As America's self-described "No. 1 Populist," Jim Hightower is back like a muscle car right out of the 1970s -- he's a classic, updated for modern times.
"Populism never went away in the hearts and minds of the people, because that's who the American people are," says Hightower from North Carolina, in the middle of a 40-city tour for his new book (co-written with Susan DeMarco), Swim Against the Current.
"The real spectrum is not right to left -- it's top to bottom."
Known to readers of The Inlander for his pithy, biting commentaries, Hightower will bring his m & eacute;lange of humor, outrage and hope to the Inland Northwest with two appearances this week.
Over the past few decades, voices of power have generally kept populism in check by labeling it as "too angry."
"That angry charge is part of why we wrote this book," Hightower says. "People aren't angry; they are just rebelling from the corporate order."
So if they're not angry, are they at least, you know, bitter?
"For the last 30 years, incomes have been going down," Hightower points out. "So, yes, those people have been stewing for a long time. They are part of a larger majority -- the 81 percent who think we are going in the wrong direction. Reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw: 'Where are we going and what are we doing in this handbasket?'"
Now 65, Jim Hightower is from deep in the heart of Texas -- that cowboy hat ain't an act. He was the editor of the acclaimed Texas Observer, then served as Agriculture Commissioner of Texas from 1982-91, implementing sustainable practices in a state not exactly famous for them. Through these dark years for liberals, Hightower has been a lonely voice for back-to-basics politics that favor every American, not just the rich. Today, he has six books to his credit, his column is carried in 75 newspapers and his radio show can be heard on 130 stations.
But the subjects he covers can be so depressing. Yes, we're getting ripped off -- again! -- by some well-connected corporation. Even with his trademark humor, some people just don't have the energy to care anymore.
"You can't have a movement without hope," Hightower admits, adding quickly that he sees the signs everywhere that people are ready to take back their government. "Yes, there's a real concern that the Bushites, with the complicity of the Democratic leadership, have done so much damage that we can't recover. I'm especially wanting to reassure [audiences] on that -- America has been through a lot, but the people of this country have not gone bad."
That's why he offers hope in his new book -- story after story about how regular Americans, and many businesses, are already cleaning up the mess. And there are some hopeful signs in politics, too -- he points to Montana Sen. Jon Tester and even fellow Texan Ron Paul as proof people want a change.
Not surprisingly, Hightower (who worked for Ralph Nader in 2000) is endorsing Obama.
"The significant thing is not Obama, it's the campaign -- it's the phenomenon. It's millions of young folks yearning to produce some real change. Pundits knock it -- they say he's talking about this vague sense of hope. But we can actually be the country of our ideals."
He believes that the mainstream media have it in for Obama, the way they did for Howard Dean and John Kerry, amplifying inanities like "the scream" and the Swift Boaters, clearing the way for a business-friendly candidate like George W. Bush or John McCain.
"The media has exposed itself as the fraud that it is," says Hightower. "It's not journalism; it's a handful of investors and CEOs maximizing their investments. You can wring your hands about it, but rather than do that, add strength to the independent media -- weeklies, independent radio stations, the Internet. We have to create our own media; we're not going to get Rupert Murdoch to suddenly become a populist."
There's that red meat rhetoric -- nobody represents the out-of-control rich better than Rupert Murdoch. Then he brings a rant you might have heard in 1896 to its crescendo, predicting a day of reckoning is nigh: "What's coming down the pike this time is a huge turnout. That's what they can't measure and they can't control."
Jim Hightower's Inland Northwest tour starts in Sandpoint at 7 pm on Sunday, April 27, at the Panida, 300 N. First Street. Tickets: $15. Call (208) 255-6276. Then, at 7 pm on Monday, April 28, at Lewis and Clark High School's Auditorium, 521 W. 4th Ave., he'll appear in a benefit for KYRS Thin Air Community Radio. Tickets: $12/$15 at the door. Call 747-3012 or 325-SEAT.