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Jim Hightower: Progressives need more agitators

Populist firebrand Jim Hightower speaks at FFRF’s national convention in San Antonio on Oct. 28, 2022. “It makes me happier than a mosquito in a nudist colony to be standing up here.”
(Photo by Chris Line)

This is the (edited) speech given by Jim Hightower at FFRF’s national convention in San Antonio on Oct. 28, 2022. You can watch the full speech here: He was introduced by David Tamayo, an FFRF board member.

David Tamayo: I am delighted to introduce this year’s honoree of FFRF’s Clarence Darrow Award. This is a pure bronze statuette that is an exact miniature of the 7-foot-tall statue created by Zenos Frudakis that FFRF erected on the courthouse lawn where the Scopes “Monkey” trial was held in Dayton, Tenn.

In keeping with the convention theme, “DO Mess with Texas,” this year’s honoree, Jim Hightower, has spent four decades battling the powers that be on behalf of the powers that ought to be — consumers, working families, environmentalists, small business owners and just plain folks. 

The two-time Texas agriculture commissioner is a national radio commentator heard on more than 150 stations. He’s been dubbed “America’s most popular populist.” He writes a rousing newsletter, “The Hightower Lowdown,” which has more than 135,000 subscribers. A New York Times bestselling author, he’s written seven books with very entertaining titles, most recently, Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go with the Flow.

Please welcome Jim Hightower.

By Jim Hightower

Thank you, David. And thanks to all of you. What a joy and what a special treat this is. It’s kind of coming full circle. A few years ago, I got the Eugene Debs Award, who, of course, Clarence Darrow represented in a couple of cases. I also have something else in common with Clarence Darrow, which is he’s a distinguished lawyer, and I went to law school for a week and a half. 

It’s a special joy because, while I’m nowhere near worthy of this award because of Clarence Darrow’s distinguished history, he represented the people rather than the powerful interests. I’ve been in the same kind of fights that he was in, and with the same sort of spirit that he had and that you have. 

When I was agriculture commissioner, we were promulgating some regulations to protect farm workers from pesticides, to protect consumers, to protect the people living up against the cotton fields and to protect farmers themselves. My top aide on pesticides said, “Well, the odds are against us on this one.” And I said, “Some of the evens are against us, too.” I think y’all know what that fight is like. 

I will accept this award as a symbol of principled defiance, which I think you represent here in this room, so I’m proud to be here with you. Thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation Board to allow a scruffy Texas populist like myself to come in here and be a part of this Do-mess-with-Texas-freethinking-palooza that you’re having. It makes me happier than a mosquito in a nudist colony to be standing up, looking out at all of you — challengers of conventional wisdom, challengers of conventional ignorance, challengers of myths, right-wing butt-kickers, and champions of America’s fundamental progressive values, which are economic fairness, social justice and equal opportunity for all people. That is pretty much what progressive movement stands for.

I’ve come chiefly to applaud you for the great work that you’re doing and building, the way that you’re gaining strength and putting issues out there, mobilizing, organizing. That’s what it takes to build a movement that actually moves. We have a lot of movements, they but they don’t do much moving. That’s what we have to be about — intentional politics that moves our country forward. America needs your integrity, needs your crustiness, needs your agitation more than ever.

We need agitators

The powers that be try to make that term “agitator” a pejorative. “Oh, those union agitators, you know, they’re just toying with the minds of those workers.” “Oh, those Freedom From Religion people, they’re messing with the minds of our children.” Well, horse hockey. Agitation is what America is all about. Were it not for agitators, we’d all be wearing white-powdered wigs, singing “God Hail the Queen” here today. 

Agitation, as Jessie Jackson put it, says that agitator is that center post in the washing machine that gets the dirt out. We need more agitation. Because it’s no longer enough to be progressive, we’ve got to become aggressive, because the powers that be have become radically regressive. 

Bill Moyers said it well: “The delusional is no longer marginal; it has come in from the fringe to sit in the seat of power.” And that’s why you folks are so important — your thoughtfulness, your thoroughness, your dedication. Constantly pushing forward.

