Today, we pay tribute to the champions of grassroots action fighting against the moneyed interests trying to buy and control government.
One of their most articulate spokesmen is writer and commentator Jim Hightower who travels the country preaching the gospel of populism. A former congressional aide and two-term agriculture commissioner of his native Texas, he is the author of several books and edits a newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown.
Hightower tells Bill, “There is a growing rebellion and an increasing awareness among different groups fighting different battles that they are connected… People are beginning to get together and see their common interest.”
Following Hightower’s conversation with Bill, a report from producer Karla Murthy spotlights the recent “Rising Voices for a New Economy” conference held in Washington, DC. Over 500 grassroots members of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the National People’s Action gathered to meet and to learn from each other, and to speak truth to the power of corporate America in Washington.
BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company, organized people against organized money. The spirit of ’76 lives on.
JIM HIGHTOWER: There is a greater power that is building up in the countryside, simmering, bubbling in different places and that’s going to come together because you can’t hold the middle class down. That’s a lot of people to hold down. They’re beginning to rebel, that’s what I’m saying.
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. On this Fourth of July weekend, think about the authors of the Declaration of Independence who had the courage and nerve to stand up to the British crown and say, enough. And think of the everyday people, regular people, who then put themselves on the line to back up that Declaration. Those patriots have their counterparts today in the fight against the modern tyranny of organized money and its chokehold on our government.
These champions of grass roots action are fighting for a rearrangement of power not from the left or from the right but from the bottom up. They, too are saying, enough. No one speaks more powerfully for them than they do for themselves.
One of their best known has been agitating for ordinary people for most of his life. Like the circuit riders of old, spreading the word, Jim Hightower is forever on the road, speaking, riding the electronic rails of the Internet, appearing on radio and TV, preaching the grassroots gospel. He’s had first-hand experience of politics and government, both as a legislative assistant on Capitol Hill and as the two-term agriculture commissioner of his native Texas, where he fought for small farmers against the giants of agribusiness. In addition to his books he publishes this political newsletter, “The Hightower Lowdown,” which many of us consider so essential I once raised money to help make people more aware of its wit and wisdom.
Welcome back, Jim.
JIM HIGHTOWER: Thank you, Bill. Great to be with you.
BILL MOYERS: You have been sounding the populist trumpet ever since we first met 30 or more years ago. But the walls of Jericho are still standing. Corporate power is, practically has the lease on Congress, the rich are richer, Wall Street is back on top, and politics at almost every level is overwhelmed by money. The robber barons have won, wouldn’t you acknowledge that?
JIM HIGHTOWER: Well, the robber barons are certainly atop. And they, but I believe is this populist fervor that is challenging that robber barony that we have dominating pretty much every aspect of our lives. You know, politics, the economy, whether you get a job or not and whether that job comes with any pay, much less health care. And, you know, the media, you know, right on down the line.
Yet in every one of those segments there is a growing rebellion and an increasing awareness among different groups fighting different battles that they are connected to the other groups. It’s not a movement, yet. But it’s beginning to connect up. There’s now this group called the United Workers Congress. And these are ten different very low income employee sectors; they’re farm workers; they’re nannies; they’re taxicab drivers; they’re day laborers; and they’re adjunct professors.
BILL MOYERS: Adjunct professors?
JIM HIGHTOWER: Professors.
BILL MOYERS: That’s an unusual participant in a coalition like that.
JIM HIGHTOWER: They’re paid a poverty wage, no health benefits, no security, job security you know, just like fast-food workers, in fact.
BILL MOYERS: What does that suggest to you?
JIM HIGHTOWER: It suggests that people are beginning to get together and see their common interests. So here are some of the, here are the highest educated poverty workers in America with the lowest educated poverty workers and seeing that they’re in the same boat now. And that realization is a powerful political potential.
