Jim Hightower, the biggest little populist in Texas, grasped the essential nature of his cause seven years ago, near the beginning of his first campaign. He was in a courthouse deep in east Texas, face to face with a crusty old judge reputed to be an unreconstructed redneck. Hightower had just finished two years as editor of the Texas Observer, beacon of liberalism, and his urbane friends thought his political mission was quixotic, that there was no way he could connect with all the kickers from Palestine to Muleshoe.

The judge appeared ready for a postlunch snooze by the time Hightower reached his office that day, and it was hard to be certain that the old man was listening, but the eager novice candidate moderated his pitch just in case: I'm Jim Hightower, running for the railroad commission, the state regulatory agency, and I have some problems with the big utility companies. It seems like they get every rate increase they want and the commission just kind of certifies it and they seem to be running over us and that just ain't right . . .

The judge had been leaning back in his chair with his eyes closed. He moved forward, put his elbows on the desk and smiled. The words came out slowly. "Hightower, in your private moments, wouldn't you say they're [obscenity] us?"

That, in an expurgated phrase, is what populism is all about. Old populism or new populism, from the left or from the right, the idea is the same, as Texas swing singer Bob Wills wrote a long time ago: "The little bee sucks the blossom, but the big bee gets the honey; the little man picks the cotton, but the big man gets the money." It is his understanding of the sentiment, how to tap it, how to identify with it, that has made Jim Hightower what he is today at age 43, not a folk hero by any means, not yet, but a sort of national symbol for little bees out there.

Although he narrowly lost the railroad commission race, Hightower was elected Texas agriculture commissioner in 1982, and since then he has emerged as the number one critic of the Reagan administration's farm policies and as a founder of the New Populist Forum, a network of state officials and congressmen who believe that, figuratively speaking, the Democrats should drive Chevy pickups, not Volvos, on the road back to national dominance. "People basically understand and are angry about the power relationships in America," he says. "Too few people have all the money and they use it against the rest of us." Today, at the Dupont Plaza Hotel, he'll offer similar thoughts at a forum conference titled "Populism '86: Left or Right?"

In its fertile history, the Texas Department of Agriculture has bred few national figures, let alone populist firebrands. It does not exactly provide the same forum as the United States Senate, or even the Texas Senate. Hightower's predecessor, a fellow named Reagan Brown, extended his public recognition beyond the agricultural extension network only twice: first when he decided to prove that fire ants weren't such a big deal by sticking his hand in a hill of them, a courageous bit of showmanship that sent him to the hospital; next when he called George Washington Carver "that great black, uh, nigger, uh" during a televised campaign appearance.

Hightower is neither foolhardy nor racist, but the lack of those characteristics is not what has pushed him out of the backwaters; rather, it is a combination of energy, organization and humor, in equal parts, perhaps, but with the last the most obvious. Most people who have heard of Jim Hightower have heard of him because of his one-liners. They have helped get him invitations as guest speaker at labor halls, farm cooperatives and press clubs around the country. They have forced Republican leaders to respond ("noisy, but ineffective," said Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, perhaps feeling threatened by the rataplan of another farm state wit across the ideological divide). And they have carried him onto the network news and into the national columns.

Reagan's idea of a good farm program is "Hee-Haw."

The only difference between the American farmer and a pigeon is the pigeon can still make a deposit on a John Deere.

There's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow lines and dead armadillos.

You can still make a small fortune in agriculture. The only problem is you have to start with a large fortune.

As a humorist, Hightower is aided by a nasal north Texas accent, a natural sense of timing and his looks: He is a short fellow, perhaps 5-7, about right by traditional populist standards (the breed comes either very large or very small), with glasses and a mustache, and he dresses like a cowpoke with a Resistol ten-gallon Panama hat and Larry Mahan's rodeo cowboy boots. In other words he has a clear identity; he's not just another yellow line running straight down the middle of the road.

Like so many other small-town Texans with political ambitions, Hightower was drawn to Washington after college, almost as a rite of manhood. He went from student body president at North Texas State University to a position on the staff of Sen. Ralph Yarborough, the progressive Democrat, and from there to work with Ralph Nader's Agribusiness Accountability Project. But according to friends, Hightower seemed to know all along, even as he was fighting the nomination of Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz, even as he was managing the 1976 presidential campaign of Oklahoma Sen. Fred Harris, that he would have to go home again. He would have to go home to find himself, politically, but also to try to prove something to the liberal crowd.

