'If You Create The Democracy You Want To Have...' - An Afternoon With Jim Hightower

By aaroncynic in News on Jul 23, 2013 9:00PM

Photo Credit: Aaron Cynic/Chicagoist
“Agitation is what America is all about. If it were not for agitators we’d be wearing white powdered wigs singing ‘God hail the Queen.’ Agitation built America,” said Jim Hightower to a packed hotel conference room on Sunday. The author, radio host, former elected official and “progressive populist” rabble-rouser was speaking at an event put on by a group called Common Cause, which was celebrating a recent victory in the movement for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. At the end of May, Illinois became the 14th state to adopt a resolution supporting the reversal of Citizens United V. FEC,, the Supreme Court decision which allowed even larger unfettered corporate spending in elections.

The push to amend the Constitution to reverse Citizens United is just one step in trying to get money out of politics, something Hightower, along with a growing number of Americans across party lines, have been fighting for. Before he spoke, I talked with Jim for almost an hour, flanked by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington and Gapers Block contributor Emily Brosious.

“That we’d be having this discussion is insane. Jefferson warned about this at the start, about monied corporations, there to usurp power,” Hightower told us. This is a man who sees the inter-connectivity of issues, from corporate spending in elections to organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council writing public policy and beyond. He also understands how to motivate people to fight for a better future, even in the face of what seems like insurmountable odds. The movement to repeal Citizens United might seem small now, but in nearly all of the 14 states that have passed resolutions, almost three-fourths or more of voters supported it. While it can be demoralizing to see billions in corporate checks pouring into the campaign coffers of elected officials — from mayoral to presidential candidates — Hightower says it's the first step in a long game:

“That’s why I’m here and that’s why these people are doing what they’re doing, which is to show ‘we know you’re pissed off about this and we’re trying to do something about it. Let’s get organized.’ My final thing today will be ‘you’ve made a terrific start. You’ve established a model of action here. Now you have to build on that, you have to reach out to more people—organize, strategize, harmonize, all of that, and keep pushing, to make Congress do what you’ve asked them to do.

They’ve also got that component of saying that the legislature is asking Congress to do it and putting pressure. Then you have to organize delegations of them to team up with other states to begin to go meet with members of Congress and create a real push. Two years ago when it was first starting, Public Citizen and the Move to Amend—two groups working together—people on our sides said you can’t have a constitutional amendment it’s not even worth trying. But now they’re not saying that anymore. I’m talking about foundations and people who put money into this kind of thing. Now they’re saying it seems to be working, people are getting it. Corporations are not exactly popular. You don’t have to tell the people about it, they already know about it. But you do have to organize it and show that it’s going to go somewhere and that’s our responsibility as a grassroots movement.”

Even if an amendment passed overturning the decision, however, corporations have armies of lobbyists in Washington furiously fighting for them. It’s not hard to imagine a similar piece of legislation making its way through Congress, which is why Hightower says the public needs to remain vigilant:

“It doesn’t end. But it becomes a huge step, if you say they can’t spend that kind of money in a constitutional amendment, then that changes the dynamic, even of what they do next. But they will certainly keep pushing to try to find a way through it. Willie Nelson says it’s the early bird that gets the worm but it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese. You don’t necessarily win when you win. You’ve got to keep alert, keep your group together, and that’s what democracy really is, it’s quite hard.

Just passing that amendment is a tremendous organizing tool. You have generated all kinds of new talent in the field, in the countryside, both in terms of campaign management, candidates themselves, volunteer base that is trained, etc. If you create the democracy that you want to have, the democratic force that you want to have to enforce the continuing democratic possibilities and then there’d be other battles to fight.”

Ballot initiatives and constitutional amendments and organizing around elected officials isn’t enough however. Now more than ever, information and messaging is everything. People like the Koch brothers know this, and it’s why big business has thrown more money at media than ever before. Thanks to legislation passed in the 90’s which allowed and encouraged media consolidation, the American “marketplace of ideas” has grown stagnant. We might have thousands of channels to choose from, but the opinions and views on those channels have become increasingly monolithic. Hightower showed how politically dangerous that road can be to travel:

“The corporate agenda, we saw it in this last Congress and the House now too, is that austerity is the answer. We must have austerity in state government as well as national government because government is going broke. Government’s not going broke. It can’t, number one. Number two, it’s actually doing fairly well these days and austerity hurts that. But the media bought that whole line, even though it’s complete bullshit.

They even said Paul Ryan is a ‘serious economist’ because he thinks these big ideas. And it’s just complete horse fetish. Not to mention Paul Ryan grew up in a wealthy family because they had government contracts, in fact, they built Midway (Airport) out here and government contracts for your highways and all that so he’s a product of government spending. But they don’t do any digging. It just completely skewered the debate so when Obama did make a fairly serious stimulus proposal or at least to increase it and do something about joblessness the media could say ‘no, because that’s not what the conventional wisdom of austerity says we should be doing.’ So we didn’t. Finally several months ago it was discovered that the two academics that wrote the paper that led to the campaign by the right wing that ALEC picked up and the Koch brothers worked on - it was complete hokum. The facts weren’t right.”

Photo Credit: Aaron Cynic

Despite these things, I felt hopeful listening to Hightower. I’ve spent a lot of time on the streets covering movements of people fighting for change. I’ve stood with thousands and I’ve also stood with only a few dozen. Watching people raise their voices and struggle to fight to change the world only to feel those words shouted fell on deaf ears can deflate even the most dedicated activist. ALEC, the corporate backed organization responsible for pushing legislation promoting privatization in nearly every corner of American life, will have their 40th annual meeting in Chicago next month. Already, activists are organizing protests and demonstrations surrounding the conference. I asked HIghtower if that kind of street level protest is still effective in changing politics:

“It is in one way, in that it raises the profile of these groups that don’t want a high profile. That’s what happened to the Koch brothers. I was at the Palm Springs thing three years ago and spoke there. They were stunned, the Koch Brothers. We had a picture in Lowdown of David Koch in lowdown on his balcony saying “who are these people?” So Koch has become a four letter word and now ALEC is too. You can now say the word ALEC, not quite as widely as you can Koch, but people know what it is. It becomes a majority in state legislators now when a bad bill is introduced and a good progressive member stands up and says “aren’t you a member of ALEC? Didn’t you go to a meeting where this was talked about?” So you put a little stink on them.”

Spending as much time as I do with people who tend to have more “radical” politics, I tend to find it harder to connect with people who toe party lines—Republicans or Democrats. To me, a binary political system stifles democracy, and has made it much easier for corporations to control politics, rather than the people. Hightower agreed, saying public financing would be valuable in encouraging democracy:

“Any party gets access to the public money, so it makes you competitive. Third parties now...it’s hard to get on the ballot, you don’t get access to the debates, etc. So there’s a lot of barriers. I think a healthy democracy needs more than two parties.”

I tend to shy away from events like the one Hightower spoke at. It’s hard to feel sipping on a $3 coffee in a hotel lobby and later watching people speak from a stage can make a difference in politics. Surveying the room however, listening to HIghtower and other passionate speakers talk not only of what we need to do but ways we can do it — it did make a difference. I could see the inspiration on the faces of nearly everyone in the conference room. Those in attendance walked out with a sense that they’re not alone, that the odds aren’t necessarily insurmountable, and yes, change can happen, if you’re dedicated enough.

It's like HIghtower and so many others have said: Democracy is hard, but we need to create the democracy we want to have.