The Asheville Citizen-Times interviewed Jim Hightower, syndicated columnist, former Texas commissioner of agriculture and author of “Swim Against the Current: Eve a Dead Fish Can go with the Flow,” during his recent visit to Asheville. This is an edited transcript of that interview.
A C-T: What prompted you to write your new book?
Hightower: With Susan DeMarco, my long-time co-conspirator and co-author, we get to do a lot of traveling and we get to see a very different country than the powers that be tell us we are. We find that folks are not just marching to the corporate order, just going along to get along, proceeding cautiously and conservatively. Rather we’re a nation of mavericks and mutts who are rather rebellious at a core level. We kept meeting ordinary folks who are doing the most extraordinary things. In business, in politics, in health care, in banking, in housing developments, in religion, in so many different aspects of our lives. And yet they were beneath the establishment radar. So we thought what the hell, we should tell a few of these stories and not merely to celebrate them but more importantly to let other folks know who have this rebellious instinct that they’re not alone, and as we put it you just turn that little sucker loose in whatever aspect of you life you choose to do so.
We wrote up some 50 of these stories. None of these folks are Rockefellers, they’re not rich, none of them are Einsteins, not of them are just lucky, they’re really rebels in the great American tradition of rebellion. We cite Oscar Wilde who said, “Be yourself, everyone else is taken,” and we find people really do have that spirit. They’re out there, just showing the way to escape the corporate tentacles, which we’re told can’t be done, that the corporate way is really the only way, including in politics with big money.
But as a friend of ours whose been a long time pioneer in the organic movement puts it, those who say it can’t be done should not interrupt those who are doing it. We found these great folks – including these people right here - and we wrote up in a section on clean elections stories of the North Carolina Clean Election campaign leading to your judicial public financing program and now extending that even further. And it’s just a terrific example. I use the story in my travels, in my talks and people are amazed, one, that it can be done and two, that it’s succeeding and three, that it’s something they should do.
A C-T: Can you give me one of your stories?
Hightower: I’ll give you one in business of a guy named Chris Johnson, a Texas pharmacist who was doing well, making six figures in a corporate chain drug store operation and climbing that corporate ladder. But he said it just made me sick to my stomach. What made him sick was that people would come in with their prescription, he would fill them, present the bill and they would back up and leave because they couldn’t afford the medicine.
As a corporate functionary, he had no authority to say, ‘Well, you need this for your health, so let’s work out something.’ So he finally got sick enough that he spun out and created a store called Savers, which caters to people who have no insurance …. He found that because he didn’t have to deal with the insurance bureaucracies and because he could keep his overhead low that he could sell a bottle of pills that he sold for $59 at the corporate store for $16 and still make a profit. Chris says that he could easily double the price to $32 and his customers would still think it was a very good deal, but he says that would put me in the mindset of the corporation he left and I don’t want to be in that mindset. I want enough so that I can take care of my family and stay in business.
And it also meant a better life for him because he could alter his hours so he could be home with his two young boys in the morning and get them off to school and not go home to a dark house at night. His store became more than a crass commercial transaction. It’s a community center, he knows the people who come in, they know him, they exchange family photos and that sort of thing. He says it’s a matter of aligning your work with your values.
There are sort of two broad categories of people that we encountered. One is people like Johnson who wanted a more personal way than the corporate way of living and in his case doing business. And others who thought, there’s got to be a better way of doing this than what we have now and that’s a case like the public financing alternative in politics. Because the powers that be teach you that reform doesn’t really work in politics, we passed the McCain-Feingold thing and they found loopholes through it and end-runs around it, so don’t even try it.
But Maine was the pioneer state, it was the first one to really break loose and provide this public financing alternative. … What it means is that a woman like Deborah Simpson whom we wrote about, in Maine she was a single mom working tables in a café up there, which means she was making half of minimum wage and whatever tips she could squeeze out. Not exactly the target demographic that the system chooses to run for high office. Yet she says because of public financing it was doable, so she’s now in her fourth term in the Maine legislature bringing a voice and a perspective that body never had before.
