Observations

The Politicians vs. the People

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Gazing upon the barely twitching cadaver of the Texas Democratic Party after what Lou Dubose aptly called its suicide last fall (“Running Down the Ballot,” December 4), my thoughts run back to the moment when Democratic Governor Ann Richards committed the most significant act of her public life, appointing Shakespeare-spouting Bob Krueger to the United States Senate from Texas.

Lloyd Doggett, a paragon of public service who is rising as a leader even in that polluted Congress, was presiding over the Texas Supreme Court. She did not even phone him to ask if he was interested. National populist leader Jim Hightower was chattin’ ‘n’ chewin’ away for plain folks in the same town with her. She did not phone him, either. Nor did she select, for this most important of all her appointments, any of the liberals or moderates in the Legislature or the Texas delegation. Instead – in the act which defined her governorship and all by itself cancelled out the good deeds she did in fact do for the people – she sent to the United States Senate Bob Krueger, the veteran of service from Texas in Congress who had the most reactionary voting record of any Democrat. When she really had a chance to set the tone of Texas history, she ran with the wolves and Lloyd Bentsen.

We had had the uprising of the liberals in the late fifties, until John Connally was shot and lionized. The true hero of this uprising was Ralph Yarborough, who, eerily, was the butt of Ann Richards’ cruelest jokes throughout the period. Then we rode a little higher during the deep liberal/populist surge of the late seventies and eighties, epitomized by Hightower at the Agriculture Department. But Jim opted not to carry the insurgent movement into a race for the Senate with him, and when Ann Richards had to put up or shut up – she shut up.

Krueger of course then lost to Kay Bailey Hutchinson – why should a Democrat, even one who loves Shakespeare, bother to go out and vote for an enemy of whatever is left of the values of the Democratic Party? President Bush’s son George, standing for nothing, beat Richards, also standing for nothing, for Governor, and is sidling into position now to repeat his father’s eight years in the White House. The net result of the recent pseudo-liberal Democratic surge in Texas politics is that our state can lay claim to having the two worst senators in the nation – Phil Gramm wins one of the black ribbons no contest, although I suppose Jesse Helms still vies with Hutchinson for the second one.

What were the high-I.Q. statewide candidates and their high-I.Q. (and higher-dollar) consultants thinking, going into last November – that the Texas electorate would erupt in revulsion against the terrible Republican trio? But where was their own star, Ann Richards? She had turned up on Sixty Minutes as a lobbyist for the filthy tobacco companies. Their new candidate for governor stood for … some good things. Their new candidate for lieutenant governor made Willie Horton an honorary Texan for the duration of the election. And so it was that last November the Democratic Party received what it deserved from the people of Texas – a total wipeout for every statewide office.

Even as we shouldn’t “sanction” (much less bomb) the people of Iraq because they have a mass murderer for their dictator, we shouldn’t blame the people of Texas for their disgust against the recent procession of statewide Texas politicians still calling themselves Democrats. Even against all the stacked odds of big money and the controlling corporate media, the people elect about a fifth of the members of the House and a third of the state senators who still stand and fight for everyday people.

But by now real day-to-day people should be tired of losing so predictably for so long. Most of us just do not have time to bone up on all the state and local elections, and even those of us who try can’t trust the slant from the corporate TV stations and corporate dailies. Little wonder that in a foundation study last December, among fifteen local TV news topics rated by viewers according to their interest, the weather ranked first, and stories about local and state elections ranked eleventh.

Looking things over from a little way off, one would think the question in many well-informed Texans’ minds now might be: how long are we going to take these sellouts and beatings before we quit this game and start a new one? Here comes the millennium. Are we going on into the twenty-first century trying to jab this same old dead horse into life? Molly Ivins and Jim Hightower spoke last month at the organizing meeting of ProTex, an attempt at an umbrella organization for progressive Texans. Let’s hope it’s a fresh start at a new thing, though we must wonder how bold it can be with Ford Foundation funding. In any case, Texans are ornery enough, and enough of them are populist enough, to light out across town – and across country – to start a really new and multicultural movement that will stand for the public good.

We have, it’s true, come a long way (as my optimist friend Fred Schmidt of Fredericksburg – who died on February 14 – never tired of stressing), since the Observer started up in 1954 with fake-Democrat Allan Shivers and segregation-forever Price Daniel in the governor’s mansion. But we should have learned a lot more by now than we have. One does not go on playing, for all one’s life, against a stacked deck. One does not go on listening, for all of one’s life, to the predictable lies of the same political sellouts. The attention-loving politicians who have committed suicide in the name of the Texas Democratic Party are not, after all, the people themselves. It is time for people to build our own new models for our working lives and our own new movements, free not only of the major corporations but also of the government and the two political parties which they own.