I’ll give you another example. We had a world protest against McDonald’s. There were 30 countries involved in it. That takes organization. Again, it’s not high visibility yet, but neither was Civil Rights until it popped up. To me, these things have a dynamic of their own, a life of their own, and there comes a point at which the people are pushing and more and more politicians begin to respond Elizabeth Warren in the Senate makes a difference.
BILL MOYERS: Do you know about the NewDEAL?
JIM HIGHTOWER: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: I’m not talking about Franklin Roosevelt’s political platform. I’m talking about a new organization in Washington, led by Wall Street Democrats like Cory Booker of New Jersey, they formed recently a group that can raise campaign cash secretly from anonymous donors. And so far, they’ve raised it from some of the same big corporations that are also contributing to Republicans: Wal-Mart, Pfizer, big pharma, Comcast and others, friendly corporate lobbyists help run this. One of its board members is a lobbyist for the US Chamber of Commerce and they call themselves the NewDEAL.
JIM HIGHTOWER: That is exactly what’s wrong and why people are sick of politics that you would think that the answer, that a Democratic organization would think that the answer is for them to get corporate money as well.
That’s what happened in Texas. The people didn’t turn right wing. They quit voting because the Democrats quit being Democrats for exactly the reason that, of what Cory Booker is doing there.
They went out and got the corporate money. And you take that check, you know, you’re not going to be talking populist old Democratic rallying the troops and going at the bastards and big shots and BS’ers.
You’re not going to be talking about good jobs at good wages, not just jobs. Good, you know, jobs that have wages attached to them, living wages. You’re not going to be talking about Medicare for all, you know, not Medicare through the, or health care, through the insurance companies, but just you’re born, you get Medicare. That’s it. People would’ve understood that. Well, we need to change the system.
So our politics are not dependent on a handful of rich people putting the money up to have a real politics. Instead, getting back to that grassroots politics, and that again, is what I see happening around the country. There’s, as you know, this fracking movement across the country, mostly apolitical people often conservative people, Republicans, who now are just astonished and appalled that corporations are doing this to them, and that their own, political people of their own political belief are doing this to them, they’re not helping them.
So they’re in rebellion. You got four cities in Colorado last fall, passed ordinances against fracking in their towns. There’s going to, I think, be a, not settled yet, but looks like there’ll be a constitutional amendment on the ballot in Colorado to allow cities to set their own terms of whether a fracker can come into town, or a Wal-Mart can come into town; that a community, a city itself, has rights that are superior to corporate rights.
BILL MOYERS: You know as well as I do that most members of congress are not even trying anymore, not listening to everyday people, not talking their language, not even knowing the regular folks.
I don’t even think they’re scared anymore of not pleasing the people. They’re more scared of not pleasing their donors. And so what’s going to happen when, if there is a convergence of this popular agitation and discontent and it runs into the walls of Jericho?
JIM HIGHTOWER: Well, as, there will be blood, I think. There will be heads bludgeoned.
BILL MOYERS: You’re not saying to people, take up your guns and—
JIM HIGHTOWER: No, no, no, no. But take up yourself and get on the front lines, get in the face of power, and that power will have guns, and will have clubs and dogs, and they will unleash that on us. But we’ve got to be brave enough to do that.
It’s been inevitable in every big movement, even the women’s suffrage movement had violence against those women. And we certainly saw it in the Civil Rights movement. We see it in the environmental movement. The movements that have come along and succeeded have had to put their, not just their selves on the line, they had to put their heads on the line. And more and more people are doing it. Again, something like the fracking movement. People are taking abuse and under arrest.
BILL MOYERS: But, Jim, the Occupy movement, for example, started in 2011, spread around the world, it had wall-to-wall coverage from some 24 hour networks. Everyone was talking about it, and then it disappeared.
JIM HIGHTOWER: Well, one, it didn’t disappear. It went into the countryside. There’s a group called Occupy Our Homes that has helped to save at least hundreds, if not thousands, of people from Citigroup and Goldman Sachs and—
BILL MOYERS: It gets no press.
