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Agitation and Rebellion: The Populist Battle with Corporate Power
Church basements across the country should be full of people meeting to organize against plutocracy, the rule of the rich. This article provides some inspiration.
By Bill Moyers
The following is a transcript of Bill Moyers' interview with Jim Hightower from the final broadcast of Bill Moyers Journal. It has been edited for length.
BILL MOYERS: Once upon a time, a whole lot of just plain Americans woke up to realize the economic system was working against them. They had believed in it; they worked hard to make it work for them. They knew its shortcomings but saw in it the way to a decent return for their labor and a better future for their families.
Then, one day, calamity struck: The system turned on them. And they discovered that they had been betrayed, bamboozled, by the people at the top.
But they didn't hang their heads and turn tail, like a dog whipped by its master. They organized and fought back — millions of them in a grass roots movement for democracy. What they did became known as the Populist Moment, an extraordinary time in our country's history.
But, the flimflam gang returned with a vengeance in our time — the monied interests and political mercenaries who connived to bring on a calamity that lost eleven million Americans their jobs, robbed people of their homes and pensions, and brought the world's economy crashing down.
But once again, people are organizing and fighting back; as they did in that early Populist Moment that took on the monopolies and financial trusts. The stirrings of a popular insurgency could be seen late this week as thousands marched on Wall Street. These people are angry at the banks that have cost them so dearly and they want reforms to prevent similar disasters in the future. They want to break up the Wall Street oligarchy and require the banks to use their capital to build and revitalize and innovate, to create jobs and security.
Similar protests occurred this week in San Francisco, North Carolina and Kansas City, where people rallied to demand an accounting from the giant Bank of America.
Among their ranks was a contingent from Iowa, proud and vocal inheritors of America's populist spirit. We first met them at a rally last fall.
BILL MOYERS: In October, some five thousand people came to Chicago to rally outside the convention of the American Bankers Association.
CROWD: ABA, you're the worst! Time to put the people first!
BILL MOYERS: This is not the Tea Party crowd, chanting against "government takeovers" and "creeping socialism."
CROWD: We're fired up! Can't take it no more!
BILL MOYERS: They are populists of the old school. They want the government on their side battling against predatory monopolies, trusts, and corporations.
MIKE MCCARTHY: We're losing jobs. We're losing state employees. We're losing industry and businesses. We're losing farms and homes. And meanwhile, these people across the street are trying to divvy up their record profits, in tens of millions of dollars worth of bonuses. And that's not fair, it's not fair. ...
BILL MOYERS: Mike McCarthy and a busload of his Iowa neighbors rode almost six hours to get here. ... They belong to an organization called Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. Or CCI. They take their fighting spirit, everywhere they go.
LARRY GINTER: If you've seen your pensions or retirement take a hit, stand up. Dissent is apple pie and ice cream. If you think it's time to put people first and hold banks accountable, stand up. Our founding fathers spoke out against the injustice. I mean, they were great populist, great radicals. ... You just can't sit back and let the big boys walk all over you. You have to stand up and fight. Give yourselves a hand!
BILL MOYERS: Larry Ginter still lives on the Iowa farm where he was born. He spent two years in the army, and more than fifty on the prairie scratching out a living from the land.
LARRY GINTER: I seen a lot of heartache out here on the farms family farmers not getting the fair prices. And then you see workers not getting a fair wage. And things like this always got to me. I always felt I had to get involved in that. There's a saying, "Revolution begins in a peasant hut." You got to fight for the justice. You got to fight for the fair wage. You got to fight for housing. You got to fight for healthcare. Fight for the elderly, fight for family farmers and workers. Fight for the environment. And that's what Iowa CCI does.
BILL MOYERS: For more than thirty years, they have marched their Midwest brand of outrage through city streets, rural towns, and bank lobbies. ... I don't know anyone who embodies that old-time, populist gospel, the high spirits and fierce commitment to justice that you just witnessed among the good people of Iowa more than my longtime friend, Jim Hightower.