Maine now has 83 percent of its Senate and 84 percent of its House elected without taking a dime in corporate money, so it certainly has changed the politics there. And you’ve got your own wonderful example here in North Carolina of the judicial success that has come from public financing. I saw some numbers on the races this time that the vast majority of candidates are choosing the clean election alternative.
And in Arizona, of their 11 top statewide office holders, 10 were elected without taking a dime, including Janet Napolitano, the governor, who says she could not have run for governor except that public financing was available. She also says it’s now easier to deal with the legislature because so many of the legislators have now been elected with public financing and so you can have a direct conversation without a lobbyist sitting in the middle of it. You can actually talk about the issues.
A C-T: What motivated you personally to take this on? Talk a little bit about your own personal story.
Hightower: Well, I spent most of my life trying not to have a job and I’ve mostly succeeded. I have a lot of faith in the work-a-day grass-roots folks in the country. That’s where I come from. My parents came off tenant farms and started a small business in this little town of Denison, Texas. Years ago when I became editor of the Texas Observer in the mid-1970s, followed Molly Ivins there, the liberals in the state were saying Texas was a conservative state. McGovern had run and lost badly …. And so, woe is us Texas had turned conservative. I knew they were talking about people like my father and mother who if you asked are you liberal or conservative, my daddy would certainly say conservative. But if you talked to him about the bank holding companies and the chain stores and what they were doing to small businesses like him, talk about the oil lobby in Austin and Washington, then he was not a conservative, he was a William Jennings Bryan radical. And so this populist approach is one that we should proceed with politically, those of us on the progressive side because it cut across all these lines.
And then I tested that in politics and lo and behold I won a couple of terms to statewide office. And then practiced that as agriculture commissioner, changed the whole apparatus to work with just regular people, farmers, farmworkers, consumers, workers…. To my mind this showed that this was a politics that could succeed because you were really going to the core of just regular people and if you trusted them, you could do something.
And that applies I think today to this present election that we’re having, presidential and congressional and otherwise. I believe to govern as a progressive, you have to bring the outside in, you can’t win inside. And I had such an example of that because among the duties available to me as ag commissioner was the pesticide regulator in the state of Texas. And having the authority, we thought well, let’s use it for a change. Nobody had been doing it and we were the heaviest user of pesticides in the country. So we promulgated what was then the most comprehensive pesticide regulations in the country. This led to great huffing and puffing and animosity from the chemical lobbyists and the farm bureau. The Republican legislators and we had a Republican governor and they decided this was their chance to get rid of me.
So they had one bill to make my office appointed by the governor rather than elected and another bill to move the pesticide authority out of the agriculture agency. So they had it set up in a hearing room maybe twice the size of this room, but they had to move it out to the House chamber because so many people showed up and filled the galleries, people from all over the state. My first witness was Willie Nelson, my second witness was Barbara Jordan, my third witness was the chairwoman of the Dallas Republican women’s organization, because Republicans don’t want their babies eating pesticides.
So sure enough, we beat that effort. The office is still elected and the pesticide authority is still there.
I think that’s the same thing that will happen here. I’m an Obama person in the presidential race and to me the significant thing about the Obama phenomena is not Obama, but the phenomena. There are millions of people, young people and folks who haven’t been voting in a long time, who are in the process, excited, engaged, believing that change is actually possible. I think Obama represents the possibility of change, not the assurance of it. His policies are not that dramatically different than Hillary Clinton’s and in some cases not as good as hers.
But he would not go into office by himself. He would not go in with the same of Democratic political operatives. And he would not go just go in with the special interests. But this grassroots force that is so enthused behind his candidacy would come in with him and that would give him the chance to broaden and deepen his policies to a more progressive level and then to govern progressively.
A C-T: When you are talking about progressive policies – there are people who view themselves as conservatives and vote Republican pretty consistently, but in many cases they are not necessarily voting in their own economic self-interest. They’re voting based on hot-button issues like abortion or gay marriage How did you when you were running for office get past all of that? Was it because of your background?
