Jim Hightower recently hosted a discussion of “The Living Spirit of Texas Populism” at Texas State University in San Marcos. The event (5/1) celebrated donation of his archives at the Alkek Library’s Southwestern Writers Collection. Hightower was elected statewide to two terms as Texas agriculture commissioner and served from 1983-1991, before being defeated by Rick Perry, who had switched from the Democratic Party to challenge him.

Hightower got his start in politics working for Sen. Ralph Yarborough (D-Texas), a progressive populist who served two terms from 1957 to 1971 and was “an unabashed battler of the powers that be on behalf of the powers that ought to be.” After managing the presidential campaign of Sen. Fred Harris (D-Okla.), another populist who served two terms, in 1976, Hightower returned to Texas as editor of the Texas Observer in 1977, quitting in 1979 to run for Texas Railroad Commissioner (which regulates the oil industry). He narrowly lost, but he won election as agriculture commissioner in 1982 with a populist coalition of farmers, workers, labor unions, environmentalists and consumers from rural and urban areas.

After his election, he said, a lobbyist for the conservative Farm Bureau told him, “If you’ll just move over to the middle of the road, we’ll get along,” but a farmer friend later told him, “Hightower, don’t worry about that. There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos. You need to get over here with your friends and let’s do things together.”

As ag commissioner, Hightower helped launch farmers’ markets to sell directly to consumers, groceries and restaurants and promoted new crops such as blueberries and Texas wines. “We created a populist alternative to Laissez Fairyland Economics or to central government ownership,” he said. “Our philosophy boiled down to something we learned from Fred Harris about free enterprise — that that the ‘free’ in free enterprise is not an adjective, it a verb — that you had to free up enterprise of the people.

“There were enterprising people all across the state but they couldn’t get into the market because the market was all locked up, so that was our role. Government didn’t own anything, it didn’t run anything, it just turned people loose, and it worked.”

Since then an organic local sustainable food economy has been established in the face of opposition from corporate interests, the agricultural extension services and the USDA under Ronald Reagan.

“All across the country ordinary Americans are just doing the most extraordinary things,” Hightower said. “They’re defying the corporate order and rejecting the conventional wisdom and the contrived wisdom and they’re creating a brighter future for the common good based on America’s fundamental populist vision: economic fairness, social justice and equal opportunity for all people. That’s what we stand for. That’s what America stands for.

“The American people believe in these values but they too rarely hear them expressed. Certainly not in politics, the media, schools, at workplace and damn sure not from the Palins and the Perrys.

“That’s our challenge: Not to create a progressive movement. It’s already out there, in politics, in business, in health care, in religion, and folks are out there making it happen. Our chore is not to create it but to connect it, to create a politics that affirms the values and then connects people with each other so they become a movement. Right now we’ve got the farmers, the breweries, the local activists, the education reformers, but they’re not together and we’ve got to find a way to come together.”

Also, in an interview with the online Texas Tribune, Hightower said that although he remains the leading voice of Texas populism he can’t get an invitation to speak at the Democratic State Convention. “The powers that be within it made a political calculation that we Democrats could raise corporate money and compete with the Republicans, because they were fast becoming the power in Texas,” he said. “The problem is, when you start taking those corporate checks, on the back is written the corporate agenda. So our party began speaking in different languages.”

That language apparently doesn’t include Hightower and it doesn’t appeal to the farmers, workers, labor unions, environmentalists and consumers who made up his populist coalition in the 1980s. George W. Bush was re-elected governor in 1998 with a turnout of about 26.5% of the voting-age population. So 15% of Texas voted for him. Even for the 2008 presidential election, only 45.6% of the voting-age population turned out. The problem in Texas, like much of the rest of the country, is getting people to vote in their economic interest. But first they have to get out to vote.

There also is less room for populist voices on radio and TV. Hightower tried a weekend talk show on ABC Radio that was canceled shortly after Disney took over the network in 1995 and a weekday talk show that struggled from 1997 until 2000 without corporate backing. He continues to produce a daily 2-minute commentary for about 170 radio stations.