With a down home wit and a finely honed outrage, Hightower pins the tail on the plutocrats.
A recovering politician, one time commissioner of agriculture in Texas, he now broadcasts daily radio commentaries and publishes this indispensable monthly newsletter, "The Hightower Lowdown." I admire the journalism in "The Lowdown" so much I helped raise money to raise its profile some years ago. In the spirit of fair trade, Jim has allowed me to borrow some of his best lines, including that rousing populist cry from deep in our native East Texas, "the water won't clear up until we get the hogs out of the creek."
He's been at it so long that this weekend, Jim is being honored at Texas State University in San Marcos with an exhibition celebrating his life's work as a populist journalist, historian and advocate.
They're calling the event "Swim Against the Current" because that's what he does, and in fact, that's the title of his most recent book. ... What do you think about those people from Iowa?
JIM HIGHTOWER: Well, the thing that struck me most is, it's a coalition of farmers, of environmentalists, workers, young people, old people, working for the community. And it's not just about me, me, me all the time. They're exactly in the tradition of people who, you know, are mad as hell but do something about it. You know, it's one thing to be mad. But it's another thing to get organized, and find your way around it. You know, my mama told me that two wrongs don't make a right, but three left turns do.
And that's what we have to do. We have to figure a way around these blockages of Wall Street today. Of the corporate interests that are squeezing out small business. Of the blockages in the marketplaces. The drug companies, for example, that are gouging consumers. Have to figure out a way around that. It's not enough to whine. Even in the media.
You know? Because the populists faced that same thing of the media of the day, being primarily newspapers and magazines. Wouldn't cover this populist movement. In fact, when I worked for Ralph Yarborough, years ago, a Senator from Texas, "The Dallas Morning News" just ignored the progressives of that day. And Yarborough could have a meeting in Dallas and there'd be 5,000 people there. And not a word in "The Dallas Morning News." So, we had a new name, a new subtitle for the Dallas News. If it happens in Dallas it's news to us.
BILL MOYERS: Populism began in Texas, didn't it?
JIM HIGHTOWER: It did. In 1877, out near Lampasas. A group of farmers sitting around a table much like this. And getting run over by the banks and by the railroad monopolies, not unlike what's happening today. People were being knocked down by corporate power. And that power was initially the banks that just gouged them. Usurious rates of lending. Cause farmers live on credit. You know, they were getting stuck with, you know, 20 percent, 25-30 percent interest rates. And realizing they were going to go broke. And said, "We've got to do something." And out of that, you know, that question has come up so much throughout history. We got to do something.
And people figure it out. And it became an incredible, they, the most extensive and most successful mass grassroots movement ever in this country around economic issues. It didn't begin as political movement. They found ways to get credit, establish their own credit system. Bypassing the banks.
Their own supply system. Seed, fertilizer and that sort of thing. And then their own marketing system. And then they began to build a cultural movement around it, as well. They educated people. They had a speaker's bureau. They had 40,000 members in it. So--
BILL MOYERS: They had quite a network of intellectual power, didn't they?
JIM HIGHTOWER: Yes. And it was an intellectual movement. It was an education movement, cultural movement, economic movement. Then it became political. They, and they elected all across the country, by the way, New York to California.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, it spread from Texas to Kansas and--
JIM HIGHTOWER: Up to the Plains States. And over into the Upper Midwest. And then east and then west and then down through the South. So, it was everywhere. And a very powerful movement.
BILL MOYERS: They were the first party to call for a woman's right to vote. To call for the direct election of Senators. To oppose all subsidies to corporations. They called for pensions for veterans. They wanted to corral the power of lobbyists. What do we owe them?
JIM HIGHTOWER: We owe them imitation. We owe them the continuation of that spirit that we do not have to just accept what is handed to us. We can battle back against the powers. But it's not just going to a rally and shouting. It's organizing and it's thinking. And reaching out to others. And building a real people's movement.
BILL MOYERS: How does the Tea Party differ from the people you're talking about? We have two groups of Americans, both angry and defiant, and both calling themselves populists. What don't they have in common?