Hightower: It was one, talking about their economic interests. ..Texas did not turn conservative in the 90s. …What happened was the Democratic Party stopped talking to and about working folks and small farmers and old folks and children, the core constituency of the New Deal coalition and instead became Republican lite. (They) thought the way to win elections was to raise money from rich people and throw that money at television sets. So our whole grassroots organization disappeared. Working people said Democrats are not standing with us, why would we stand with them? So they quite voting. It’s not that they turned Republican.
And those who might be inclined to vote on their economic self-interest were not having that appealed to. So they then went to the Republican side on all the Karl Rove social issues and then the Bush/Cheney patriotism, war-mongering, fear-mongering issues. So in 1998 when Bush got reelected governor setting him up to run for President, with Rove engineering all of that, we had the lowest voter turnout in the country, we had 26 percent of the people voting. That means he’s the choice of about 14, 15 percent of the people of Texas, yet he used that election to say see I can win in Texas, I’m so popular in Texas, but it never was true.
And so to me that’s the progressive future. There’s (Thomas) Frank’s book, “What’s the matter with Kansas?”
He ultimately concludes that too. There’s nothing the matter with Kansas. The matter is with the politics that does not address the economic interests of the people. We spent a lot of time in this book on evangelicals. The rise of the phenomena that very few progressives know about – that is, of an evangelical environmental movement. And those folks, they were put on a little tiny political reservation by Karl Rove – gay marriage and abortion - but they have now broken free of that. For a couple of reasons, one, the Bushites delivered nothing to them. They got all their votes, what was it, four out of five evangelicals apparently voted for Bush who voted in 2004. So they got all those votes and they didn’t even get a hearing about this issue of gay marriage, so one they felt betrayed by that. The felt suckered.
But two, more importantly, these are regular people, these are working folks, people of color, poor people. That’s who’s in these churches. Bankers don’t go to those churches. And those are the people who are hurting. It’s business people, it’s farmers, it’s workers, hurt by NAFTA, hurt by dismantling of the Middle Class framework, hurt by the offshoring of their children’s future. They are now part of the now 81 percent who say that America is headed in the wrong direction.
And then the third thing is they’ve had some political/Biblical awakenings. As one Evangelical minister said the litmus test is the Gospel, the whole of it, not just Leviticus. And so they issued, a couple of years ago, an evangelical call to action. It had sections on environmentalism, on poverty, racism, human rights, saying in effect, we’re not going to be held captive, as one of the people we talked to said, by the Republican Party.
So they issued a profound document a year ago January that got one-day run in the mid-pages of the New York Times as though it was an oddity. And it was a group of a dozen or so major evangelical leaders, younger ones, these are not the Pat Robertsons, the James Dobsons. There’s a whole group of 50 and younger that have moved away from those people. These evangelical leaders with about a dozen major scientists on global warming… came to an agreement on a document calling for the world to pay attention to and do something about global warming that the Sierra Club would not have been bold enough to write. It’s a dramatic document. They talk of structural sin, by which them mean corporations. They don’t call it environmentalism, they call it creation care, because environmentalism is a demonized word in that movement.
They go back to the Genesis reference to taking care of the garden. So it is a Biblical imperative, it’s a moral force that’s joining force with a big secular issue that has really profound implications for the political dynamics of the discussion about global warming.
We interviewed Rich Cizik, he’s the chief lobbyist of the National Association of Evangelicals in Washington, D.C., been there a long time. He believes the earth was created in six days because that’s what it says. He has been a leader in this movement. He was taken by another guy, kind of drug, he says, off to a meeting on global warming in London and was just blown away by the evidence that was presented particularly focused on the decimation of species. It’s not just us on earth, it’s these species we’re supposed to be taking care of. He called it a second altar call. He has taken them on. Robertson has been out to get him. Dobson wants him fired, but his board is sticking with him because they know the movement is headed in that direction.
A C-T: Could you talk a bit about campaign finance reform and how you see that affecting the kind of democracy we have?
