George W. has already had to fight off questions over whether or not he snorted cocaine in his randy young adulthood. Ultraconservative Gary Bauer has faced accusations of having an extramarital affair. Al Gore made waves after he raised the water level of a river for a photo op. People are starting to whisper about Bill Bradley's past penchant for money bundling and for being the darling of Wall Street. Liddy Dole, Dan Quayle and Lamar Alexander announced their candidacies and have already left the stage.
Pat Buchanan has actually said in public that Hitler was misunderstood -- and he's still in the race.
Yes, the election may be a year away, but the candidates are already off and running. But what does it all mean in a time when voter turnout is at an all-time low, when trust of our elected officials is rock-bottom and people are turning away in disgust from the political process?
And what can we do to fix it? Jim Hightower, the popular former Texas agriculture commissioner, radio talk-show host and commentator recently sat down for a chat 'n' chew with the Independent on the populist movement to take America back from the global interests that have seized power.
I: Next year's presidential election is turning out to be quite a show, what with Warren Beatty, Donald Trump and Cybill Shepard all running for president. What does this all mean? Have we gone mad?
Hightower: Well, it is a very clear indicator that this isn't one of the proudest moments of the American democratic process. What we're reduced to is a choice between Lamar Alexander and Libby Dole -- and George W. Bush, of course -- and John McCain and Bill Bradley and Al Gore.
I: Are these candidates as embarrassing as the actors who are also running?
Hightower: At some levels, yes. The reason the actors are running -- in terms of Warren Beatty for sure -- is it's a desperate effort to thrust some issue into the presidential campaign that might actually be of interest to the American people. The mainline candidates are running on focus-grouped, poll-tested, thoroughly corporate-vetted issues.
I: It's a sad commentary when the person making the most sense is Warren Beatty.
Hightower: Well, it is a statement of how poorly developed the political process is at this point. I don't think he's doing it because it's just a wonderful ego moment for him. I think it's because there's such an incredible vacuum and a collapse of the Democratic Party that we've got two corporate candidates who couldn't excite the American public if they gave them both a flame-thrower, to be contenders for the Democratic Party nomination.
A millennial election should really be about rather fundamental issues. We should be asking, "How are we doing, and where do we as a society and as a country want to go?" A millennium is a riveting societal moment, and we could have had a real discussion in this country -- maybe not a plebiscite but at least a "How ya doing out in America?" Instead we're having just another money-soaked, corporate-driven, made-for-TV snoozer of an election.
I: And this thing is still a year away. With the corporate takeover, are we doomed?
Hightower: The good news is, there's so much good activity in the countryside, and we've got the rebellious spirit still within the American people -- who are not forever going to take this lying down. We have enormous and encouraging third-party activity. But we have to quit weighting on presidential campaigns.
We have to be focused more in 2000 on who we're electing to the [Statehouse], who's going to be our City Council members and county commissioners, and building a real grass-roots politics beginning with local offices. Then we can move up, so that by 2006, we're electing members of Congress. By 2008, we might have a U.S. Senate candidate or two. By 2012, we might have our own presidential candidate. It's gotta be a long-term, grass-roots process of building a real Progressive Party in America.
I: Is that the only way that third parties like the Greens and the Reform and the New Party will ever really be able to become serious contenders?
Hightower: That's the only way that third parties have ever become serious contenders. Populists in the 1870s and 1880s never elected a president, but they elected U.S. senators and entire state legislatures. They elected governors and changed the issues for the national debate and the political positions of both of the major parties by just the force of their organizing and their principles.
And that's what we've got to do. The Democratic Party should be in place and do all of this, but I would imagine there in Colorado, certainly in Texas and other places I've been, the Democratic Party is a shell. At most, it's a fund-raising arm. There's no real grass-roots activity, no 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week, 12-month-a-year organizing that is going on. We have got to go back to the grunt work of party building, and whether that will be built within the Democratic Party or as a third party is very unsettled right now. The Greens are doing that -- not only will they run someone for president, they're running for congressional seats and statewide office and local races. The New Party is a pioneer in this and has won two-thirds of the elections they are involved in. The Labor Party is beginning to move in that direction as well
I: Meanwhile, Republicans seem to be benefiting greatly from the shell that has become the Democratic Fund-raising Party. This is curious, because everyone said that Republicans would face a backlash in 2000 after they were so mean to Clinton. Yet the outrage has faded, and now the mainstream media have all but crowned King George. Why has this happened?
Hightower: Because we don't have a Democratic Party. We have a one-party system. Some people say, "I wish we had a third party"; I say, "I wish we had a second one." The Democratic Party at the national level is a branch of the money party. The Republican Party is another branch of that party, and they are both totally in debt to the Wall Street establishment.
So the policies of the Democratic Party on all of the fundamental economic issues are indistinguishable from the Republicans as far as the workaday majority is concerned. The result is, the workaday majority quit voting a long time ago. That's not a good strategy on their part, but nonetheless, you can understand why.
It's not that George Bush has gained great strength in taking the votes from the Democrats here in Texas; instead, he is essentially just getting the Republican vote. The national media is now saying, "George W. Bush is such a formidable candidate, because look what he did in Texas -- he got re-elected in 1998 by this overwhelming mandate and this sweeping victory." The fact is, we had the lowest voter turnout of any state in the country; we had 26 percent of the people vote. That means relatively 18 percent of the people of Texas voted for Bush. That's not a sweep.