"When I was in Washington and I was first thinking about politics in Texas, people up there were despairing of the whole liberal potential," Hightower said during a recent interview. "They were saying that America is so conservative, the people out there beyond the beltway, and I realized they were talking about people like my daddy, people I grew up with down there who were not truly conservative by any stretch of the imagination. They were in fact radicals, sort of small-town radicals and small-scale capitalists. They didn't like the establishment at all. Liberals were forgetting that."

Hightower's daddy, William Fletcher Hightower, known to the world as High, grew up on a farm near Dallas, married a farm girl and moved to Denison, a railroad town in north Texas along the Red River that was named for a director of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad who had never set foot in the state. That whole stretch of the river valley had populist roots, turning out congressmen like Sam Rayburn and Wright Patman on the Texas side and Carl Albert in Oklahoma, who, whatever happened to them years later along the Potomac, started out dedicated to the working people along the Red.

"To the people up there, populism is more of a cultural experience," said Hightower. "It has a political expression, but it was guys like my daddy, sitting at home at the dinner table talking about problems, about getting finance for their business, particularly when the control over the banks began to move out of towns like Denison to Dallas and to holding companies. And when the chain stores began to take over."

High Hightower was a magazine distributor most of his career. "He put the magazines in the drugstores," said Jim, his middle son. "In the 1960s the big chains like 7-Eleven began to move into towns like Denison; stores that had been independent operations became these chain operations, so you had to deal with Dallas, submit everything in triplicate, you got tied up in corporate bureaucracy. It was a constant rebellion against the powers that be."

The richest family in Denison was the Munson family. The Munsons made their fortune in cotton trading, and then, in the way it is done in small towns, they went into banking. In 1982, when Hightower ran for agriculture commissioner against Reagan Brown, one of the Munsons was the local coordinator for Brown.

"That got my daddy all steamed up, and it made it especially sweet when I won," Hightower recalled. "I called my folks about midnight on election night to tell them I had won. I wasn't even sure they'd be up at that hour, but they were, and they had a gang over there and they were partying. I talked to my mama first and then she got Daddy and he got on and the first thing he said was: 'We beat the Munsons!' We beat the Munsons. That's the way it is all over America. You go up against the Munsons."

In politics, usually, perception is reality, and that is what gives populism its force. It is not a governing ideology so much as a frame of mind and of reference, a way of relating to people. In the debate raging among Democrats -- whither the party, right or left? -- most analysts place the populists on the left side of the debate. That may be correct, especially in Hightower's case, but it is almost beside the point.

At the Populist Forum in Washington today, for instance, Deputy Treasury Secretary Dick Darman, one of the strategic brains of the Reagan presidency, and Newt Gingrich, the right-wing activist congressman from Georgia, will carry the populist banner for Reagan and the Republicans, saying theirs is the party that has tapped into widespread frustration with the status quo. That is where Hightower sees his purpose: making sure the Democrats don't abandon the little bees as they reformulate their mass appeal.

"New populism is, when you come down to it, probably not all that different from neoliberalism in a substantive policy sense," said James C. Rosapepe, a Washington lawyer, longtime Hightower ally and director of the forum. "There's probably a lot of overlapping, for instance, between Jim Hightower and Gary Hart. The difference is in approach, in rhetoric. On the idea side they are a lot alike. But the difference is on the constituency side, and there the question is: Whose side are you on? There's the difference."

That might partly explain the results last week in the Texas Democratic primary. Mark White, the governor, who comes from the conservative wing of the party, carried only 53.8 percent of the vote in a race against five obscure challengers. Hightower led the entire ticket, pulling in 81.3 percent of the vote against his opponent. In rural counties in east Texas and west Texas, where White lost, Hightower got 70 and 75 percent.

"People think that Texas is such a conservative state, but the truth is it's populist," said Hightower, who would like to run for governor in 1990. "People came to Texas to escape problems with the establishment, and they are pretty progessive minded if you are taking on the powers that be with some sincerity."

Up in Denison, High Hightower now runs the newsstand on Main Street. The Republicans got to him twice, he said. Eisenhower and Nixon. But never again. He doesn't see Dick Darman's populism. He's not even sure what populism is. "I don't know, hell, what is populism, really? Jim's just a good Democrat."