Public TV and radio also have become dependent on corporate sponsors for their broadcasts, and coincidentally populists have become rare guests on their public affairs programs. Bill Moyers was one of the last journalists on PBS who welcomed populist voices and questioned the role of money in politics, and he retired at the end of April.

Hightower was one of the guests on Moyers’ last program, and he explained that “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.”

For the Tea Party, the target is government; for populists, the target is corporate lobbyists who pull the strings of government. Teabaggers have been strangely silent over the Republican opposition to populist financial reforms.

He cited as an example, the Wall Street reform that was being debated in Congress. The Senate rejected an amendment that would cut down banks that are “too big to fail,” which he said also are “too big to care.”

Power has been concentrated in the corporate suites, as corporations have amassed almost half a billion dollars for the 2010 elections, he noted. And that doesn’t count what corporations might spend as a result of the Citizens United decision, which allows them to make unlimited independent expenditures on behalf of candidates.

Hightower noted that people can support cooperatives, which offer everything from food to health care. Put your money in credit unions or community banks instead of the “Too Big to Fail” banks. There is even a cab co-op in Madison, Wis., the Union Cab Co., that bought the company after the owner got tired of fighting the cabbies’ unionization efforts in the 1970s. Now it’s profitable and cab drivers are able to put their kids through college.

TELECOMS FIGHT FCC BROADBAND REGS. Telecommunications firms — like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and others — plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to fight an FCC proposal to reclassify broadband Internet service as a telecom service in an attempt to enforce net neutrality, ThinkProgress.org reported (5/11). After federal appeals court ruled (4/6) that the FCC does not have the authority to order Comcast to stop slowing down certain types of Internet traffic, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski proposed putting ISPs in the same category as telephone companies to allow the commission to proceed with a “net neutrality” rule, a guiding principle for preserving an open Internet.

As the FCC now takes up net neutrality rule making, the industry is hiring front groups and “Astroturf” operatives in a campaign to kill net neutrality, Lee Fang reported at ThinkProgress.org. Speaking on Capitol Hill, these front groups took turns decrying the evils of the principle of a fair and unbiased Internet. The League of United Latin American Citizens, which is funded by AT&T, called Net Neutrality “Obamacare for the Internet.” Americans for Prosperity — a corporate front group founded by oil billionaire David Koch but also funded by telecom interests — unveiled a new ad smearing net neutrality as a “government takeover” (the initial ad buy is $1.4 mln). And Grover Norquist, representing his “Americans for Tax Reform” corporate front group, said net neutrality is like what China does, “putting policemen on every corner, on the street or on the Internet.”

Telecom firms like AT&T and Verizon are among the most profitable in the world, yet America lags behind other countries in terms of broadband access and speed, Fang noted (5/11). “Instead of dumping lobbying money into anti-net neutrality front groups and fear-mongering campaigns, the telecom industry should invest in improving service and accessibility,” he wrote.

TOO BIG TO BREAK UP? A move to break up six “Too Big to Fail” banks failed 33-61 in the Senate (5/6). The amendment sponsored by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Ted Kaufman (D-DE.) would have required megabanks to break up if they held more than 10% of the nation’s insured deposits or 2% of the GDP. It would have required Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley to scale down. Voting to break the banks were 29 Dems, one indy (Bernie Sanders, VT) and 3 Republicans (Tom Coburn, OK; John Ensign, NV; and Richard Shelby, AL). The Dems include Mark Begich (AK), Jeff Bingaman (NM), Barbara Boxer (CA), Brown, Roland Burris (IL), Maria Cantwell (WA), Ben Cardin (MD), Robert Casey (PA), Byron Dorgan (ND), Dick Durbin (IL), Russ Feingold (WI), Al Franken (MN), Tom Harkin (IA), Kaufman, Pat Leahy (VT), Carl Levin (MI), Blanche Lincoln (AR), Jeff Merkley (OR), Barbara Mikulski (MD), Patty Murray (WA), Mark Pryor (AR), Harry Reid (NV), Jay Rockefeller (WV), Arlen Specter (PA), Debbie Stabenow (MI), Tom Udall (NM), Jim Webb (VA), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Ron Wyden (OR)

