The Mess We’re In . . .


Editor’s note: Radio host and Observer columnist Jim Hightower gave the keynote speech at July’s national Green Party Convention, held in Denver. The following is excerpted from his remarks.

I’m proud to join you rowdy and raucous, grassroots agitators of the growing and the glowing Green Party. Here tonight at your historic convention at this Mile-High city, as you dare to say “No” to politics as usual, “No” to the non-choice of Tweedilee-dum and Tweedilee-dumber – and “yes” to giving our great American democracy a fresh start in this millennial election year. And what could be fresher, than to build a new political movement from the ground up, of, by, and for the people, of, by, and for we the people? Organizing side by side with a man who has never taken a dime in corrupt corporate cash. A man who has, for thirty-five years, been unafraid and unintimidated to go right into the face of abusive, arrogant, and avaricious corporate power. A man who personifies both personal and political integrity, and who is the lanky, and somewhat disheveled, but always true embodiment of economic and political reform, that the people of this country cry out for. You know Kermit the Frog is famous for saying, “It ain’t easy being green.” But it is, when Ralph Nader leads the way.

There are those who said, “Who cares what the Green Party is doing? Who cares about Ralph Nader, this minor, trivial candidate over here? He’s marginal.” Now, suddenly, they’re attacking us. What happened?

Senator Harry Reid out in Nevada – actually a pretty good guy, a guy I know, I’ve worked with over years – but I think he had a bowl of Fruit Loops a couple of days ago. For he suddenly jumped up, and in The New York Times was quoted as saying, “Ralph Nader is a very selfish person.” Now you can say a lot of things about Ralph Nader, you know, but “selfish”? This is a guy who hasn’t had a car since 1959. He’s got a twelve-inch black and white TV. He rents an apartment. Selfish? Harry Reid goes on to say, “Ralph Nader has no respect for the process.”

Well. Of course, neither did Thomas Jefferson. Neither did Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass – they had no respect for the process. Neither did the abolitionists and the suffragists; neither did the populists and Wobblies. Neither did John L. Lewis or Martin Luther King, Jr. and César Chávez – they had no respect for the process. They dared to stand up as ordinary citizens and say, “It ain’t working. And we want a different system – we want a different process.”

I referred to you as “agitators.” Now the powers that be try to make that a pejorative word in our society, don’t they? “Our workers were perfectly happy over here in this factory, until those union agitators came in, and began to mess with ’em.” “None of those poor people on the other side of the tracks were upset about that toxic waste dump until the environmental agitators came in and started stirring ’em up.” Well hogwash and horse-hockey to all that. Agitation is what America is all about. Were it not for agitators, we’d all be sitting here tonight wearing white powdered wigs and singing “God Save the Queen.” Agitators. The agitator is the center post in the washing machine, that gets the dirt out – and it’s about time, I say.

It’s no longer enough for us to be progressive in this country – we’ve been progressive a long time. We’ve gotta become aggressive again, because the powers that be have become radically regressive. They’re running roughshod over working families, roughshod over the family farmers, roughshod over our air and our water – over the middle class as well as the poor – over our communities, over the very concept of sovereignty. Over the very idea of self-government. They get to thinking they’re the top dogs, and we’re just a bunch of fire hydrants out here.

Well, that’s why we’ve gathered together, to forge a new politics that is not based on right-to-left political spectrum. That’s the old dichotomy. That’s theory. That separates and divides us. The real political spectrum in America is not right to left, it’s top to bottom. That’s where people actually live. That’s experience. And the vast majority of the people in this country today know that they’re no longer in shouting distance of the powers at the top, whether those powers call themselves liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans. So we’re here to forge a blue-green coalition, that unites working people with farmers, unites farmers with environmentalists, the middle class with poor folks. As my friend Jesse Jackson put it years ago, “We might not have come over on the same boat, but we’re in the same boat now.”

I come to you as somebody who has been a proud Democrat. I was elected in the state of Texas – they’re still laughing about it down there. I was elected to two terms as State Agriculture Commissioner. Not only have I been in Texas politics, I’ve been elected, so I come to you as no virgin here tonight. But I look now at my national party, and I see that they’ve taken off those old Sears Roebuck work boots and strapped on the same Guccis and Puccis that the Republicans are struttin’ around in. In my book, If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates, I’ve got a section called “Clinton’s Last Erection.” We’re not talkin’ about Monica and the mess-on-the-dress, or any of that. We’re talking about that tower of money that Clinton helped to erect, and to move our Democratic party essentially on to Wall Street. That money has hopelessly corrupted my party, and separated it from its populist principles and its populist people. If it won’t stand for us, why should we stand for it? It’s a pretty basic concept in American politics.…