JIM HIGHTOWER: JPMorgan Chase. No, it gets, well, it gets local press, but very little press. But they are still out there, but what Occupy did was to change the discussion. You can ask Mitt Romney about that. It put inequity, the one percent versus 99 percent smack dab in the middle of the 2012 presidential election.
It made it possible for media everywhere to begin to talk about that or in fact have to talk about it because people were talking about it. It’s not just the kids and the people who are at those camps around the country of Occupy, but the public support for it was overwhelming. And that generates a momentum.
BILL MOYERS: I agree with you and yet people have kept talking about it and as you know the inequality gap, the income gap, the wealth gap gets wider and wider like the Grand Canyon.
JIM HIGHTOWER: Well, yes, but you can’t just wait for it to, you can’t just give up. That’s your choice. I mean, do we just quit? No. You double down and go back at it and become more disobedient and seek new avenues and cleverer ways to go at it.
And people are, again, are doing that. In all sorts of movements including taking on big money and politics. You know, we have an actual grassroots movement now, I think it’s 13 states have called, officially called on congress, the state legislatures have, to send to their states, to their people, a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. You get, you know, 13 more states that’s going to be even bigger. And that movement is growing every single day.
And these are real people and groups of people and increasingly forging coalitions in their towns, in their states focused, as I say, squarely on the issue of corporate power, not just a particular abuse by a corporation but the power of the corporation itself.
And think about that, Bill, Wall Street and the CEOs have turned corporation into a four-letter word. People no longer take great pride in a corporation in their town, because they’ve seen what these entities do.
There is a greater power that is building up in the countryside, simmering, bubbling in different places and that’s going to come together because you can’t hold the middle class down. You know, poor people, they’re good at holding down poor people. They’ve had decades and centuries of experience. But now you’re trying to hold down the American middle class and succeeding at the moment. But those people know that they, you know, even a dog knows the difference between being stumbled over and being kicked.
And these people who’ve now been knocked out of the middle class, and by the way since the 2008 recession, collapse of Wall Street crashed on our economy, 90 percent of the American people have lost income and lost wealth, nine out of ten of us. That’s a lot of people to hold down and think that those people are not going to rebel. They’re beginning to rebel, that’s what I’m saying.
BILL MOYERS: You know, Ralph Nader is out with a new book called “Unstoppable,” in which he says, there could be a coalition of left and right, united around such common interests as ending corporate bailouts, military overreach, and even the minimum wage. There are people on the right who support the minimum wage.
JIM HIGHTOWER: And that’s what I’m saying is out there in a number of different issues. And a transition begins to happen when they see that they are working together and that this corporate power is really what they’re battling, or the concentration of money and power that wants to stomp on them, no matter what their voter registration card says. That then, they begin to think, well, maybe some of these other issues, too, are related to this, and that’s when the movement begins to weave together, and become something more than just a scatter shot of protest groups.
BILL MOYERS: The Fourth of July, 2014. Thomas Jefferson who drafted the Declaration of Independence as you know, would also warn against what he called, “Aristocracy founded on banking institutions and monied in corporations…riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry.”
What do you think Thomas Jefferson would say of our system today?
JIM HIGHTOWER: I think he would say that this is the exact opposite of what we were talking about. Now, you know, there wasn’t much democracy in the first US Government, 1789, I guess, when it took power. Only four percent of the people were even eligible to vote, you know. You had to own land if you were a white man to be able to vote, and of course, if you’re African-American, Native American, woman, you know, no, you couldn’t vote.
So there wasn’t a lot of democracy there. But their vision, their ideals were there, of a greater democracy and they understood about corporate power, even in that day. Because you’ve got to remember that the, you know, the original Boston Tea Party was not just about King George III’s government. It was about the East India Trading Company, and the way that they were treating the merchants and the consumers in the colonies.
