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Date: 2024-05-21 Page is: DBtxt003.php txt00023346

HOW TO TALK LIKE A POPULIST: written by Jim Hightower

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Peter Burgess COMMENTARY

Peter Burgess

Jim Hightower

My overall suggestion for Democrats, rhetorically speaking, is that you not try to memorize the phrases and the language and the stories you’re hearing today. Instead, take the essence of them, then make the words your own. Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself—everyone else is already taken.”

It’s you that the voters want to hear from, and it’s only you that will create the legitimacy behind the message you’re trying to deliver to folks. With that core premise, here are a couple of pointers to help you deliver a strong democratic message.

First of all, humor is the politician’s very best friend—especially self-deprecating humor—it’s the key to unlocking the audience’s mind. Use whatever humor you have—it can be huge humor, it can be very subtle humor, it doesn’t matter. Whatever kind of humor, you’ve got to turn that little sucker loose every time that you speak. And I’m not talking about telling jokes, but adding memorable punctuation points to the message that you’re delivering.

For example, if you’re talking about inequality, you can say a briefcase full of statistics— and too often Democrats do—and/or use all sorts of experts But that can be overdone. You could use some of that—Bernie Sanders, for example, did it well for the most part. Sanders pointed out that there are three American billionaires who have more wealth than half of all Americans combined—that’s a powerful point. Then you can add that Republicans promised that Trump’s trillion dollar tax cut would benefit everybody—in effect, “Everybody was gonna get a seven-course meal.” Well yours and mine turned out to be a possum and a six-pack. That says it about as well as it’s gonna be said, and more memorable than any number of statistics we could cite.

Humor lets us say strong things that sting better than vitriol can. My friend Molly Ivins once described a member of Congress from Fort Worth, who was particularly stupid, and she could have gone on about that. But instead, she said, “If he gets one digit dumber we’re gonna have to start watering him twice a day.” Nice. Mark Twain once referred to a fella who he had no appreciation for at all who had died. Said Twain, “I was not able to go to the funeral, but I did approve of it.” That nailed the guy about as well as it possibly could.

Now, my second point is to be Democrats. Not pusillanimous Democrats. Don’t hold back—if you believe in the Democratic message then, by God, speak it! That’s what people wanna hear. They’re not gonna agree with every one of your points, but they’ll at least figure, “Well, the guy or woman has got some integrity to be able to say what it is that they are thinking.”

People are ready for genuine Democrats… and don’t assume that rural and Red State voters are all just a bunch of rubes and right-wing nut balls. In my first campaign for office here in the State of Texas, I was campaigning over in Tyler, an old bastion of the Southern Confederacy period in our state. I went to a very ornate courthouse to visit a judge who I was told was “very very conservative, so don’t dump your whole load on him.” Well, I go in, and sure enough, I try to pull back a little bit of my message. But I say for example “George, I’m running on an issue about gas utilities, and how they’re very high and they’re really squeezing consumers and squeezing businesses, etc.” And then, in a compromise conclusion, I said, “Judge I really just think that they’re not quite being fair with us.”

The judge then suddenly lunges forward at me right in my face. and he said, ‘Hightower, in your private moments wouldn’t you say they’re fucking us.’ ‘Well, yes, sir, I would.’” And I did, and I will do it some more, because people who might be called conservative are not conservative when we talk about justice, when we talk about equality and when we talk about power in our society.

The polls show this. Celinda Lake and Mike Lux with the Consortium recently did an important survey of rural voters, and George Goehl with People’s Action, too, talked to them about what they thought really mattered. And the most common response they all get from voters who have switched from Obama to Trump is: “Where are the Democrats? Why aren’t they on our side? Why aren’t they standing with us against these monopolies? Why didn’t Joe Biden go to one of those meatpacking factories in the crisis that they were facing during the COVID period. Where the hell are the Democrats?”

And you can also see it from the initiatives that are passed in our country. That’s as big a symbol of what voters are really thinking as we can have—better than polls, because initiative after initiative on minimum wage, on monopoly power, on Mother Nature itself, overwhelmingly favor the Democratic position. Big time. I’ve been a supporter of the rights of nature—that nature itself should have a right, the lake, the river, the trees, the forest, ought to have a right to legal action, to live and to sustain.

People may say, “Now that seems like a kind of environmentalist concept, isn’t it, Hightower?” Well, the people of Orlando, Florida, put it up to a vote. They had an initiative there to give the rights of nature to water systems in their area, and even the supporters didn’t think that it would carry and it was going to just be an educational sort of process But in fact, 87 percent of the people of that county including Disney World voted for this rights of nature initiative, and that includes beaucoup Republicans and independents.

We don’t have to fear the people—we have to get with the people. And, in fact, if possible, get out in front of them. But at least follow them when they’re taking these powerful positions. People are looking for FDR-style Democrats to stand up to the corporate elites and the CEOs, the powers that be who are knocking down the middle class, who are holding down the poor, who are tearing down our democratic rights in this society.

And when I say “the powers that be,” here’s something to consider in your messaging: say who they are. I’m talking about what I call the 6 Bs: the bosses, the bankers, the billionaires, the big shots, bastards, and bullshitters who are running roughshod over us. These are people who have no concept and they’re as confused as goats on astro-turf when it comes to actually standing for the principles of America, including that notion that we’re all in this together.

When I say all the people, I mean all. We should always have a message of unity. You don’t have to draw out every ethnic group in society, but just make the point that we’re all in this together. Jesse Jackson was powerful on this. I was with him in Wisconsin in his 1988 presidential race when he talked to 2,000 farmers on a farm in the northern part of Wisconsin. Jesse made the point that the Wisconsin farmers who were fighting monopoly power squeezing them have the same interests as the poor people across the country who are trying to be able to afford the food.

Here’s how he put it: “We might not have all come over on the same boat, but we’re in the same boat now.” That was a powerful political reality, and that is a Democratic powerful political reality. They’re many more of these phrases and stories. But remember the stories. Don’t forget your Bible and don’t forget your Woody Guthrie. Don’t forget the cultural icons that spoke with stories that related to people. The stories you tell are the message itself.

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