JIM HIGHTOWER: Here's what populism is not. It is not just an incoherent outburst of anger. And certainly it is not anger that is funded and organized by corporate front groups, as the initial Tea Party effort is, and as most of it is still today. Though there is legitimate anger within it, in terms of the people who are there. But what populism is at its essence is a, a just determined focus on helping people be able to get out of the iron grip of the corporate power that is overwhelming our economy, our environment, energy, the media, government. And I guess that's one big difference between real populism and what the Tea Party thing is, is that real populists understand that government has become a subsidiary of corporations. So you can't say, let's get rid of government. You need to be saying let's take over government.
BILL MOYERS: Why don't you call yourself a liberal?
JIM HIGHTOWER: The difference between a liberal and a progressive is that liberals want to assuage the problems that we have from corporate power. Populists want to get rid of corporate power. An example is what's happening, right now, with the Wall Street reform that's in Washington.
BILL MOYERS: I heard quotation marks around that word reform.
JIM HIGHTOWER: Here come the Democrats, again, you know, just weaker than Canadian hot sauce. You know? Offering a little reform. I saw one of the Senators, Democrats, saying, we're going to have a robust disclosure program. Oh, good. They're going to tell us they're stealing from us. But at least we're going to know. So, instead, liberals like--
BILL MOYERS: We need to regulate the corporation.
JIM HIGHTOWER: Yes, yes. Rather than break it down.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean break it down?
JIM HIGHTOWER: If you're too big to fail, you're too big period. And now they've become not only too big to fail, but too big to care.
BILL MOYERS: So when you identify yourself as a populist, what are you saying?
JIM HIGHTOWER: I'm saying pretty clearly that I see the central issue in politics to be the rise of corporate power. Overwhelming, overweening corporate power that is running roughshod over the workaday people of the country. They think they're the top dogs, and we're a bunch of fire hydrants, you know? Out here in the countryside. And they can do what they want to with us. What's been missing is what can we do about it? And those people in Iowa, by the way, are not alone. There are people in Minnesota doing that, people in Oregon that I know. People in Texas. All across the country.
It's about the long haul. And the target is not government, it's those who are pulling the strings of government, which are those corporate lobbyists and the money that the corporate executives and now corporations directly can put into our campaigns.
BILL MOYERS: Because of the recent Supreme Court decision.
JIM HIGHTOWER: Yes. Citizens United, which is a, really a black robed coup by five men on the Supreme Court. And Bill, there's another fraud. Is these people on the Supreme Court call themselves conservatives. And the media goes along with it. The conservative majority in the Supreme-- but there's nothing conservative at all about that decision to allow corporations to be people. And to contribute all the money that they want out of their corporate treasuries into our campaigns. That is a usurpation of democratic power.
BILL MOYERS: You wouldn't call them conservative, what would you call them?
JIM HIGHTOWER: I would call those five really traitors to the democratic ideal that was put forward of self government of people, not of corporations.
BILL MOYERS: I was taken recently by something you said in-- about all this. You said in the last 30 to 40 years, our landscape has been radically altered.
JIM HIGHTOWER: And both political parties have been a part of this. Have basically gotten away with it. But the altering has been done by the corporate interests. And they have changed the way our economy works. And beat up on labor unions. So that they can now fire at will. They can offshore. They can downsize. They can do what they want with the workers.
BILL MOYERS: You quote a Wall Street honcho who says quote, "American business is about maximizing shareholder value...You basically don't want workers."
JIM HIGHTOWER: Exactly. And that's what's happening. And so, they've changed the whole dynamic in the way our-- in where power is in our economy. It is now concentrated in these corporate-- suites. They have the lobbying power. And the financial contributions to our members of Congress. That enormous power. Already corporations have amassed almost half a billion dollars for the 2010 elections.
And that doesn't count the-- what's going to come with the Supreme Court decision. When all that, the money from the corporate treasuries themselves can be unleashed on candidates. Already the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is spending more money than either the Democratic National Party or the Republican National Party in our politics.