And people hated them. And in fact, that’s the tea that they were throwing overboard was East India Trading Company’s tea. That spirit has been a part of America from the very beginning.
So, you know, people are ready for that kind of politics. And if they see it beginning to work somewhere, then they take greater heart and they make a bigger effort and other people join with them. That’s to me how you build a movement
BILL MOYERS: Jim Hightower, thanks for joining me.
JIM HIGHTOWER: My pleasure.
PROTESTERS: Get up, get down! Corporate greed get out of town!
AI-JEN POO: We’re in a bit of a crossroads. We can continue to go down a path of a low road economy where the fastest growing jobs are all poverty wage jobs. Or we can start to chart a new path.
GEORGE GOEHL: If we’re serious about changing the country and changing who our economy serves, and what values are underneath it, we’ve got to come together in much bigger ways than we have before. So for the conference, we’re training a new generation of activists around how to think differently about how we do organizing.
AI-JEN POO: The conference was called Rising Voices for a New Economy and it was held in Washington, DC, where a lot of decisions about the future of our economy get made. We had 500 domestic workers from around the country meeting for several days. Many immigrant women, African-American women, so almost entirely women of color.
GEORGE GOEHL: Hello NPA!
AI-JEN POO: And then we were joined with the National People’s Action and they represent small family farmers and public housing residents and all kinds of working people.
GEORGE GOEHL: There was a long history in the field of community organizing of different organizations actually not collaborating. Actually kind of running down their own path, building their own power, but not building a movement.
The director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and an ally and a friend of NPA.
I think there was just a recognition that we were up against such big forces. That we actually don’t have any choice but to collaborate. The same root causes are impacting everybody. So if you’re fighting to save your home from foreclosure, or you’re seeing corporate agriculture come into your state and ruin family farms, you see corporate power. And so people are making the connections. And I think organizing, and organizations likes ours and the domestic workers, help people make these connections.
BREANNA CHAMPION: It’s not that my state is broken, that we can’t afford the things that we so desperately need. It’s just that the people that are making the most money aren’t contributing to our state, and to our country. This is happening all over the country.
Two-thirds of corporations in Illinois pay no income taxes. If they were to pay taxes, that is money that could go to students like me who can’t afford school. And not just my education, this affects everything in my community.
GEORGE GOEHL: If you care about us having a modern social safety net, you need corporations to pay their fair share. If you want to see new infrastructure built so we can create jobs in this country, we need corporations to pay their fair share. I could go on and on. If there’s any issue that we need to unite around, this is one of them. And right now, corporations are sitting on record profits but simultaneously paying record low tax levels.
AI-JEN POO: There is so much wealth all around us. I definitely think that our scarcity mentality is one that can and should shift and is not based on the reality that we have here in this country.
GEORGE GOEHL: We need to go expose those lies, tell the new story, and take our country back.
CANVASSER 1: So we are going to be calling targeted voters…
GENEVIEVE LYSEN: 100 folks have come from all across the country to learn a critical organizing skill, which is canvassing.
CANVASSER 2: Right now we have a bill that’s just been passed…
GENEVIEVE LYSEN: Today the group of volunteers are calling about a tax haven bill in Maine that would ask corporations to report the profits that they’re storing overseas right now. ‘Cause currently they’re allowed to get away without reporting that income, and thus not pay any taxes on it, and we don’t think that’s fair.
CANVASSER 3: I’m going to make it really easy for you. I can transfer you right over to where you can either speak with your legislator, which is Senator Langley…
GENEVIEVE LYSEN: In Maine we’ve been able to override the Governor’s veto on our state budget, on a slew of environmental bills, and it was by contacting voters at their homes to call their legislators. So canvassing works.
CANVASSER 4: Do you mind if I turn this computer a little bit?
GENEVIEVE LYSEN: The goal here is that all of these volunteers take back the skills that their learning here today, and bring them back to their communities and their organizations. So we’re seeking to build a big group of powerful canvassers across the country to try to turn things around.
