When Jim Hightower, Nina Turner, and the Our Revolution road show rolled into Tyler, Texas, Ed Moore liked what he heard. “This is basically what we’ve all been needing,” explained the retired factory worker and union leader, who lives in a town where factories and unions have taken a lot of hits in recent years. Moore, a city councilman who represents working-class neighborhoods shaken by deindustrialization, nodded in agreement as Hightower channeled old-school Texas populism into a warning: “The powers that be…are knocking down the middle class. They are holding down the poor” and attacking “the essential ethic that holds America together—and that is the notion that we are all in this together.”
Our Revolution is the national group created by backers of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential run with the goal of transforming the Democratic Party. When Turner, a former Ohio state senator who now leads the organization, finished her address by declaring, “We can change the world—one community at a time, one state at a time…. Tyler, Texas, can we do this?,” Moore joined the enthusiastic multiracial, multiethnic crowd, which was packed into an activity center on the local college campus, in answering: “Yes!”
It was an optimistic response to a tough question. Texas Democrats haven’t won a single statewide race since 1994, and they’ve had a harder and harder time winning congressional, legislative, and local races in places like Tyler, an East Texas city of 105,000 where the party once called most of the political shots but in recent years has struggled to pull together slates of candidates. Even Hightower, who has long preached that a populist coalition could rejuvenate the state Democratic Party—and who is well aware of the argument that demographic shifts are helping parts of Texas get out of their right-wing rut—says it’ll take time, and a lot of organizing, to tip the state.
But he has faith. Hightower argues, with the experience of a Texan who knows what has been lost and what might be found, that Our Revolution can renew the kind of progressive-populist politics that once elected Democrats like him to statewide office. “There’s an energy—you can feel it,” says the author and activist, who has argued for years that the party must unshackle itself from big money and reconnect with working people in places like Tyler. “You felt it in the Sanders campaign. So many people came into politics, in Texas and across the country: young people, working people, people who had given up on the Democratic Party but who started to think that maybe we could make this a party that appeals to people everywhere.” And Hightower really does mean everywhere—“not just in the blue areas, but in the reddest areas of the reddest states. Now that the presidential election is over, the Bernie people are coming from the outside and crashing the gates of state parties and saying, ‘You have to get better at this.’”