The 27 Democratic senators who sided with 34 Republicans, one indy (Joe Lieberman, CT), the White House and the big banks to oppose the Brown-Kaufman amendment were Daniel Akaka (HI), Max Baucus (MT), Evan Bayh (IN), Michael Bennet (CO), Thomas Carper (DE), Kent Conrad (ND), Chris Dodd (CT), Dianne Feinstein (CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Kay Hagan (NC), Daniel Inouye (HI), Tim Johnson (SD), John Kerry (MA), Amy Klobuchar (MN), Herb Kohl (WI), Mary Landrieu (LA), Frank Lautenberg (NJ), Claire McCaskill (MO), Robert Menendez (NJ), Bill Nelson (FL), Ben Nelson (NE), Jack Reed (RI), Chuck Schumer (NY), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Jon Tester (MT), Mark Udall (CO), Mark Warner (VA).

Mike Lux at OpenLeft.com noted (5/8) that the treatment of the big banks could have an impact on Senate races in the mid-term election. In Delaware, US Rep. Mike Castle, a Republican who was favored in the race to win Joe Biden’s old seat, voted against breaking up the big banks, which could give Democrat Chris Coons an opening in the heavily Democratic working-class state. In Iowa, a state with a deep populist streak, Sen. Charles Grassley (R)’s vote to keep the big banks could make things more interesting for Roxanne Conlin, a populist lawyer who has made her living going after corporate malfeasance.

Lux, a political strategist based in D.C., said progressive populist economics and a political strategy of challenging special interest corporate power was gaining traction. “A citizen movement is bubbling up through the barriers of special interest concrete in our nation’s Capitol that is not driven by tea party anti-government fervor, but by the hopes of regular folks who believe we can take our country back,” he wrote. “Let’s keep building on our momentum.”

JOBS GROW, REPUBLICANS COMPLAIN. The Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that the US economy added a better-than-expected 290,000 jobs in April and revised jobs numbers for February and March upwards, putting both of those months into the black in terms of job creation. However, the workforce increased by 805,000 in April, so the unemployment rate actually ticked up to 9.9%.

Pat Garofalo of ThinkProgress.org noted (5/7) that one of the favorite Republican talking points about the economic stimulus has been that it only preserved government jobs, but of the jobs created in April, 231,000 were in the private sector, for a total of 523,000 new jobs in 2010. And the 44,000 manufacturing jobs added in April are the most manufacturing jobs added to the US economy since August 1998.

Steve Benen at WashingtonMonthly.com recalled (5/7) that Republican congressional leaders predicted last year that Obama’s economic recovery efforts would not rescue the economy, would not generate growth and would not create jobs.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the April report “disappointing news” because the jobless rate went up. “Washington Democrats have no coherent agenda to create jobs, and no interest in doing anything but continue to spend money we don’t have on ‘stimulus’ programs that don’t work,” he said.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) acknowledged that “job growth is always a good thing,” but he also complained, “Out-of-control spending in Washington has produced a Mount Everest of debt that we are asking future generations to climb. Even if the economy added 250,000 jobs every month, it would take nearly five years to get back to full employment. Five years is too long.”

Benen commented, “I can appreciate Cantor’s impatience, but after the mess Republicans created, getting back to full employment is going to take a while. Thankfully, Cantor wasn’t in the majority last year, and the United States didn’t respond to the crisis by approving his proposed five-years spending freeze, which we now know would have led to catastrophic consequences.”

OBAMA STARTS TRADE DEAL. During his election campaign, President Obama promised to fix NAFTA and craft a new job-creating trade strategy going forward. He promised his trade agreements would put working people, the environment, family farms and consumers first. Now the Obama administration has begun negotiations with seven Asian/Pacific countries on what could be its first trade agreement — known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), James Ploeser of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch reported. Negotiations currently include the US and Australia, Chile, Singapore, Peru, New Zealand, Brunei and Vietnam. The final deal may allow other Asian/Pacific countries to join on as well. Ploeser said Obama should use the TRADE Act, a comprehensive trade reform bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), as a starting point for the negotiating positions.