Now, it'll become a major front group for these kind of-- and all sorts of other front groups exist for this. And rather than, let's pass an amendment that says, no, a corporation cannot contribute its money to politics. And in fact, originally most of the state charters in the country prohibited any corporate involvement in politics whatsoever.
They not only regulated corporations the founders, Jefferson and Madison, they feared corporate power. Because they knew it could amass unlimited amounts of money that would overwhelm the government.
They put strict standards for performance, because this was a selfish entity that had really no public responsibility. And so, it was a dangerous threat and it has to be, not only strictly regulated but structured in such a way that serves us rather than vice versa.
BILL MOYERS: And yet, isn't part of the problem the fact that so many people in high places are afraid of populism? I mean, they see it--as a menace to their position. Let me show a little montage we have here.
SENATOR JUDD GREGG: Well the problem we have is that there's populist fervor, sort of this Huey Long attitude out there that says that all banks are bad and that the financial system is evil and that as a result we must do things which will basically end up reducing our competitiveness as a nation...
MAYOR MIKE BLOOMBERG: And the real danger here is that we write a bill based on populist reaction, "I'm going to get those S.O.B.'s," because of a financial crisis which incidentally they may or, they had something to do with but were not the only ones responsible for.
SENATOR BOB CORKER: Look, we, this is important stuff. This isn't about populist ideas and this isn't about a political issue. We're going to have to live with this. It's going to affect our competitiveness around the world in big ways.
BILL MOYERS: They're afraid of you.
JIM HIGHTOWER: Absolutely. I mean, if ignorance is bliss, these people must be ecstatic, because they don't have a clue about what's going on in the countryside. It is not just populist anger. It's information. It's education. People are informed, they do know what's going on. And in fact, despite Senator Judd's comments there, people do not hate all banks.
They know the difference between Goldman Sachs and the local community bank. They know the difference between JPMorgan Chase and their credit union. They know who's serving the community and who is not. And who's offering financial products that actually serve our society and those that are just gimmicks to further enrich the rich.
BILL MOYERS: You were very influenced, I know, in this, by your father. What was it he said? Everyone--
JIM HIGHTOWER: Everybody does better when everybody does better.
BILL MOYERS: Which means?
JIM HIGHTOWER: That means that instead of tinkle down economics, which we've been trying for the last 30 years in this country. Let's just help the rich and then the rest of us will-- we'll all enjoy a seven course dinner. Well ours turns out to be a possum and a six pack. You know?
BILL MOYERS: He was a small business owner.
JIM HIGHTOWER: He was a small business guy.
BILL MOYERS: Where?
JIM HIGHTOWER: The Main Street newsstand in Denison, Texas. And had a wholesale magazine business. And he and my mother did. And, but he never thought that he did that by himself, you know? He knew there was something called the New Deal that offered a lot of opportunities. And, but he was always having to battle the banks. And then ultimately battle Wal-Mart and the chain stores.
He knew about the power of the oil lobby down in Austin and the legislature. So, he thought he was a conservative. But when you talk to him about these issues, then he was a William Jennings Bryan radical. He wanted to go get them. And that's the kind of politics, I think, the Democratic Party has to have. Because that's why the Democratic Party exists. Not to be friends of the corporate interests. The Goldman Sachs and et cetera, but to challenge those corporate interests on behalf of everybody else.
BILL MOYERS: There's someone we both know said to me just this morning, the Republicans work for Wall Street and the Democrats are afraid to work against them.
JIM HIGHTOWER: Isn't that strange? You know, the-- it's odd to me that we've got a President who ran from the outside and won. And now is trying to govern from the inside. You can't do progressive government from the inside. You have to rally those outsiders and make them a force to come inside.
I grew up in Denison, Texas, I said. A small town. I was a small guy. So, I learned early on, you should never hit a man with glasses. You should use something much heavier. And our heavy weight is the people themselves. They've got the fat cats, but we've got the alley cats. And we need to organize them and bring them inside. But I'll tell you right now, the Democrats, not Obama, not Nancy Pelosi, not Harry Reid, none of them, really organize the grassroots. They'll say, "Well, write your Congressman or send an email or make a call."
