Raise hell and have fun

Texas' liberal icons offer some advice for the political season

Nationwide, liberal books command best-seller lists, lining the shelves at Barnes & Noble and filling the tables at Borders. There's a new liberal talk radio network, Air America, and liberals (hey, it's not a dirty word!) dominate fundraising on the Internet, outpacing conservatives by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. The large and ever-growing network of liberal bloggers (think of them as modern, independent, online muckrakers) can count the 2002 toppling of former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott as a first, but certainly not last, victory. Former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean and the progressive PAC MoveOn.org have raked in record-breaking donations. Things in Texas, however, are different. The 2002 election was a crushing defeat for the Democrats, prompting a lot of tough questions. Discouragement in Texas Democratic circles remains palpable. Can they translate the national resurgence into local political gains?

Long endangered in Texas, much like the whooping crane, liberals, progressives, and Democrats are now fashioning a plan they hope leads to a statewide and local comeback. "It is easy to describe what happened and its consequences, but much more difficult to lay out a positive, realistic plan for reversing the situation Democrats face," University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray recently said. The attempt to reorganize and rebuild, clearing out the weeds and wreckage of a decade of Republican dominance, is in its infancy and will be met by a formidable host of obstacles as it matures. Into this environment comes a pair of new screeds by two of Texas' most prominent liberal writers.

Molly Ivins
Who Let the Dogs In? Incredible Political Animals I have Known, by Molly Ivins, the witty doyenne of Texas liberalism, is a collection of thoughtful and sophisticated essays, some of which date back to 1986. Ivins' role in national and Texas politics is that of the lovable but tad-too-frank-for-comfort aunt we all grew up with: charming, confiding, but brutally honest. "How smart is it to throw away power? How smart is it to throw away the most magnificent political legacy any people has ever received?" She spends the next 356 pages educating the reader about why they must remain involved in the future of their democracy.

Ivins' real gift is explaining in plain language the consequences of our neglect: "Public schools and health care are falling apart while the Right sits around griping about higher taxes." She also writes about what we can do to change the parlous and anti-competitive state of our economy . "`Capitalism` needs to be refereed by government intervention (and the referees damn well better not be on the take)."

She also enjoys the pleasure of others' hindsight. "Now they all ask: 'Who knew Dubya Bush would be this bad? I realize there is nothing more annoying than someone who says, 'I told you so.' But dammit, the next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be in the White House, would you please pay attention?" she writes.

In contrast, Let's Stop Beating Around The Bush, by Jim Hightower, a former Texas agriculture commissioner turned writer and activist, is all-new and full of the red meat issues for which progressive and democratic partisans yearn. Hightower documents multiple examples of official and unofficial corruption, such as the Bush appointee who still receives $284,000 in compensation from his former lobbying firm while working for the agency he used to lobby. He also argues that unions are a healthy part of any capitalist economy, and discusses how they contribute to our economic well-being.

But Hightower saves his big guns for the elemental hypocrisy of Congress, telling us that House Majority Leader Tom Delay - after giving himself a pay raise, but refusing to increase the minimum wage - had this to say: "I challenge anyone to live on my salary." He makes $166,700 a year.

Written in a style that is conversational, earnest , and chock full of Texas slang, Hightower's "whopper-jawed" book contains a crossword puzzle, several quizzes, and some silly illustrations. If Ivins is like that aunt whose advice you seek but never follow, then Hightower is the hyperactive country cousin (you know, the one you avoid) who always talks politics in polite company.

"For someone named for a plant, Bush has shown an astonishing hostility to nature," he quips, but the one-liners aren't what make Hightower's book so readable. There are ideas, plans, and projects to get involved in; people to agitate and organize; and problems to fix. It would be unwise to let Hightower's folksy language fool you: The core of his message is that we live in a serious time and the stakes are high.

Jim Hightower
The Current recently asked both authors which issues they follow closely. Hightower tracks the environment, especially pollution in minority neighborhoods. "Pollution tends to be a class issue," he notes. "In fact, the average fine for polluting in a white neighborhood versus a poor neighborhood is nearly 10 to 1, or $333,000 in a white neighborhood versus $55,000 in a minority neighborhood."

Ivins confesses that the rise of the religious right in America and its manipulation by folks she calls "Country Club Conservatives" is high on her list. "You have `this` sanctimonious Christian whose announced views are to bring biblical world-views to government, combined with absolute political thuggery," she says of DeLay, the iron-fisted representative from Sugarland. "But DeLay himself does not seem to feel that there is any conflict, which I find fascinating."

Asked what troubles her most, Ivins lowers her voice and her accent thickens. "I am really concerned at the degree of damage to the Bill Of Rights. For the `Bush` Administration to have maintained that they had the right to put an American citizen in jail indefinitely without a right to counsel or a speedy trial, especially without even knowing what they are accused of, is scary. "For there not to have been a greater outcry than there was is just shocking," she adds.

Hightower and Ivins also agree that Republican charges of class warfare by the Democrats are disingenuous. "So, `the middle-class guys` listen to folks like Limbaugh who tell them the reason everything is going to hell is `the fault of` a bunch of pointy-headed professors on college campuses and feminists," laughs Ivins. "Let me tell you something: College professors and politically correct liberals and feminists by and large don't run those huge corporations that lay off 10,000 people at a time."

Who Let The Dogs In:
Incredible Political Animals
I Have Known

By Molly Ivins
Random House
$22.95, 356 pages
ISBN: 1400062853

Let's Stop Beating
Around The Bush

By Jim Hightower
$21.95, 234 pages
ISBN: 0670033545
Hightower is more direct: "`We need to` acknowledge that we are engaged in class warfare and the difference is that now, the workaday majority of this country is fighting back in that war," he says. "Republicans who snarl out that charge of class warfare have been the most avid practitioners of it."

He suggests that a silent partner of the Republican class warriors is Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve Chairman, whose primary purpose is to prevent price inflation, a corrosive byproduct of uncontrolled economic growth that erodes the value of money and reduces the purchasing power of fixed incomes. Critics and supporters generally concede Greenspan's success. Hightower has a different view. "He's really not fighting a war against `price` inflation but a war against wage `inflation`," he averred, charging that Greenspan, in his zeal to fight inflation, purposely held down middle-class earnings.

"I think he's like the Wizard of Oz, there's just nothing behind that curtain," Ivins tartly elaborates.

Both authors are concerned that middle-class voters have largely disengaged. "Get corporate money out of the political process," says Hightower, when asked what systemic reform might re-engage this critical demographic. "You cannot have all these loopholes. You have to take all the private money out and have a public financing system if you want a public result."

In the end, campaigns, publicly financed or not, come down to votes. Hightower encourages people to be active regardless of how apathetic or antagonistic they feel toward the process and the candidates. "We are going to elect a president whether you want one or not," he says, "and it might as well be somebody you might prefer."

After 40 years of muckraking and provocation, Ivins still finds politics and politicians amusing. She also believes that the political process should be not only engaging but enjoyable. So what advice would she give to an 18-year-old who has never voted? "Oh, that's easy, raise hell and have fun." •

By Sean-Paul Kelley

Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.