TAX BURDEN LOWEST SINCE 1950. Americans paid their lowest level of taxes last year since Harry Truman’s presidency, USA Today reported (5/10). Some conservative political movements such as the “Tea Party” have criticized federal spending as being out of control, but while spending is up, taxes have fallen to exceptionally low levels. Federal, state and local taxes — including income, property, sales and other taxes — consumed 9.2% of all personal income in 2009, the lowest rate since 1950, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports. That rate is far below the historic average of 12% for the last half-century. The overall tax burden hit bottom in December at 8.8.% of income before rising slightly in the first three months of 2010.

REPUBS HOWL OVER UNION VOTE CHANGE. The National Mediation Board issued a rule (5/10) that makes it easier for workers to unionize companies covered by the Railway Labor Act by only counting workers who vote in the election. Under the old rule, a majority of all workers had to vote for a union, while those not voting were counted as “no” votes. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said he would try to get Congress to overturn the agency ruling, which is considered a long shot.

UNION SALARIES DRAG ORGANIZING. The 2000s were a lost decade for worker wages, but labor’s top brass didn’t feel the pinch, Mark Brenner reported at Labor Notes (labornotes.org). According to data filed under the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA), the number of union officials and staff earning high salaries has exploded in recent years. Those earning more than $100,000 a year tripled between 2000 and 2008, the latest year with complete data, and the number earning more than $150,000 also tripled.

In 2008, nearly 10,000 union officials or staff brought home salaries greater than $100,000, costing a total of $1.2 bln. A subset, 1,612 individuals, pulled down salaries over $150,000, adding up to $316 mln. Looking at total compensation, which includes meal and housing allowances and other expense reimbursements, the numbers are even larger. Officers and staff collecting more than $100,000 in union funds numbered 13,688; their tab climbed to a combined total of more than $1.9 bln.

Of course, Brenner noted, these numbers pale in comparison to the $18 bln in bonuses Wall Street bankers gave themselves in 2008 after they burned the country’s economy to the ground.

Based on the 2008 data, Brenner noted, a $100,000 salary cap coupled with a ban on multiple salaries would free up $294 million a year, while a cap of $150,000 would save $74 mln. Capping total compensation at $100,000 would free up more than $500 mln, while a $150,000 cap would save $143 mln. Any of these scenarios would free up enough resources to triple the $29 mln that the AFL-CIO spent on organizing and member mobilization in 2008. The more aggressive approaches could even generate enough resources to triple the AFL-CIO’s entire budget of $153 mln that year.

Harold Daggett of the International Longshoremen’s Association was the highest-paid union official, making $646,621, followed by Edward Sullivan of the AFL-CIO, $618,775; Joseph Senese of NPWA (Production Workers), $583,312; O.V. Delle-Femine of the AMFA (Airline Mechanics), $558,494; Linda Stierle of the ANA (Nurses), $558,494; and Reg Weaver of NEA, $483,868. The 15 highest-paid union officials all make ore than $400,000.

RUSSIANS CORROBORATE REAGAN’S ‘OCTOBER SURPRISE.’ A Russian government report corroborated allegations that Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign interfered with President Jimmy Carter’s Iran-hostage negotiations in 1980, but the report apparently was kept from the Democratic chairman of a congressional task force that investigated the charges a dozen years later, Robert Parry reported at ConsortiumNews.com (5/6).

The Russian report, which was dropped off at the US Embassy in Moscow on 1/11/93, contradicted the task force’s findings — which were released two days later — of “no credible evidence” showing that Republicans contacted Iranian intermediaries behind President Carter’s back regarding 52 American hostages held by Iran’s Islamic revolutionary government, the so-called October Surprise case.

Lee Hamilton, then a congressman from Indiana in charge of the task force, told Parry he didn’t recall seeing the report, although he was the one who had requested Moscow’s cooperation in the first place and the extraordinary Russian report was addressed to him.