Hightower: As I think a majority of the American people now feel, people of all political stripes, we don’t really have a democracy. We have a money-soaked system in which money doesn’t just talk, it shouts, and drowns out the voice of regular people. And they know they’re not part of that system. I forget what the numbers are, a fraction of one percent of American people give even, I think, $200 to political candidates. Folks are angry about that. But they feel powerless to do much about it and frankly the media does little in the way of coverage on a routine basis, which is what this kind of issue demands. Just as surely as we build up to the next American idol, we need to have a discussion on an ongoing basis about our democracy.
And in any movement, any democratic cause, little “d” democratic cause, you have to have hope, people have to see that there’s a possibility of change. That’s why what’s happened here in North Carolina and in Maine and Arizona and a few other places is so important. Because once people learn that there’s this system that really does work, then they get very excited about “well, we could do that, here in our town.”
That’s what I’m telling you. You don’t have to wait on your legislature, much less wait on Washington. You can do this yourself. That’s why democracy requires heavy lifting from the grassroots. …Great little “d” democratic reforms have always come from the grassroots. They’ve not started in Washington. That’s the genius of the federal system we have, experimentation is possible. And by the way, that’s why corporate lobbyists are busy in Washington all the time to say we need national standards. We don’t need all this mishmash of state laws and regulations. Let’s standardize everything in Washington.
You’ve got national legislation now proposed for public financing for Congressional elections. Dick Durban, the Senator from Illinois, and I think John Tierney from Massachusetts is the chief House sponsor. There’s some bi-partisan co-sponsorship of it. … A poll taken that we cite in the book shows that 70 percent of the American people favor it. So the will of the people is there. But we have to fight my own party. In Massachusetts, for example, Democrats run the legislature.
Massachusetts passed public financing, but the legislature refused to fund it because they don’t want this competition.
A C-T: Do you see a Democratic president being able to make any difference in whether this legislation goes forward?
Hightower: …Obama has raised most, not that he’s pure or anything, but he has raised most of his money with smaller donations, thanks to this Internet phenomenon. He’s less wedded to the Wall Street money powers. I think there are two levels. One, if it go to him it would have such political movement behind it that it would be awfully hard for a Democrat not to sign it. Not impossible, but hard. Then two, obviously, if a Democratic president got behind it, it would advance the cause dramatically, just the power of the bully pulpit to be able to travel the country and make that an issue, say as Bill Clinton made NAFTA an issue.
A C-T: Is Maine the best model that’s out there now?
Hightower: Yes, I think it’s a good one. It’s the longest and it’s every office in the state.
A C-T: Have there been any issues with funding? Has it broken the state budget?
Hightower: No, I don’t think it’s been any problem. In fact that’s a great selling point for other states that try to do it. It was here, I believe, that legislators from Maine came and it was part of the education process to go around and talk to editorial boards and others. So, no, it has not. In Arizona they pay for it with a tax on lobbyists, which is very popular. And they tried to kill it, the legislature tried to kill it in Arizona, they went to two court cases on it and tried to undo it, the lobbyists did. And people just kept pushing it back, ‘no this is what we want.” New Mexico has it for their public utility elections. Albuquerque has passed it and Portland, Ore.
A C-T: What do you think of North Carolina’s efforts so far?
Hightower: It’s dramatic. I mean you’ve elected four women in the last round of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals elections including a woman chief justice for the first time ever of the Supreme Court. It just shows that it opens the process up and makes incumbents nervous, and I think is healthy in a democracy.
A C-T: And one of the reasons it’s really hard to get such legislation passed….
Hightower: Yeah, but you can do very clever things like they did here. One that we cite in the books is having school teachers call their former students and say “Don’t make me come to Raleigh.” … So, now you’ve got Chapel Hill doing a pilot program and then these others – state auditor and two or three others are going to test it out. Maybe you don’t want to bite off the whole shebang right off the top, so you can do the North Carolina thing or the New Mexico thing and take a certain office. That’s a good test, cause it lets people kind of focus and get hold of it.
A C-T: How many states have some version?
Hightower: I think it’s like seven.
A C-T: What was the most surprising thing you learned in writing this particular book?
Hightower: I think the most surprising thing – two things really - was the evangelicals…. And the second thing was the diversity and extensiveness of businesses that were defying the corporate order. That’s the one area where you would expect conformity to be rigid. We cite Milton Friedman, the guru of the modern corporate movement as saying that CEOs have no responsibility beyond making the most money they can for their shareholders. So that’s been the driving ethic for the last 30, 40 years at least and we see that now to extremes.