BILL MOYERS: Send us five dollars on the internet.
JIM HIGHTOWER: Yeah, exactly. But rather than seeing that this is our strength. And we have to organize that strength in strategic ways. And in tactical ways. To come to bear on these issues. You know, Jesse Jackson said something strong. He said, we might not all come over on the same boat, but we're in the same boat now. That's a powerful political reality. When people grasp that, they can see the possibility of getting together and doing something.
BILL MOYERS: So, what is a good populist to do in this regard? I mean, corporations are here to stay. They do employ millions of people. And many of them do good things in the country like supporting this broadcast. ... What do we do?
JIM HIGHTOWER: Well, you support those that support us. And there are corporations that do that. But you also do something else. And that is devise alternatives. There's a huge cooperative movement in America that you almost never hear about. There are some 72,000 co-ops operating today. Most of them are consumer co-ops. There are insurance co-ops. There are health care co-ops. There are food co-ops, of course. There are banking co-ops. There are all kinds of cooperatives out across the country. And those entities have 120 million people participating in them. Members.
You never hear about this movement. I've worked with a number of them. There's a great one, Madison Cab Company. Union Cab Company, Madison, Wisconsin. A bunch of cabbies going broke back in the '70s. Getting treated like Kleenex by the manager. And so, they formed a union. And the owner said, well, hell with that. I'm not dealing with any union. You know, I'll just sell the thing.
So, they said, well, what the hell. We do the work here. You know, we do the dispatching and the driving and mechanical work. We could run it. So, they created a co-op. And they had a lot of ups and downs. But over the next 30 years, they were able to make it. And it's the most successful cab company in all of Madison, Wisconsin. They get a high consumer approval rating.
And I learned about this, because I rode a cab to the airport there in Madison once. And the guy turned around, full body, by the way, to look at me in the back. And you know, you're in a union cab. And I said, well, no, I didn't. And then he told me the story. But he said, he was one of the original founders. And he had been able to put his two kids through college driving a cab. Because the owners were the workers themselves. And doing a great service to the public.
BILL MOYERS: You know, I have to say it's been interesting to watch you over these 30 years. Because you've suffered a lot of defeat. You got defeated in your last race by the man who's now been Governor of Texas longer than anyone in history, whose campaign mentor was Karl Rove.
JIM HIGHTOWER: Karl Rove.
JIM HIGHTOWER: A guy who puts the goober in gubernatorial.
BILL MOYERS: But I mean you got beat there. You-- a lot of what you want hasn't happened. And yet, every time I see you or hear you, you haven't-- you don't give up.
JIM HIGHTOWER: Yeah. Well it could be stupidity. But what it really is, is that I'm a lucky duck. And that I travel a whole lot. I give a lot of speeches. And that takes me all across the country on a regular basis. I've been just about every place that's got a zip code, I think. And what I find in every one of those places is someone or some group of someones who is in rebellion.
And again, not just ranting about it, but actually organizing others and taking on some aspect of this corporate power. And winning. So, I see victories just every week across the country in my travels. You can go anywhere and you see victories. Some of them political. But most of them in terms of just civic action. People engaged in, and making a difference in their communities. So, you want to see the populist movement where it actually is today, it's at the zip code level. It's in the communities.
BILL MOYERS: Like those people in Iowa.
JIM HIGHTOWER: Yes, exactly. I go all the way back to Thomas Paine, of course. I mean, that was kind of the ultimate rebellion. And then when the media tool was a pamphlet. You know, a pamphleteer or a broadside that you put on the community bulletin board. So the whole American Revolution itself, but not the great men. They didn't-- they wrote the Bill of Rights and the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. But that didn't create democracy. It made democracy possible.
What created democracy was Thomas Paine and the Shays Rebellion the suffragists and the abolitionists and on down through the populists, the labor movement. Including the Wobblies. Tough in their face people. The-- Mother Jones, Woody Guthrie, you know, the cultural aspect of it, as well. Of course, Martin Luther King and Caesar Chavez. And now it's down to us.