I come to you just down the road from here — Austin, actually South Austin. We have a little different attitude on the south side of the river up there. A little more iconoclastic, a little more funkier, a little more freethinking. [The late author and columnist] Molly Ivins lived over on the south side, as I do. [Storyteller and radio host] John Henry Faulk lived over on the south side. So, we’ve got this attitude, and, in fact, our unofficial slogan in South Austin is “We’re all here because we’re not all there.” — which I think is what brings us together. 

But it’s the powers that be who are not all there, in terms of grasping the true nature of the American people and the possibility that the American people represent little-d democratic potential. We’re a long ways from it, but we’re striving, and have been striving for a long time, to get there. When I say the powers that be, I’m talking about the six B’s — the bosses, the bankers, the billionaires, bigshots, bastards and bullshitters. They think they’re the top dogs and we’re just a bunch of fire hydrants out here in the countryside. 

The trouble with Abbott

Well, that’s why our fight, as progressives, as Americans, our fight is not about issues, but it’s about values. Who are we? Who are we going to be? Who do we want to be? Greg Abbott? Is that the best we can do?

Our governor here in Texas is a hell of a speech nanny. He admonished all of you, as you know, and been told earlier today, too, not to mess with Texas. So, he’s trying to deny you a freedom to express yourselves in public places, while he puts “In God We Trust” in every school room in the state, as he puts the 10 Commandments on the grounds of the Texas Legislature, a body that should never claim any godly purpose at all.

And he wants to be a little potentate of right-wing political correctness — Don’t say gay, don’t teach history that might offend white Republicans, don’t criticize oil and gas corporations, don’t allow textbooks that use words like “social justice” in them. Don’t be woke. The opposite of which is asleep, right? Woke or asleep. They would prefer you be asleep.

And don’t even say the word “abortion,” much less offer to try to help some woman in need. That is not only against the law, but you can be arrested for it, jailed and fined. In fact, posses are being organized by the right wing to chase down people who might be going to New Mexico or Oklahoma to try to get the health care that they need.

But, Greg Abbott says that’s not a problem, because no woman will be a victim of rape because, he says, we will eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas by aggressively going out and arresting them before they rape.  

Pretty astonishing. I hear a guy like Greg Abbott say something like that and I think, “100,000 sperm, and you were the fastest?”  

Well, don’t mess with Texas. Too late! Greg Abbott has already messed up Texas. Abbott and his lieutenant governor and his attorney general. We’ve got an attorney general who has two indictments. He’s under indictment at present and under FBI investigation at the same time. But this is the crew who is running and ruining Texas. Basic competence doesn’t count and doesn’t even exist. 

You might recall just a couple of years ago, the winter of 2021, when Texas froze, basically, because they could not keep the energy grid running in our state. A state that is the major energy producer in the country could not turn on the lights or turn on the heat. Hundreds of people died in that. Billions of dollars were lost in economy, particularly by farmers. Yet, Abbott not only had he refused to protect the grid before that storm, but after the storm he did nothing to punish those who helped cause it.

In fact, one of his supporters, a guy named Kelcy Warren, made $2.4 billion because of the storm. He’s a gas pipeline operator. Then, two months later, he wrote a little $1 million dollar check to Abbott’s re-election campaign, a little thank you kiss from Warren.

And so awful much more, such as refusing to expand Medicaid for the poor people in our state. We have more people without health care than any other state in the union. We have a million children without health care. He could have fixed that by extending Medicaid. He did not do so.

And racist voter suppression, banning books and censoring teachers, Covid deaths — thousands and thousands of people died of Covid in this state because of his mandate. Four major mass murders in our state in the last year and he has done nothing to try to adjust that. In fact, he went to Uvalde, just down the road from here, where the horrible murder of 26 children took place, and he said, “Well, it could have been worse.” I guess they could have been Anglo kids. I don’t know what it was that could have made it worse. 

He attacks LGBTQ parents, as well as children, accusing the parents of child abuse, on and on. And some people say, “Greg Abbott is his own worst enemy.” I say, “Not while I’m alive, he’s not!”

But you’re probably thinking, “Lucky us, we don’t live in Texas, it’s not our problem.” Guess what? Greg Abbott wants to be your president and he’s currently in a right-wing kook-off with Ron DeSantis over in Florida as to which one can be the meanest and stupidest and most right wing.