What’s at issue in America today is the fundamental question of whether we’re all in this together. That’s the social glue that holds us together. The notion of a common good. The privileged few are separating themselves from you and me – from the well-being of the community. They have gated and guarded compounds in which they live. They have private academies in which they can send their children. They have Lexus lanes on the public highways, so they don’t have to be in the traffic jams. They have luxury sky boxes in the public stadiums, paid for by you and me, but they don’t have to breathe the air of the riff-raff. They’re attempting to supplant the ethic of the common good with a new ethic of greed that says, “I got mine, you get yours. Never give a sucker an even break. I’m rich and you’re not. Adios, chump.” It’s pretty much what it comes down to. And sadly, both political parties now accede to this pernicious agenda, which is why we’re here.

Al Gore’s people now talk of their “Nader problem.” Well, I’m no political consultant, but I’ll give Al Gore a simple piece of consulting advice: if you want to get rid of the Nader problem, become a Democrat. That’s all it would take. It would go away in a hurry. We’re here because we, and a majority of the American people, have been abandoned. And our effort is to build a new, little “d” democratic movement, based on the founding values of this country. I’m talking about the core values. What are those? At least three of ’em come to my mind. Economic fairness: the American people have that in their gut; they believe in that. Social justice: we have that in our hearts. Equal opportunity for all people: we represent that. That’s what our flag stands for, everything that we fought for over the years, embodied in those values of economic fairness, social justice, equal opportunity for all people.…

We hear both political parties, for example, brag about the so-called prosperity sweeping America. “Unprecedented economic prosperity,” Bill Clinton himself declared in his last State of the Union message. In the last couple of weeks we had Al Gore on his prosperity and progress tour across the country. Money magazine confirmed it. A recent cover article said, “Everybody’s getting rich.” Hello? In my book I’ve got a section called, “If These Are Good Times, Why Aren’t I Having One?” Truth is, in this period of unprecedented economic prosperity, eight out of ten Americans have seen their incomes go flat or go down. Been no uptick. None at all. Eight out of ten; the eighty-percent majority. Average wages today, in real buying power terms, are beneath what they were when Richard Nixon was president. Beware, here comes a startling statistic. Twenty-five percent of the jobs in America today, one fourth of ’em, pay less than a poverty wage. And yet they say to us, “Well, yeah, but look at Wall Street. We got corporate profits through the roof. Stock prices soaring. Wall Street’s whizzing.” Well, yeah: it’s whizzing on you and me.…

What it is, is class war, and I believe we need to say that term. You want class war? Talk to the working people in this country, while our jobs are being privatized, downsized, riffed and stiffed, reduced to temporary, part-time, low-wage, no-benefit work. Have you noticed that up at the top, things are going better? The C.E.O.s in this country are getting fatter than butchers’ dogs.…

You want class war? Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C. right now are playing a cynical game of class war with the minimum wage. The Republicans have stood up and said, “Well, yes, of course we’ve come to increase the minimum wage. It’s only $5.15 an hour, lets jack it up to $6.15 an hour.” A one dollar increase over three years. Thirty-three and a third cents a year. And the Democrats come back and say, “That’s not enough. We want a one dollar increase, too – over two years.” Fifty cents a year. So those who say there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties are not calculating it right.

You want class war? Follow the toxic fumes. Pollution tends to be a class issue; if it spews, burbles, oozes, blasts, emits, gushes, radiates, or otherwise does something unpleasant or deadly, chances are it’s located in a working-class, rural or minority, or low-income neighborhood, or some combination of the above. If you are poor, your chances of living next to Mr. Toxic are quite good. If you’re wealthy, they’re zero. I’ve often thought we could solve the pollution problem in this country quite easily. Doesn’t take all that room full of legislation that the E.P.A. has. I think one little law would do it. It would say, “Any corporation can create any polluting facility, any toxic dump that it cares to create, as long as the chief executive and board of directors live within a hundred yards of that facility.” Don’t you believe they’d clean it up? In a hurry. If it was their families.

You want class war? I saw an example of it about three years ago when Bill Clinton stood up with George Bush the elder, the former president, along with Colin Powell at the Presidential Volunteers Summit in Philadelphia. And they announced as how the era of big government is over – no need to look in for government by the people, for any needs of the people. Rather, it would be better if you chose philanthropy. Reach out to charity, won’t you?…

It’s not charity that we want. It’s economic fairness, social justice, equal opportunity that we are seeking. And that’s what this party represents; that’s what Ralph Nader represents.

