by Kathy Arlyn Sokol for Big Medicine

You received considerable notoriety for "If the Gods Had Wanted Us to Vote, They Would Have Given Us Candidates," the book you published during the 2000 elections. What made you write it?

JH: Well, what prompted me to write it was the fact that we really don't have a two-party system in our country anymore. We have a single party system which is the money party. The corporate-monied interests and investor interests now dominate both parties which go hand in hand to these major corporate entities to get the campaign financing to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in congressional and presidential elections. And in turn for taking that money they accept the corporate agenda. So, you have the Democratic Party, which I come out of - having actually been elected in the state of Texas to state-wide office down there - that now no longer stands for the working families; that no longer stands unequivocally for environmental protection; that no longer stands for the family farms; no longer stands for consumers or ordinary people. Rather they side on most of the economic issues and environmental issues with the same interests that the Republicans do and those interests are running roughshod over the majority of the population.

The result is that we had in the last presidential election the much talked about missing ballots in Florida; a few hundred missing ballots that supposedly swung the election to Bush rather than to Al Gore. But the media didn't talk about the fact that we have a hundred million missing ballots across America. That's how many people didn't vote. Almost half of our population did not vote because they didn't believe that it mattered; that either party, that either of these candidates was going to stand for them. Overwhelmingly those hundred million people who are not voting have populist instincts, they are working people, making less than 50,000 dollars a year and many of them much less than that. A lot are people who are working two and three jobs in our economy just to try to make ends meet. No one is speaking to them, so we had what I call "Election 2000, A Space Odyssey." A Space Odyssey because it wasn't in touch with the real issues, what I call "kitchen table issues," that actually affect ordinary people. And if the political system isn't standing for them, then they're not going to stand for the political system. Now, that works against them because it means their interests still don't get served. But it also works against our society being a cohesive people held together by the social glue of everybody believing that we're all in this together -- what's called the "common good" in our country. And that's dangerous for our democracy when the few are prospering and the many are not; and the few are making the political decisions and the opinions of the many don't count.

So, in the interests of the very survival of our democracy, we have the essential fight ahead of trying to establish a new politics so that the majority of that hundred million people now not voting actually see a reason to come to the polls again and participate in the process. And they'll only do that if they see that the process is actually serving them; if they see that at least one party is going to represent the interests of workers and farmers and people concerned about the environment, etc.

And now you've started this Chautauqua program, this idea of moving across the country. What is a Chautauqua? How is it going to work?

Well, the Chautauqua was actually a phenomena of the late 1800s, early 1900s in the United States, It began in a town called Chautauqua, New York on Lake Chautauqua. And it was originally an enlightenment kind of phenomenon where some religious leaders -- not religious in the sense of, you know, going to church, but in the larger philosophical concept of religion -- would gather and bring great orators and glee clubs and musicians and they gathered at this lake and people would come for a couple of weeks and camp out and have dinner together, meals together, and swim and have games and then listen to these lectures or listen to these musicians and sort of advance their own knowledge. And it became a really big phenomenon to the point that in a single year, 35 million people were turning out for these events.

These were in the years of the late 1800s into about 1930 and this was pre-television, pre-radio, so it was also a form of entertainment. But it was more than that because the media at the time, the politics at the time also were excluding people, so they found their own mechanism.

And so, we came up with this notion of the "New Chautauqua" which takes that concept of grassroots gathering, downhome democracy of people coming together with a more civic focus--talking about the issues of the day, hearing from some speakers, having workshops, training sessions of how you can fight back at a local level. But then also to combine that with good music and good food and beer and wine and clowns and dancing and partying and all kinds of stuff going -- a lot happening at the same time. And really it relates back to our county fair concept here where people get together to celebrate really their culture, their economic achievements and just come together.

And I think we need this more than ever because now, even progressives, we communicate mostly by the Internet and via television and telephone and you know, that sort of thing, electronically. And it's high tech but we need more "high touch" back in our society and people want that, I think. So, we're going to see that and we've certainly had that in Maine in the initial launching of this idea. People turned out beautifully here in Unity, Maine and are ready to talk about these issues and sort of come together around them.

Final question since everybody is about to begin here - what is your background and what gave you the idea to embark on this Chautauqua?

Well, my background is growing up in a small town family of small business people and tenant farmers and seeing their relationship to a power establishment, basically seeing the anti-establishment attitude that is at the core of the politics in this country, though it's not much talked about among people who would not necessarily consider themselves progressive by any means. They actually have this kind of rebellious, maverick streak within them. Then upon going to college, etc. I learn that there had actually been a movement called the populist movement in America in the late 1800s and that this is in essence what these people are and what I am. And today we're in another one of those moments when we need this maverick streak and anti-establishment rebellion against the corporate usurpers of our people's democracy. And it's one thing to talk about that, but you've got to get people together so that they can share their own experiences with that, so that's where the Chautauqua concept came together. Why don't we actually get people together? Give them an excuse to come together including fun so that people who might not come for a political speech but would come to see Patch Adams, one of the great clowns and great medical teachers in our society; or come to see a Willie Nelson or a Bonnie Raitt perform. We bring all of that together in one place. Then we might actually have the start of a community discussion that can go well beyond one of these events.

Is this something that you see applicable to other nations around the world...?

Of course. I think some nations do this far better than we do. You know, there is the "slow-food" movement in Europe, particularly in France and Italy, that says, "let's slow down. Instead of going for fast food, let's slow down and remember that meals are about discussion and culture and families being together, and then the larger family coming together -- neighbors and extended families and friends." And all that offers another possibility of having these discussions. Americans don't talk that much to each other. We have quick snippets of conversations. We go to malls or movies or something but we don't much get together where we actually get to know each other and have these conversations. So, I think this is certainly applicable to the rest of the world. It would fit in any society, I would think. But particularly we have some possibility in those countries that have a more recent history of dealing with these gatherings. You know, going back to the saloon of Ireland and other countries. It wasn't about being drunk; it was about having your families together, and work was less important than that community feeling. And that's what we're trying to generate.

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