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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Hightower Book Review

It’s been a long cold barren winter for liberals, progressives and populists.

Three years of a Congress dominated by the extreme right wing elements of the Republican Party.

A President who appears more comfortable as an Eisenhower Republican than as the leader of a progressive Democratic Party.

A media that has largely abandoned its role as a muckraker and increasingly serves as a bland excuse maker for the excesses of the corporate world.

Sounds pretty bleak?

It is. But, one Texas populist–Jim Hightower–sees light at the end of this dark tunnel. For disheartened liberals, Hightower’s new book–There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road But Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos–is a refreshing breeze of optimism.

Hightower sees with 20-20 vision all the shortcomings of the media, the politicians and the corporate elite. His criticism of the current state of the establishment is searing.

But, Hightower preaches the politics of hope for the future:

“At the root of the public’s negative feeling is something entirely positive: Americans want to be involved in the politics and governing of their country. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, which says the majority is too self-absorbed with their own lives to care about public life, they have a deep longing to participate.”

Hightower sees America’s grass roots alive with progressive agitation and political participation.

Hightower argues that many citizens who have written off national and congressional politics a “public relations charade” are devoting time and energy to causes and campaigns at the local level…”

All that is needed to tap this well of progressivism, Hightower says, is “a tiny opening, a sense that our voices will be heard, a sense that change is possible if we take some action…”

Hightower scoffs at the media’s interpretation of the 1996 elections as an indicator that a majority of the people were happy with the status quo.

“From the moment the polls closed on the 1996 elections, the media went around plastering little yellow Happy Face stickers on the results, proclaiming confidently that people really are satisfied with the way things are, that there really is not that much anxiety any more about corporate downsizing, that big money corruption of politics really did not bother voters all that much, that the populist appeals really do not work, and that things are perfectly OK. Really.”

Hightower points out that more than half of the 100 million plus eligible voters did not bother to go to the polls–the lowest turnout since 1924 and the second lowest since 1824.

“This non-voting majority, Hightower says, “is a long way from thinking everything is hunky dory, as polls have made clear and as any visit to any working class hangout in the land will make even clearer.”

Contrary to the analysis of the media gurus, the Texas populist says “you will not find a picture of a smiling, satisfied electorate among the non-voters, but a brooding civic rebellion.”

Hightower has some solid credentials to lend weight to his view of the current political scene.

He was elected to two terms as Texas Agriculture Commissioner. He managed the national presidential campaign of Senator Fred Harris in 1976 and served as legislative aide to the late Senator Ralph Yarborough. He is former editor of the Texas Observer and now serves up commentary on a nationally syndicated radio program, “Hightower Radio: Live from the Chat and Chew.”

In his book–as in his radio show–Hightower delivers a serious message in a well-honed Southwestern-style humor reminiscent of Will Rogers–but with the bite of a Texas jalapeno pepper.

Here are some of Hightower views on the current scene:

On Bill Clinton–…a quisling in the class war…Clinton-the-Democrat campaigned as the candidate of economic justice, but he has governed as the President of economic privilege. He is an embarrassment to the party of Jefferson, Jackson, Roosevelt, Truman, JFK and LBJ.”

On the news media–The true media bias in our country is not to the left or to the right, but to the top. It is a bias that filters our news through the lens of the privileged and leaves most families feeling shutout of the public debate by the elite media as they are by the elite politicians. It is also a bias that often reveals the news presenters to be embarrassingly out of touch with terra firma.

On Republican Genes–There must be a Republican gene. How else can we explain the astonishing fact that Republican politicians from Warren Harding to Ronald Reagan and on now to Newt Gingrich have been so consistently committed to the preposterous notion that the answer to poverty is charity and that the only way to increase charity is first to increase the fortunes of the wealthy. ..every time we have tried this trickle-down philosophy we have indeed made the rich fabulously richer, but somehow or other, the poor have always ended up getting trickled on, figuratively speaking.”

On Corporate Dominance–Few politicians, pundits, economists, or other officially sanctioned mouthpieces for what passes as public debate in our country want to touch the topic, but–as ordinary folks have learned from daily encounters–the corporation has gotten way too big for its britches, intruding into every aspect of our lives and altering by private fiat how we live.”

On Political Change–“A change is coming because here is no party representing the worker majority of our country, creating a political vacuum that a civil society cannot survive. The vacuum exists because today’s national Democratic party is immobilized by its corporate sponsors and its craven leadership, no longer having either the inclination or the political freedom to nod to that majority, much less represent it.”

Hightower has delivered a biting critique of contemporary America and its power structure. But, with the criticism, the Texas populist holds firmly to a belief that the people at the grass roots –if reached with the right message–can change the nation for the better.

[There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road But Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos,” by Jim Hightower, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, $23]