Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, syndicated columnist and the author of four books including the recently published Thieves in High Places: They've Stolen Our Country and It's Time to Get It Back. Hightower, the Texas Agricultural Commissioner from 1983-91, will speak at "A Celebration of Free Voices for Democracy" on Saturday, Nov. 1, at 7 p.m. at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham to benefit Democracy North Carolina and The Institute for Southern Studies/Southern Exposure magazine. For more information, go to www.southernstudies.org. Hightower will also speak for free at noon at the UNC Law School on Friday, Oct. 31. He was interviewed by Andy Newman, editor of the Pittsburgh City Paper.
As a champion of populism, can you explain why it's not synonymous with liberalism?
Liberalism would say there are poor people and therefore we have to have programs to assist poor people. Populists try to look at the system and say, "Why are there poor people and why don't we fix the system so they're not?"
An example is the earned income tax credit program, which was pushed hard by Bill Clinton as a liberal response to the fact that we had all these working poor. But a populist approach says, "Why the hell are they allowing McDonald's and Wal-Mart and other greedhead corporations to pay less than a living wage to their employees?" So populists support a living-wage requirement.
And liberals and Dems don't necessarily support a living wage?
No, because they would be afraid of going against corporate power. An important factor in populism is that it is a decentralization not just of political power, but particularly of economic power.
Can you explain your term "kleptocracy"?
Think kleptomania; in this case, kleptocracy is government by thieves. In political terms today, we're basically ruled by those who specialize in taking from the many and giving back to the few.
Those are Democrats who have Jello-ed on us--refusing to stand up to Bushco and the corporate kleptocrats who are stealing our country from us, stealing [our power over] everything from whether a Wal-Mart's going to bully into our neighborhood, where the toxic-waste dump is going to go, what's in our evening news feed, or what's in the food that we put on our dinner table. The Democratic Party in my view exists to represent the interests of the workaday folks, the small farmers, the consumers, the people concerned about air and water pollution, the old folks and children. And it exists not only to be for that constituency but to be willing to go against the corporate powers that are running over that constituency.
Can you talk, as you do in the book, about this seemingly innocuous phrase that begins news items all the time, "The Bush Administration today announced revised standards for ..."?
Well, those are eight of the most frightening words because it always means that something awful is about to happen. When they announce "revised rules" or "relaxed rules," or "replacement of outdated Depression Era rules," they're talking about taking away some of our public protections and allowing more corporate power, more power and money to flow out of our neighborhood and into the corporate suites. I itemize in the book several pages, bullet point by bullet point in small type, of hundreds of these "revised rules" that the Bushites have put forth just in the area of the environment in just their first two years. To see the breadth and depth of the giveaway of our people's power is enough to cause shock and awe for any citizen.
You say, "Even the smallest dog can lift his leg on the tallest building."
We all have power. In fact, we all have our ways in which we can stand up for our democracy and our rights to be a self-governing people. And we do not have to take the new corporate rule of our country. In assorted ways, we can assert ourselves.
But does someone up on the 30th floor notice that dog?
Well, at least 170 cities and towns have rejected Wal-Mart and Home Depot and other big-box bullies that shove their way into our communities. And I guarantee you that every time one of those small dogs lifted his leg on Wal-Mart it was noticed in [the company's headquarters in] Bentonville, Ark.
How's a guy who holds the corporate media in such low esteem go about publicizing an anti-corporate book?
My book is on The New York Times bestseller list. And it got there despite the fact that I've received practically no national media coverage. No mention in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the L.A. Times, etc. None of the morning TV shows, no Charlie Rose, no NPR coverage--my point being that we have more media than we realize: community radio, weekly newspapers, newsletters like my own, Web sites, Internet activist organizations like moveon.org, truemajority.org, tompaine.com, independent bookstores. Any one of those media outlets is considered small, but it adds up to tens of millions of people who we can reach. And when the book came out, we had a guerilla marketing campaign planned that was based on these independent grassroots sources of media.