You know, the-- these are agitators. They extended democracy decade after decade. You know, sometimes we get in the midst of these fights. We think we're making no progress. But, you know, you look back. We've made a lot of progress. And you've seen it. And I have, as well. You know, that agitator after all is the center post in the washing machine that gets the dirt out. So, we need a lot more agitation. And that's the only thing that succeeds from a progressive side in changing politics in America.
BILL MOYERS: So, is that what you mean when you say the water won't clear up until we get the hogs out of the creek?
JIM HIGHTOWER: That's it. That's right. They are in the creek. And they're fouling our environmental, political and economic waters. And you don't get a hog out of the creek, Bill, by saying, here hog, here hog. You know? You got to put your shoulder to it and shove it out of the creek.
BILL MOYERS: You've no doubt figured out my bias by now. I've hardly kept it a secret. In this regard, I take my cue from the late Edward R. Murrow, the Moses of broadcast news.
Ed Murrow told his generation of journalists bias is okay as long as you don't try to hide it. So here, one more time, is mine: plutocracy and democracy don't mix. Plutocracy, the rule of the rich, political power controlled by the wealthy. Plutocracy is not an American word but it's become an American phenomenon. Back in the fall of 2005, the Wall Street giant Citigroup even coined a variation on it, plutonomy, an economic system where the privileged few make sure the rich get richer with government on their side.
By the next spring, Citigroup decided the time had come to publicly "bang the drum on plutonomy." And bang they did, with an "equity strategy" for their investors, entitled, "Revisiting Plutonomy: The Rich Getting Richer." Here are some excerpts: "Asset booms, a rising profit share and favorable treatment by market-friendly governments have allowed the rich to prosper...[and] take an increasing share of income and wealth over the last 20 years..." "...the top 10%, particularly the top 1% of the US-- the plutonomists in our parlance-- have benefited disproportionately from the recent productivity surge in the US...[and] from globalization and the productivity boom, at the relative expense of labor." "...[and they] are likely to get even wealthier in the coming years. [Because] the dynamics of plutonomy are still intact." And so they were, before the great collapse of 2008. And so they are, today, after the fall.
While millions of people have lost their jobs, their homes, and their savings, the plutonomists are doing just fine. In some cases, even better, thanks to our bailout of the big banks which meant record profits and record bonuses for Wall Street. Now why is this? Because over the past 30 years the plutocrats, or plutonomists — choose your poison — have used their vastly increased wealth to capture the flag and assure the government does their bidding.
Remember that Citigroup reference to "market-friendly governments" on their side? It hasn't mattered which party has been in power — government has done Wall Street's bidding. Don't blame the lobbyists, by the way; they are simply the mules of politics, delivering the drug of choice to a political class addicted to cash — what polite circles call "campaign contributions" and Tony Soprano would call "protection."
This marriage of money and politics has produced an America of gross inequality at the top and low social mobility at the bottom, with little but anxiety and dread in between, as middle class Americans feel the ground falling out from under their feet. According to a study from the Pew Research Center last month, nine out of ten Americans give our national economy a negative rating. Eight out of ten report difficulty finding jobs in their communities, and seven out of ten say they experienced job-related or financial problems over the past year. So it is that like those populists of that earlier era, millions of Americans have awakened to a sobering reality: they live in a plutocracy, where they are disposable. Then, the remedy was a popular insurgency that ignited the spark of democracy.
Now we have come to another parting of the ways, and once again the fate and character of our country are up for grabs. So along with Jim Hightower and Iowa's concerned citizens, and many of you, I am biased: democracy only works when we claim it as our own.
Bill Moyers is the host of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS. Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and author of the new book, "Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow." (Wiley, March 2008) He publishes the monthly "Hightower Lowdown," co-edited by Phillip Frazer. © 2010 Bill Moyers Journal All rights reserved. This story appeared at Alternet.
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