The economists, of course, have a technical term for what Washington and Wall Street are doing to us. It’s called stealing. Might remember that old tune that Woody Guthrie had, “It’s through this world I travel / I see lots of funny men / Some will rob you will a six-gun / and some with a fountain pen.” It’s the fountain pens who are doing the serious stealing in our society today. So let’s stop the stealing. Let’s dare what the founders of this nation did in 1776, and as every people’s movement in the intervening two hundred and twenty-five odd years have had to do. And that is to take the dangerous route. To go with the people. To trust the people of this great nation. The people are ready.…

People say, “Young people don’t give a damn about what’s going on anymore. They don’t care about politics, they just care about money and music and self-aggrandizement.” Well, they haven’t met the United Students Against Sweatshops, have they? What a great proof that is. Actually doing something. Or the Student Environmental Coalition, or the Student Coalition Against Hunger and Homelessness. The campuses are alive and well again, and they’re agitating and achieving goals. And they’re doing it the old-fashioned way: they’re taking over the president’s office.

While Washington fusses with the minimum wage, people all across this country are gettin’ organized at a local level. Greens teaming up with new party members, teaming up with the S.E.I.U., teaming up with ACORN, teaming up with the religious leaders, teaming up with the Labor Party, teaming up across the board to pass, not a minimum wage, but a living wage. More than forty cities in this country already passed a living-wage law. Environmentalists and farmers coming together all across this country against these hog conglomerates that are moving in to drive out the family farmers and stink up the place for everybody else. A revolution is happening.

Meanwhile, here we are with the political year – as I referred to it in my book, “Election Year 2000: the Space Odyssey.” The “Space Odyssey,” because with Gore and Bush it’s nowhere near shopping distance of the reality that most people are experiencing. Are we gonna keep going along with that, or are we gonna do something different? Are we gonna take the risk as a people, as a free people, as the suffragists and abolitionists, as the populists and Wobblies, as the founders, as the labor movement, as the civil rights movement have all had to do throughout our history, and say, “We’re gonna take some risk.”

There’s an old Texas saying, “If you find that you’ve dug yourself into a hole, the very first thing to do is quit digging.” There are friends of mine – good friends of mine, and I have great respect for them, and I understand what they’re saying – but I disagree with them. They say, “Well, Gore is safe, we gotta stick with the status quo, because it could get worse.” Well, a farmer came up to me when I was Ag Commissioner, and people were talking about sticking with the status quo ag policy of the time. He said, “‘Status quo’ is Latin for ‘the mess we’re in.'” We oughta do something different, and if we just stick with the status quo, then in the year 2004 we’re still gonna be there. And in the year 2008, we’re still gonna be there. And in the year 2012, we’re still gonna be there. When are we gonna get loose from the status quo? We’re gonna get deeper and deeper into that hole. I think it’s time for a politics with passion again. A politics that matters.…

But yet, they say that you and I are the “spoilers.” We’re the spoilers. We’re in the way of Al Gore. But, hey, did we spoil the democratic process with billions in corrupt money? Did that come from us? Did we spoil the air, the water, and the food with compromises of convenience? Did we spoil the sovereignty of we the people with global trade scams that undermine our right to self-government? We’re not the spoilers. William Jennings Bryan, about a hundred years ago, said, “Destiny is not a matter of chance, it’s a matter of choice.” It’s not something to be awaited, it’s something to be achieved.

Are we going to achieve America’s destiny of economic fairness, social justice, and equal opportunity for all people? Well, if you think Al Gore can get you there, then go that way. It’s your choice. But if you’re tired of the status quo, tired of business as usual, tired of being shut out by the exclusiveness and elitism of the economic and political walls that have arisen to separate the few from the many, then you need to be thinking about something different. Something that must be felt here, in Denver, Colorado, and by people just like you all across America. I can’t tell you how many people I meet as I
travel for my book, and just generally making talks and talkin’ to ’em on the radio and everything. They say: “Well, you know, I’ve been a life-long Democrat, but I’m thinkin’ now. I’m thinkin’….”

And I want you to think of Woody Guthrie. Woody Guthrie. Now by the way, I re-read this [my book] last night, and it’s a dynamite book. In my last chapter, there’s a section called “This Land is Your Land.” And that’s what Woody Guthrie meant by that song. It wasn’t a little polite sing-along about America’s natural beauty, the “diamond highways,” etc. It was about We the People taking power, and rejecting the exclusion of ordinary folks that he traveled with in that Dust Bowl. The working families and the dirt farmers and just ordinary folks who were being hard hit. And when he wrote “This Land is Your Land,” he had another verse in there that doesn’t get in the published versions … a verse in this about political exclusion. He wrote, “Well it’s a big, high wall / that tried to stop me. / A sign said / “Private property.” / But on the other side / it didn’t say nothin’. / That side was made for you and me.”