Molly Ivins, leading up to George W. Bush’s election in 2000, wrote what a folly it would have been to put George W. in the presidency and then people found out she was right. George W. is just disgusting, and Molly then wrote a column that said, “Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president, pay attention!” And Molly’s not here, but I think she would allow me to pass on the warning: Do not allow Greg Abbott to become the president. 

Texas isn’t right-wing

So, the question then arises: Is Texas nuts?

Yes! Yes. As presently governed, it is totally nuts. But we’re working on that. And here comes the good news part of the little lecture here. Texas is not a right-wing state. It is mostly a nonvoting state these days. And we’re working on that. Texas, in fact, has a noble history of progressive populism.

It was founded by debtors and iconoclasts and malcontents and mavericks. Literally mavericks. Samuel Maverick was a cattle rancher who lived here in San Antonio and he had a progressive program in which he refused to brand his cattle. Seems like a noble gesture. And the result was that any steer roaming on the range that had no brand on it was a maverick, so that’s where that term comes from. 

And, some say that Sam Maverick did not brand his cattle because therefore any cattle that was on the range without a brand was his, so he could claim it. Anyway, for whatever reason, maverick is a noble name in American vocabulary and in history, but also here in Texas. And, in fact, Maury Maverick, a descendant, was a mayor. He thought Roosevelt was too right wing and wasn’t doing enough for people. One night, Maury Maverick was drunk and going from a honky-tonk bar over here to his home and stumbled down into the ravine that was the San Antonio River, dry at the time. He said something ought to be done with this, and so Maury Maverick created the Riverwalk that is right out here today. 

And then in the 1950s, we had another rebellion. We had had a downturn again toward the right and run by the corporate interests, oil and gas and what are called plantation people down in the Rio Grande Valley. They had a guy named Shivers who was the governor, but we had a guy named Ralphie Yarborough, who would run for governor three different times. He was an indefatigable campaigner. But the progressive movement came together at that time, and they used Ralph Yarborough’s campaign to help stir people up and they created the Texas Observer to be a medium of progressive news.

Yarborough could get 3,000 people at a rally in Dallas and the next morning the Dallas Morning News would not have any mention of it. So, they came up with a slogan for the Dallas News: “If it happens in Dallas, it’s news to us!” 

They had to create their own media and they did, and this was the time of the poll tax. Larry Goodman, who wrote the great book on populism, was an organizer who went into East Texas and paid the poll tax of primarily Black people, but poor people, generally. That poll tax would be the equivalent of $25 today. It’s hard enough to get people to vote, much less to say, “By the way, it will cost you $25 to do it.” 

This was a big change, and Frankie Randolph, over in the Houston area, was a woman of some wealth. She put up money for him. The labor unions got involved and did some organizing. The result of this movement building was that we elected Ralph Yarborough to the U.S. Senate, and right around 1960, we elected Barbara Jordan to Congress, Bob Eckhart, Henry Gonzalez, the first Mexican American to go to Congress. A movement was built and it had great success. And then we fell down again. 

So, in the 1970s, the right wing had taken it back and even the Democrats were saying, “Well, we have to nominate corporate candidates or corporate -friendly candidates. That’s the only way we can get elected.” 

But then we put together a campaign in 1982 that challenged that wisdom. I was part of it. I was running for agriculture commissioner, Ann Richards was running for treasurer, Jim Mattox for attorney general and Gary Mauro land commissioner. And we all four won because we campaigned overtly progressively and campaigned as a unit so people could believe it wasn’t just one person, but a change in government. 

We defied conventional wisdom, which was that, in the rural areas, Texas had turned conservative and we had lost all those people. Well, I knew they were talking about people like my own father, who would not call himself a liberal, but he was not a conservative, either. He hated corporations for what they were doing to small businesses like his, in Dennison, Texas. He hated the oil giants and how they controlled the Legislature. He hated the Walmarts, etc., so he was a William Jennings Bryan when you actually talked to him about the issues. 

