Former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower has earned his billing as “America’s No. 1 Populist” and funniest progressive commentator. To him, politics isn’t about left or right, it’s up or down, the elites versus the masses. The rich are stealing our lunch buckets and our jobs too, outsourcing the middle class while the masses remain “moderate.” Which is why Hightower famously titled one book There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road But Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos.

Hightower is the featured guest at a benefit for Common Cause N.C. Friday, April 18, 7-9 p.m. at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill. Tickets are $10 ($5 students). His new book, with co-author Susan DeMarco, is Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow. It profiles 50 entrepreneurs who’ve created housing for the working class, health care clinics for the uninsured, and the League of Pissed Off Voters forwell, yeah. Theirs are the “new democratic models” for challenging corporate power while also living your values, Hightower said when we called him.

Yes, but why do you think that progressive activism is any more of a match for the corporate powers now than it’s been over the last 30 to 40 years?

[The reason is] they’ve overreached. And now a majority of people75 percent or morethink corporations have too much power. You see that in the battles against Wal-Mart, for example, which unbeknownst to most of the establishment, people are winning all across the country. But also, the rise of people in business, in politics, in health care and other areas who are blazing a new path, because the corporate form of business is not the equivalent of business. It’s one form [of business], and it’s the most constricted, constipated form. People are finding a much freer form through partnerships, individual proprietorships and cooperatives.

Will it translate to political or policy change, though? If so, how can John McCain be running even or ahead in the polls?

Well, you don’t start at the presidential level. The change is happening in city councils, county commissions and state legislatures. And that’s the pool of talent that will move on up. And the politics itself is changing as people are finding new ways to communicateyou see that up to the level of the Obama campaign.

Do you have any wisdom for us now that the presidential campaign has come to North Carolina?

No wisdom. I endorsed Obama during the Texas primary, and I said the significant thing about the Obama phenomenon isn’t Obama but the phenomenonthe fact that we’ve got millions of people, including a whole bunch of young folks and people who haven’t been voting in the past, who believe that change really is possible. And not because of him. I disagree with the pundits who say, “Oh, the Obama supporters have this ‘god’ fixation, that he’s a messiah.” I find people are not fooled, and they know that in many areas he’s short of their own progressive goals. But they see … the possibility of [Obama] bringing in a new wave of people, including the grassroots force itself, that will continue to demand the change and demand that he be better on policies than he now is.

So should people put their activist energies into presidential politics right now, or look for some localor even a businessopportunity? Or is there enough time to do both?

Yeah, I think there’s enough time to do both, and that’s what I urge people to do. Obviously, we’re going to be focused on the presidency, because we don’t need a third Bush term. But I emphasize with people that to build a long-term progressive movement you also have to invest some of your efforts in state and local races as well as be a rebel in other aspects of your lifewhere you feel like it. I mean, some people are inclined to business, some people want to make religious changes, or are involved in health care, so there are a lot of different ways that you can express that kind of innate rebelliousness that is, I think, down in the core of each of us. So DeMarco and I, in our book, are saying: “Turn that little sucker loose.”