark a lot. Although the targets they’re usually barking at are poor people – teachers, minorities, unions, liberals, protestors, environmentalists, gays, immigrants, or other demonised groups that generally reside far outside the centre of the power structure – the barkers are indiscriminately tagged as populist voices.

‘First of all, populism is not a style, nor is it a synonym for “popular outrage”. It is an historically grounded political doctrine (and movement) that supports ordinary folks… against the moneyed elites. Fully embracing the egalitarian ideals and rebellious spirit of the American revolution, populists have always been out to challenge the orthodoxy of the corporate order [that] distinguishes the movement from classic liberalism, which seeks to live in harmony with concentrated corporate power by trying to regulate its excesses.

‘We’re seeing liberalism at work today in Washington’s Wall Street bailout. Both parties tell us that AIG, Citigroup, Bank of America, and the rest are “too big to fail”, so taxpayers simply “must” rescue the management, stockholders, and bondholders of the financial giants in order to save the system. Populists, on the other hand, [say:] Let’s reorganise the clumsy, inept, ungovernable, and corrupt financial system by ousting those who wrecked it, splitting up its component parts (banking, investment, and insurance), and establishing decentralised, manageable-sized financial institutions operating on the locally-controlled models of credit unions, co-ops, and community banks’.

Jim is extremely tuned in to the US political establishment, and to the very many centres of opposition and reform across the USA. He knows all the players, and he’s in major demand as a public speaker.

Speaking with Kerry O’Brien at the Byron Community Centre on Wednesday is his first public appearance on his first-ever trip to Australia. He’s eager to share his knowledge and progressive populist perspective with an Aussie audience, so come with questions and comments at the ready. And Community Table Café manager Amanda Gorr says she’s working on a special cocktail to be offered at the cafe tomorrow night only, called – a Hightower, of course.

Phillip Frazer and Jim Hightower are co-publishers of the Lowdown newsletter.

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