I campaigned on those issues. I was over in Tyler, Texas, which is an area that has known quite a bit of racism, to say the least, over the years. But, I was running on straight-up populist issues with Black and Mexican Americans, gays — I was the first statewide candidate ever to speak to a gay meeting — so we got to Tyler, and the guy who was showing me around, the local guy, said, “Well, let’s go up here to the courthouse. We’ll go up here on the fifth floor, where there’s this old judge, and you can talk to him, but don’t dump your whole load on him, he’s very conservative.” 

One of the big issues I was running on was natural gas prices that had gone out of sight and people’s utility bills were exploding. So, I’m talking to the judge, his feet up on the desk, his hat tilted back, he’s listening to this young punk, and I’m telling my story, and I’m being cautious and finally I say, “So, judge, in conclusion, it just seems to me that these gas companies are not being entirely fair to the consumers of our state.” And the judge’s feet came off that desk and hit the floor with a big bang and he leaned over right into my face and said, “Hightower, in your private moments, wouldn’t you say they’re fucking us”?

And I said, “Yes, sir, I have said that. And I will again.”

And he said, “Then I’m going to be for you. Any time you come into Tyler, you can use my office here and help organize, and I’ll be for you.” 

So, we can’t make assumptions about who people are just based on location or some reputation or something that somehow or other they’re conservative or even more than conservative, that they’re right wing.

We’re doing it again

But, now, we’re doing it again. We had that period in the ‘80s, with us and the progressive legislature and things moving along, but then even again, my party, the Democratic Party, decided they didn’t need grassroots, they just needed to raise a bunch of money and throw it at television sets and that would be the solution. Well, that was the solution for Republicans, because they ended up holding every statewide elected office, so now we’re rebuilding again. Back to the grassroots. 

We even have a MAGA organization: Mothers Against Greg Abbott. And we’re electing little-d democrats to big-D democratic positions. We’re about to send you two new members of Congress, one in a new district and another one replacing a Democrat, but both overtly progressive. 

Greg Casar and Jasmine Crockett.  Very, very progressive people. They’re not just going to be another vote, they’re going to be leaders in the Democratic caucus, encouraging them to have a little bit of backbone. I often thought we need a Viagra for backbones.

What we know to be true is that Texas has been a non-voting state, but turnout is based on turn-on. If you keep nominating mealy-mouthed Democrats, then you’re going to elect Republicans, and that is what has been happening to us. So that’s so we’re pushing forward with this, with great progress, I think, just as FFRF has gained tremendous strength in your numbers, we’re gaining strength, as well, in our party. And part of it is just perseverance. You know, Willie Nelson told me once, “Hightower, the early bird might get the worm, but it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese.” 

Go where the need is

I’m here to thank you for coming to Texas. I know there are probably more comfortable regions, ideologically speaking, for you to be in, but progressive groups, and Democrats in particular, have got to go where the need is. You know, the need is not in Greenwich Village. The need is in Tyler, Texas, the need is in Iowa, rural counties. The need is out there where open minds and progressive values and an agitating spirit exists. In every red dot in America, there are open minds and progressive spirits and willing people to be a part of the kind of movement and kind of world that we’re working toward.

That’s where we’re needed to be. Particularly in the rural areas, particularly in the red areas. Just like that judge in Tyler, Texas, they can become allies if we reach out to them. But they’re not going to if we don’t show up. And the national Democratic Party has made a conscious decision over the last few years to say that we’re not going into the rural areas, and we’re not going where Trump won big. We’re going to concentrate on the inner cities and the inner suburbs, where our strength is. Well, that hasn’t been working out that well, either.

It seems to me we’ve got to get out there and reach out to people, and then to try to unify them, because whether our particular issue is our labor rights or women’s rights, or climate change, abortion, or freedom from religion, our fundamental values come down to those issues of fairness and justice and opportunity for all. 

Again, Jessie Jackson said it well. He said, “We might not have all come over on the same boat, but we’re in the same boat now.” That’s a powerful political reality when you begin to understand it. So, if a progressive future is possible, it is possible only if we have intentional politics that drives toward that future. 

I’ll leave you with this thought. It’s from Lewis Grizzard, the late, great Southern humorist, who once explained something that we in the South have always known to be true, and that is there’s a great big difference between being naked and being nekkid. Being naked means you have no clothes on. Being nekkid means you have no clothes on and you are up to something. So, we’ve got to get nekkid together. Thank you very much.