He went on to compare this event with another conversation that took place 130 years earlier a few miles away around a kitchen table in Lampasas, Texas. Four down-on-their-luck farmers got together to talk about their plight at the hands of rapacious railroads and greedy middlemen. Before the evening was over they had planted seeds that would blossom as the Populist movement. In a few years the movement had 10,000 organizers across the Midwest and South, talking to people about how things needed to change. This was at the height of the Gilded Era, a time much like our own when any challenge to wealthy powerbrokers seemed futile. But the Populists kept talking—to friends, to neighbors, to anyone who didn’t walk away—and before long even industrialists and politicians had to listen. Without the Populist movement, the reforms of the Progressive Era, the labor movement, and the New Deal never would have happened.
The crowd in Austin was treated to an all-star roster of rousing speakers, including U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., Granny D, and Molly Ivins, who told the cheering crowd, "I want to urge all of you, when you’re out there organizing on the issues, to remember to have fun."
Fun was in ample supply all day at the Travis County Exposition Center (more typically the site of rodeos and livestock shows than of democratic uprisings), with bands of every stripe from Norteño to rap, face painting for the kids, a farmers’ market, a pirate radio station powered by an exercise bicycle, free grilled cheese sandwiches at the Organic Valley booth, fajitas from the East Austin Lions Club, and organizers in armadillo costumes roaming the crowd with Palm Pilots taking everyone’s address. "We want to stay in touch," Hightower explained. "We don’t want this to end today."
Organizers set aside a pavilion for dozens of enthusiastic group discussions on topics ranging from the politics of water to the Chiapas revolt. Local political and social organizations drew interested crowds to their tables, and people still had energy left for more talk about ideas and action at the Utne Reader booth near the exit.
Ice cream impresario Ben Cohen chose the event to promote his True Majority campaign, which included a radical carnival sideshow (winners of the softball throw, for instance, knocked over a nuclear missile and saw a schoolhouse pop up). The campaign aims to reach beyond activist circles to speak with everyday people about trimming military spending so that we can improve education, promote children’s welfare, and fight global poverty. (For information, see www.TrueMajority.com.) "The true majority of Americans do not want to be identified as progressives," he told the crowd. "They don’t want to come to our meetings. They’re exhausted and overwhelmed. Yet they feel the same as we do about the issues."
Author and filmmaker Michael Moore echoed the same theme. "Opinion polls show the American public is very progressive on most of the key issues," he said. "The media, which is owned by rich guys, has done a fabulous job of convincing us that Americans are conservative. We have to start understanding that we are in the majority. We just need to get people out to vote"
And the best way to do that, he counseled, is to start talking, to everybody, about what is really going on in our lives and in the world. And that, I am happy to report, is what already seems to be happening.