MALE SPEAKER: We’re going to spend some time this morning.
GEORGE GOEHL: At our conference, we do training, we do issue workshops, and then most importantly, we hit the streets.
PROTESTER 1: Time to make some noise!
GEORGE GOEHL: We actually left the conference and went into the streets.
AI-JEN POO: Protests are one of many ways to get a story out there. To us it’s about making visible the many, many voices and experiences that are made invisible in an unequal economy and society like the one that we live in.
PROTESTOR 2: All right, so our first action is a surprise action. Today we’re taking one of the biggest tax dodgers in the country. GE, General Electric…
GEORGE GOEHL: We took 600 folks from NPA and the Domestic Workers to the GE’s lobbying operation here in Washington, DC. And it was to really go directly to the people that are responsible for the tax dodging that GE is engaged in, and bring the message directly to them.
PROTESTER 2: GE, we’re ending your tax dodging today!
PROTESTERS: That’s right. Whoo! Pay your fair share.
GEORGE GOEHL: In a time that they’ve made 30 billion in profit, they’ve gotten 3 billion back in tax refunds. We need to expose them directly and go toe to toe with corporate power.
PROTESTER 2: Once we get off the bus, remember don’t run, walk quietly, calmly, and quickly. Don’t engage with police. I know we have three police liaisons; can you raise your hands? Whoo!
PROTESTER 3: This is where we get off.
PROTESTER 2: Here we go, guys.
PROTESTER 3: Alright, let’s go, let’s move. Let’s move.
SECURITY GUARD: Excuse me, excuse me. No, no, no.
PROTESTOR 4: We are here today…
PROTESTERS: We are here today…
PROTESTOR 4: Because we’ve had enough…
PROTESTERS: Because we’ve had enough…
PROTESTOR 4: We’ve had enough of cuts to our schools…
PROTESTERS: We’ve had enough of cuts to our schools…
PROTESTOR 4: Medicare and Medicaid…
PROTESTERS: Medicare and Medicaid…
PROTESTOR 4: We’re angry.
PROTESTERS: We’re angry.
Pay your fair share! Pay your fair share! Pay your fair share!
POLICE LIASON: They want us to leave, but we’re here until we deliver our message.
PROTESTERS: Pay your fair share! Pay your fair share! Pay your fair share!
GEORGE GOEHL: Wealthy elites have basically and isolated themselves off from the rest of us. They actually don’t have to see poverty. They don’t actually have to see the people that have been made invisible by inequality.
PROTESTER 5: Pay your taxes so our families can live.
AI-JEN POO: It’s a transformative experience for people to speak truth to power in a really direct way. And it is about civic engagement and participation. It is about making this country the country that makes everyone visible.
PROTESTER 6: Above us are the General Electric offices. And up there, they can hear you. They can hear you.
PROTESTERS: Whoo! We’ll be back! We’ll be back! We’ll be back!
GEORGE GOEHL: We are at this point in building a new movement. That we are not quite at take-off, but a lot of the building blocks are being put into place. Big shifts in how we do organizing, big shifts in terms of collaboration. We feel like this was a little baby step towards aligning some impressive forces across the country.
BILL MOYERS: There was something of the spirit of ’76 about those protesters as they marched up Capitol Hill to make their case to any legislators who would listen. I mean the spirit of 1776, when ordinary people became insurgents against imperial power. The House of Representatives, by the way, was once known as “The People’s House.” And now it’s in the imperial grip of money. But these present-day insurgents are just getting started and, as Tom Paine, the great pamphleteer and journalist of the American Revolution, wrote: “An army of principles will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot.” At our website BillMoyers.com, you’ll find cause for hope and creative ways to bring about change in interviews I’ve done with George Goehl, Ai-jen Poo and other activists at our “Take Action” page.
That’s at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there, and I’ll see you here, next time.