I: A year ago, you predicted that Bush's candidacy would go nowhere, because he didn't stand for anything. Suddenly, here he is big as life. What happened?
Hightower: Sixty million dollars and the fact that the whole Republican establishment decided to cave in. My assumption, back when I was saying that, was that the Republicans cared something about their own principles, and it turns out they don't. Everybody from the Christian right to the gun lobby is saying, "Yea, but Bush can win." So they don't care what his principles are, and he has effectively been coronated by the Republican establishment. They basically didn't care that he didn't stand for anything and that he didn't know anything.
But there's still stuff to come. Bush has slipped 10 percent in his approval rating in New Hampshire.
I: Will Shrub self-destruct?
Hightower: I don't know that he's going to self-destruct, because he's got handlers who are desperately trying to keep him from being in a position to self-destruct. They're going to try to keep him under wraps for as long as possible and as much as possible and as deeply as possible, because he will have trouble competing with a John McCain in terms of issues and really grappling in a debate.
I: Does he still have no issues?
Hightower: Well, he has issues being done for him. He says, "I've got a hundred of the best advisors in America, and they're developing positions for me."
I: Like you, Pat Buchanan also calls himself a populist.
Hightower: Well, he is. I think he sincerely has come around to this position of what global corporations are doing to people around the world and what it means to the middle class of this country, so on that issue, I think he genuinely is populist.
And he is willing to take on Wall Street, which is a fundamental definition of populism. At that level, we have to acknowledge him. That doesn't mean we have to appreciate it for more than what it is. Because on the issues of abortion and immigration and social issues, Buchanan's thicker than my mama's pie crust.
I: It's early still, but the candidates seem to be again avoiding talking about issues like Social Security and health care and globalization. Why do they stay so quiet?
Hightower: These are not issues that anybody particularly wants to raise. Everybody from Bush to Gore to Congress don't want to do what it is that has to be done to actually make a difference, like with health care. On globalization issues, they all agree, they're all totally supportive of the World Trade Organization. You don't hear Al Gore and Bill Bradley go after each other on global-trade issues, because they are in complete agreement on that -- so is George Bush, so is John McCain.
They support the expansion of NAFTA and the expansion of the World Trade Organization, and they have completely swallowed the globaloney, and, therefore, there's no debate. On other fund issues, like campaign-finance reform, McCain raises it, and Bradley raises it, and that's two good things. But I don't know that you'd hear them talking real loudly about public financing of elections and getting corporate money completely out of the election process.
I: Another major issue they -- and the mainstream media -- are avoiding is the massively controversial global debate over genetically altered food.
Hightower: It is becoming quite an issue in the public. But it's not going to be an issue in the presidential campaign, because the candidates are all supportive of anything that says "tech," "high tech," "bio tech" and any kind of other "Tech." That's because they're getting money from those interests.
The farm crisis is another major issue. We have farmers going bankrupt right and left. And the best that main candidates can come up with is, "Well, we need more exports of U.S. commodities." That's not an answer. The fact is, farmers don't do the exporting. A handful of giants are the shippers and control the grain terminals, and they're the ones who get all the export subsidies. We need to have a national discussion about whether or not we're really going to have family farms or not. This is one of the great industries in America, yet we're just watching it go down the tube.
I: Election 2000 is the first year when all Gen X'ers will be of age to vote. Yet they vote in lower numbers than any other generation. How do we re-engage them into the democratic process?
Hightower: It's not just them. Every generation is looking at the Democratic and Republican alternatives, taking a whiff of it and saying, "Hmmm, no thanks," because there's nothing there to excite them. It's not that those Generation X'ers don't care. There's huge Gen X activism out there, and they are finding outlets for their activism, but they are not believing at this point that there's a political expression for that.
I: Your upcoming book, If the Gods Had Meant Us To Vote, They Would Have Given Us Candidates, is described as a plain-speaking, straight-shootin', best-selling political spark plug offering a visionary populist argument for how citizens can reclaim their political, economic and cultural heritage in election year 2000. In a nutshell, what's the argument, and how are we going to be able to reclaim our heritage?
Hightower: By building a new politics ourselves at a grass-roots level. Nobody is going to come do this for us, nobody ever has, and nobody did it for the radicals who founded this crazy country back in the 1770s.
Nobody did it for the anti-slavery people who fought against that horrible system and ultimately won. Nobody created the system for the suffragists. They had to take on the whole power structure themselves. Nobody did it for the labor movement, and nobody did it for the civil rights movement.
It has always been the case that people have to do their own lifting for democracy, and we're back to that point again. I tell a little bit of that history in my book, and I offer a lot of good examples of people who are fighting back and who are building this new kind of politics at the grass-roots level. It is my fundamental message that we've got to get back to the grassroots -- get out the grub hoes of party building -- and work door to door and put forward candidates in 2000 and 2001 for local and regional offices.
People want their country back. They want it back from the greedheads and boneheads and the spoilers and the speculators and the bigshots and the bastards who have stolen our country.
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