A C-T: An awful lot of people who work in corporate America, a lot of their retirement and their wealth is now tied up in 401ks, which are invested in Wall Street firms. So they have a vested interest in those CEOs making the most money they can because their future is tied to corporate earnings. Corporate earnings go down, stock value goes down. I don’t know what the numbers are, but that’s a lot of people now, a lot more people than 50 years ago. How do you balance that interest – and their other interests which are in a true democracy where there’s a chance for their children to have a future, where there’s a world that’s a decent world that’s clean and safe and all the other species aren’t dead. Is it a corporate ethics issue? Do you see corporate America as the enemy, the demon, or do you see it in some kind of nuanced way, keeping in mind that investment that an awful lot of us have in it being successful?
Hightower: That’s not an accident that our economy is based on that and that we essentially hold people hostage to their 401ks and to their health care. So many people are sticking with their jobs because they need health care. That’s got to change. That’s a huge change that has to happen. We got to have a national health care system that’s not attached to jobs. And the corporations shouldn’t have that either. It’s not a corporate responsibility. It’s a public responsibility. We have a corporate system that’s designed itself, including its work through the government, to put as many people as possible in the grasp of the corporate tentacles.
The second thing I would say is that there are a lot of people angry about that. They want another way. We actually sat down to write this book when we got an email a year ago from a woman named Linda we cited on page 2 of the book who says in essence that she’s got a good job, does it well, but she is feeling unsatisfied and would like to be a force for change, to be a cog in a wheel that’s on the right vehicle. And a lot of people feel like that I think within the corporate system. And in direct answer to your questions, corporations as we know it now, the corporation has become a behemoth, a beast. There is a corporate imperative of the CEO to pursue the short term self-interest of him or herself, which they express in terms of the needs of all the shareholders, but they’re really talking about the big institutional shareholders.
A C-T: Those are the big retirement funds. They’re the ones Richard Moore manages in Raleigh.
Hightower: But also in direct answer to your question, I think it’s only 60 percent of the American people who have any stock, even through 401ks and most who do have no control over that stock. A lot of those people in those big funds hate the corporations they’re invested in. …
A CEO can just be a sweetheart of a person, love their family, have pets and gardens with flowers, yet once they get to the office in the morning, they have a whole other requirement on their behavior. And it is that they take whatever shortcuts are necessary to keep that stock price up, to make those quarterly returns, and if that means firing another 5,000 workers, if it means offshoring more jobs, if it means bulldozing whole forests and sticking consumers, then they have a fiduciary responsibility to do that. Now that’s a skewed and screwed up system.
And again, back to your point, yeah, there are a lot of people who have a financial self-interest in that. But just like the evangelicals, you’re not just one dimensional and the bottom line is not the only line.
A C-T: We were built on a capitalist system. How do you balance that self-interest and the importance of self-interest in generating discoveries, generating entrepreneurship, how do you balance that, control that in a way that it doesn’t crush people who aren’t quite as smart or quite as aggressive?
Hightower: Corporation is not a synonym for capitalism. In fact Adam Smith wrote about capitalism in terms of the consumers having the power to direct the services and goods of millions of suppliers, of companies. Adam Smith was not a fan of giant corporate structures and monopolies or oligopolies or any other level of those. So, in fact, corporations are not innovative, they’re not entrepreneurial. They squash those when they buy them. Look at the organic movement. Wal-mart is now the biggest seller of organic milk in the world, but it’s knocking down the organic producers. It’s buying milk from China where they cannot certify that it’s actually organic. So they violate the principles of it, but they’ve got the power to crush the entrepreneur. The contest in our society is between the capitalist system, which does speak of individualism and entrepreneurialism. Then we have the other competing force, which is the ethic of the common good, which Americans also believe in very, very deeply. And so this individualism has to be subject to the notion of the common good. Hence, you can’t go poison your neighbor’s well.http://www.jimhightower.com/