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Thieves in High Places
by Jim Hightower
Viking, 280 pages, $24.95

Is American democracy for sale? Or has it been bought already? A couple of guys from Texas could answer those questions, but only one of them can afford to give straight answers. Hint: It's not the fellow huddling around the Oval Office desk with defense and energy profiteers.

Instead, the skinny on the state of the nation comes from Jim Hightower, the former Texas agriculture commissioner who bills himself, with some justification, as "America's most popular populist." From his long-running syndicated radio show to his headlining role in the recent "Rolling Thunder Democracy Tour," Hightower, like few other modern-day progressives, has wielded heartland values, hard facts and humor, to counter the rise of the right in Washington.

This time around, Hightower takes on the voice of a national town crier, here to explain the perils of a country rapidly being sold to the highest bidder, as well as the promise of establishing real democracy in policy areas that most affect average citizens. His new book, Thieves in High Places: They've Stolen Our Country and it's Time to Take it Back, is part salvo against the "kleptocrats" in the Bush administration and part primer on how to preserve the public interest in an age of cutthroat global capitalism.

Sounding like Woody Guthrie at times, like Michael Moore at others, Hightower's approach is often scathing. He points a condemnatory finger at the American elites who back the Bush administration's drive to militarize, privatize and profitize as many government services as possible--a group he bluntly labels "the greedheads."

But this is not a dour book. The subject matter is serious, and so is Hightower, yet his is still a rollicking, joke-laden critique. The tone is hopeful, fun and decidedly aligned with American underdogs. "Even the smallest dog can lift its leg on the tallest building," he quips in a chapter detailing grassroots strategies that work.

Hightower's not just some cheerleading sloganeer. His book is replete with reminders that the American left has a strong tradition to assert, one born of a long history of standing up for and seizing social justice. Adept with anecdotes, Hightower dredges up dozens of choice tales from American folklore and history to make his case that no matter how ingrained the pro-corporate ethos becomes in the current leadership, there remain proven methods of tugging the levers of power in the other direction. He highlights contemporary examples to prove it. A chapter titled "Wal-Mart: How the Play Beat the Devil," describes how several American towns have rebuffed the corporate behemoth, keeping locally owned commerce alive.

"You're still the sovereign in this country, not corporations," Hightower reminds readers. "It's your town, not theirs." He's got a similarly spirited prescription for taking on the politicians/CEOs currently at the nation's helm. Progressives, he argues, should remind the Democrats (or "Wobblycrats," as he sometimes calls them) that they can stage a genuine upset in next year's national election. It's one of many sports metaphors Hightower uses to explain smart political plays that would return the party to key parts of its base. It could also prove to be a prescient analogy: Tracing the etymology of the word "upset," he notes that the term came into use in 1919, when a racehorse named "Upset" beat a favored competitor named "Man o' War."

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