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Jim Hightower
Jim Hightower, photo by Robin Holland
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April 30, 2010

Jim Hightower's homepage lists him as "America's #1 Populist" and he likes to be known for his actions as a "populist agitator." Hightower wants America to regain the strength of those populist agitators who fought corporate power in the late 19th century:
"We owe them imitation. We owe them the continuation of that spirit that we do not have to just accept what is handed to us. We can battle back against the powers. But it's not just going to a rally and shouting. It's organizing and it's thinking. And reaching out to others. And building a real people's movement."
But what is populism? When it's defined as grassroots democracy at its best, both sides of the political spectrum are happy to grab the mantle. But both sides run from the label when it signifies rabid, unreasoned anger.

The COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW lambasted the term's use in the 2008 campaign season: "Before this gets out of hand, big media needs to stop using the word 'populist' to describe Democrats' economic programs and their appeals to voters....Reporters and headline writers don't need to be historians-on-deadline to know that the word 'populist' has no widely agreed-upon definition, but plenty of negative associations." Those associations include negatives, "anti-capitalist and backward-looking," and perhaps positives, "reformist, anti-elitist, and yes, anti-big business."

The label populist has only grown in use since the election. David Broder praised Sarah Palin for "her pitch-perfect populism" on the op-ed pages of THE WASHINGTON POST. A recent NEWSWEEK photo essay on American Conservative Movements used the word populist in its introduction but didn't actually include the 19th century movement among the Know-Nothings, Dixiecrats and Tea Parties.

The progressive magazine MOTHER JONES, also evaluated the movements labeled populism in "Why Bank Rage Is Not Populism." What passes for populism today, says author James Ridgeway is way too weak for the label because "It's directed at the worst excesses of the system, not at the system itself."

Populism

In 2008 Bill Moyers talked with historian Nell Irvin Painter about the Gilded Age of the late 19th century and what some contend is the second Gilded Age of today. In the 19th century discrepancies in income and power fostered the populist movement. In her conversation Nell Painter talked about populism then and now — and how the image it suggests is more often than not, off the mark:
It sounds as if people who are throwing "populism" around are throwing it around as a dirty word. And if it is a dirty word, they don't know what they're talking about. I think they think it's a dirty word, because it pits Americans against each other, as if we would all be hand in hand if it weren't for populist agitators....They're probably talking in very veiled terms about class issues. Class is the dirty little secret in the United States.
Populist cartoon WEBSTER'S DICTIONARY defines "populism" as "a member of a political party claiming to represent the common people."

THE COLUMBIA ENCYCLOPEDIA traces the term more narrowly to "U.S. history, political party formed primarily to express the agrarian protest of the late 19th century." A party with goals of: "free coinage of silver, abolition of national banks, a subtreasury scheme or some similar system, a graduated income tax, plenty of paper money, government ownership of all forms of transportation and communication, election of Senators by direct vote of the people, nonownership of land by foreigners, civil service reform, a working day of eight hours, postal banks, pensions, revision of the law of contracts, and reform of immigration regulations."

Famed "people's historian" Howard Zinn also portrayed the actual populists as examples well worth following:
"The word Populism came into being in the late 1800s, 1880, 1890, when great corporations dominated the country, the railroads, and the banks, and these farmers were victims of them. And these farmers got together and they organized north and south, and they formed the Populist movement. It was a great people's movement. And they sent orators around the country, and they published thousands of pamphlets. And it was, I would say, a high moment for American democracy."
Find out more about Jim Hightower and populism now and then below and tell us on the blog: Are you a populist?

Biography
National radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and author of the book, SWIM AGAINST THE CURRENT: EVEN A DEAD FISH CAN GO WITH THE FLOW, Jim Hightower has spent three decades battling the Powers That Be on behalf of the Powers That Ought To Be — consumers, working families, environmentalists, small businesses, and just-plain-folks.

He broadcasts daily radio commentaries that are carried in more than 150 commercial and public stations, on the web, and on Radio for Peace International. Each month, he publishes a populist political newsletter, "The Hightower Lowdown," which now has more than 135,000 subscribers and is the fastest growing political publication in America. The hard-hitting Lowdown has received both the Alternative Press Award and the Independent Press Association Award for best national newsletter.

He is a NEW YORK TIMES best-selling author, and has written seven books including, THIEVES IN HIGH PLACES: THEY'VE STOLEN OUR COUNTRY AND IT'S TIME TO TAKE IT BACK; IF THE GODS HAD MEANT US TO VOTE THEY WOULD HAVE GIVEN US CANDIDATES; and THERE'S NOTHING IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD BUT YELLOW STRIPES AND DEAD ARMADILLOS. His newspaper column is distributed nationally.

Hightower was raised in Denison, Texas, in a family of small business people, tenant farmers, and working folks. A graduate of the University of North Texas, he worked in Washington as legislative aide to Sen. Ralph Yarborough of Texas; he then co-founded the Agribusiness Accountability Project, a public interest project that focused on corporate power in the food economy; and he was national coordinator of the 1976 "Fred Harris for President" campaign. Hightower then returned to his home state, where he became editor of the feisty biweekly, THE TEXAS OBSERVER. He served as director of the Texas Consumer Association before running for statewide office and being elected to two terms as Texas Agriculture Commissioner (1983-1991).

Guest photo by Robin Holland.
Related Media:
Nell Irvin Painter
Historian Nell Irvin Painter examines what history reveals about the current state of inequality in America. Does today's economic disparity indicate a new "Gilded Age" that threatens democracy?

Howard Zinn
Renowned historian Howard Zinn has chronicled centuries of people's struggles against oppression. He joins Bill Moyers to discuss the voices of today's people facing big interests' outsized influence and his new film THE PEOPLE SPEAK.

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References and Reading:
Jim Hightower

Jim Hightower's Web site
Read more from Jim Hightower, subscribe to "The Lowdown" and find out where and when Hightower will be appearing in person and on-air.

What is Populism?

COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW: Popular? Must Be 'Populist'
Dean Starkman's February 20, 2008 analysis of the use of "populism" in campaign coverage.

We Are All Populists Now
Jesse Walter, REASON magazine, August 21, 2007. The Libertarian take on the popularity of "populism."

World Wide Web Virtual Library: Populism
This large online compendium contains links to the official Populist Party archvies, cartoons about populism, an inflation calculator (good back to 1800) and an analysis of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ as a populist parable.

Farmers, the Populist Party, and Mississippi (1870-1900)

Nebraskastudies.org: Roots of Progressivism: The Populists

Missouri State: Populist Cartoons

Also:
  • Laurence Goodwyn, THE POPULIST MOMENT: A SHORT HISTORY OF THE AGRARIAN REVOLT IN AMERICA
  • Norman Pollack, THE POPULIST MIND (original sources)
  • Robert C. McMath, AMERICAN POPULISM: A SOCIAL HISTORY 1877-1898
  • Nell Irwin Painter, STANDING AT ARMAGEDDON: THE UNITED STATES, 1877-1919
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Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)
The site for the current "one big union."

The Seattle General Stike
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Bill Moyers sits down with populist Jim Hightower to look at the history and legacy of people's movements and discuss how ordinary people can reclaim political power.

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