“In other words, the Russian report — possibly representing Moscow’s first post-Cold War collaboration with the United States on an intelligence mystery — was not only kept from the American public but apparently from the chairman of the task force responsible for the investigation,” wrote Parry, a former reporter for the Associated Press and Newsweek.

“The revelation further suggests that the congressional investigation was shoddy and incomplete, thus reopening the question of whether Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980 was, in part, set in motion by a dirty trick that extended the 444-day captivity of the hostages who were freed immediately after Reagan was sworn into office on Jan. 20, 1981.”

The coincidence between Reagan’s inauguration and the hostage release was curious to some but served mostly to establish in the minds of Americans that Reagan was a tough leader who instilled fear in U.S. adversaries. However, if the timing actually resulted from a clandestine arms-for-hostage deal, it would mean that Reagan’s presidency began with an act of deception, as well as an act of treachery.

The Russian report also implicates other prominent Republicans in the Iranian contacts, including the late William Casey (who was Reagan’s campaign director in 1980), George H.W. Bush (who was Reagan’s vice presidential running mate), and Robert Gates (who in 1980 had been a CIA officer on the National Security Council before becoming executive assistant to Carter’s CIA Director Stansfield Turner).

Casey, who served as Reagan’s first CIA director, died in 1987 before the 1980 allegations came under scrutiny. Bush, who was President during the task force’s 1992 inquiry, angrily denied the accusations at two news conferences but was never questioned under oath. Gates, who was CIA director in 1992 and is now President Barack Obama’s Defense Secretary, also has brushed off the suspicions.

As described by the Russians, the 1980 hostage negotiations boiled down to a competition between the Carter administration and the Reagan campaign offering the Iranians different deals if the hostages were either released before the election to help Carter or held until after the election to benefit Reagan.

SUNDAY TALK IS SKEWED. Sunday TV talk shows are dominated by white Republican men, with a geographical bias for the East and Midwest, Meteor Blades reported at DailyKos. (5/9) after tracking 16 months of the Sunday talk shows. During the survey, from January 2009 to April 2010, he tracked guests on ABC’s This Week, CBS’s Face the Nation, NBC’s Meet the Press, Fox News Sunday, CNN’s State of the Union and CNN’s Reliable Sources. He counted 137 individuals appearing on the shows who are now or have been governors, mayors, Congress members or senators. They made a combined 557 appearances. Of these, 43.3% were Democrats and 56.6% were Republicans. He noted that one independent, Sen. Joe Lieberman (CT) made nine appearances while the other indy, Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT) made one appearance.

The Top 11 were Mitch McConnell, 25 appearances; John McCain (21), John Kyl (18), Lindsey Graham (18), Mike Huckabee (13), Charles Schumer (13), Kent Conrad (12), Dick Durbin (12), Dianne Feinstein (12), Newt Gingrich (12) and Orrin Hatch (12). So, seven Republicans accounted for 38% of the total appearances by Republicans; and four Democrats accounted for 20% of total appearances by Democrats.

Seven members of the Black Caucus, 10 members of the Progressive Caucus (five of whom are also members of the Black Caucus), and four members of the Blue Dog Caucus appeared. The West was vastly underrepresented.

From the media, 245 individual reporters, editors, columnists and other pundits appeared on the six shows. Of these, 94 (38%) were women, 210 (86%) were white, 28 (11%) were African American, four were Latino (1.6%), and there was one Asian-American, one Indian-American, and one Bangladeshi-American, (0.4% each).

These 245 appeared a total of 863 times. Of these, 773 (87%) were white, 112 (11%) were African American, four were Latino (0.3%), and four were Asian or South Asian in ancestry (0.4%). While that African American figure may look fairly reasonable, Blades noted, Juan Williams, on Fox News Sunday, appeared 56 times, accounting for half of the total appearances by black reporters and pundits. Women of all races made 339 appearances, 38%.

The Top 11 guests from the media were Juan Willams (56), Bill Kristol (56), Mara Liasson (51), George Will (44), Brit Hume (28), David Brooks (20), Paul Krugman (16), Cokie Roberts (16), Sam Donaldson (15), Peggy Noonan (14), and Stephen Hayes (10).

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2010


News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2010 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652