Populism and Racism

Speaking of populism, though: Last August Scott Spear of Madison, Wisconsin, in a letter to “Dialogue,” recommended shunning populism because “these movements have continued to exhibit nasty tendencies towards racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, sexism, and anti-intellectualism.” That is true of, say, George Wallace “populism,” or David Duke “populism,” or Pat Buchanan “populism” – but these were failed attempts of racist nationalists to wrap themselves in a fetching garment. The only authentic American populist movement – that of the Farmers’ Alliance in the late nineteenth century –was no freer of racism and anti-Semitism than any other large cross-cut of the population then. But C. Vann Woodward judges that it had the best record of striving for interracial justice of any large American movement until the 1960s. We must seize the word “populism” and the values of populism back from the bigots, racists, and assorted nuts because, as Lawrence Goodwyn, its historian, says, it was the only mass movement in the history of the United States which denied the legitimacy of corporate rule in a democracy and which invented and fought for an anti-hierarchical economic system. The populists I run with – we call ourselves twenty-first century populists, everybody except bigots welcome.

Violence vs. Nonviolence

As James Simons, the Austin attorney, said in his letter in Dialogue responding to my review of Doug Rossinow’s book on the new left in Austin and Texas in the sixties and seventies, I am not the issue (“Failing History,” February 5). Neither is Greg Olds; nor would I “admit” the truth of Simons’ guess why I fired Greg, as James challenges me to do, since his guess is wrong.

Simons also wrote that I should own up to firing Rod Davis “because of his supposed association with what Dugger incorrectly calls Maoism.” That, too, would be owning up to the truth of an untruth. Dick Reavis, in another letter, said I “apparently” justify my decision not to validate Davis’ own just-made decision to hire Reavis as his associate editor on grounds that in 1969 Reavis was a Maoist. That, too, is wrong.

As I’ve written previously in the Observer (though only when pressed), before I hired Rod I asked him whether he favored the use of violence at that time to cause social change in the United States. He said he did not, and I then hired him. In 1981, because of my analysis of a column of Rod’s in the Observer, I asked him the same question again. He said he could no longer answer the question with a No. That was why I fired him.

I had heard, not from Rod, that he had just hired Reavis, but Reavis had not yet gone to work. I did not know until I read Doug Rossinow’s book that Reavis had been a Maoist, nor (obviously) did I know or care about Reavis’ personal life. I doubted Rod had the authority to hire Reavis without my knowledge or consent. I regarded Reavis as a good writer, but I strongly disliked what I knew about his politics at that time and decided, in the context of the situation, that he would not join the staff. His having been a Maoist had nothing to do with it since I didn’t know it.

I have been on the liberal/progressive/populist side in American politics since I was sixteen or seventeen, and I want to continue to make my position very clear on this point. The subject is not whether violence for social change is justified in a given situation; that depends on the situation, and people on the Left, however socialist or radical, or on the Right, however racist, nationalist, or fascist, make different decisions on the question of using violence to cause change. Once someone or some group has decided in favor of the use of violence, anyone opposed to violence who works in coalitions with that person or organization, or follows them, or joins them in actions, becomes a cipher, a tool of the people for violence, because in the conference, or rally, or demonstration, or when those who are set on violence decide the moment for the revolution has come, they will be violent, and the violence and counter-violence will define all that happens and all that follows. The nonviolent revolutionaries in Russia in 1917 who tried to work with the Bolsheviks, for example, waking up as mere tag-alongs on October 25, 1917, committed the fearful error of bolting a climactic national conference against the Bolsheviks, and thereby simply turned the fasces of power over to the most violent ones.

Liberals, progressives, populists, radicals, or those on the Right, who believe in nonviolence, but who knowingly work with those committed to violence, become patsies of the violence they oppose and turn history over to the violent ones. If I believe in nonviolence in the American situation and don’t stand in forthright opposition to a person committed to violence – if I let More-Radical-Than-Thous guilt-trip me into silence and passivity on this gut question – I am a coward.

Ronnie Dugger was the founding editor and publisher of the Observer, and is founder and national co-chairman of the Alliance for Democracy.

Ronnie Dugger was the founding editor of the Observer in 1954 and was its publisher until 1994. He has written biographies of Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, books about Hiroshima and universities, and countless articles in The Nation, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Atlantic, The New York Times, The Progressive, The Washington Post and other publications. Home again, living and writing in Austin, he received the George Polk career award in journalism in 2012.

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