With politics in D.C. hitting new lows, few progressives look to either the Obama administration or the two major parties for leadership in restoring the middle class and transitioning to a green, just economy. Instead, many are returning to a strategy that actually brought real progress during the last century: building strong, unified, and sustained people’s movements.
Van Jones is one of those working to build people power today. Jones is a co-founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Color of Change, and Green for All. He was appointed as a White House advisor on green jobs, but an attack led by Glenn Beck of Fox News led to his resignation in September 2009. Jones is currently a senior fellow on green jobs and climate solutions at the Center for American Progress and a visiting fellow at Princeton University.
YES! Executive Editor Sarah van Gelder spoke to Jones shortly before he launched the movement to Rebuild the American Dream. With groups involved ranging from MoveOn.org to organized labor, could this be the 21st-century movement that makes hope and change relevant again?
Sarah van Gelder: You are launching a movement to rebuild the American Dream. Can you tell me about what you’re planning?
Van Jones: Sure. It’s been almost two years since I resigned from my position at the White House. I spent a year teaching at Princeton and reflecting on what happened and what we can do next.
I came away with some thoughts about how the Tea Party movement was able to derail our movement for hope and change. We didn’t have a grassroots mechanism to consolidate our own vision and our own voices. So now the politics of war and austerity have taken over Washington, D.C., and the politics of peace and prosperity don’t have a voice in American society.
It's impossible to deal with the deficit if you refuse to put increased tax revenues on the table and if you refuse to wind down the wars.
So, we can continue doing what we’ve been doing—each of us fighting our own battles, often fighting well, but fighting alone and leaving the coordinated, coherent, consolidated movement on the other side to wipe us all out as individual causes.
Or, all the folks who are fighting foreclosures, who are trying to make banks more accountable to the American people, fighting against union busting, fighting against major cutbacks in essential services, fighting against the attempt to destroy Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and fighting for jobs—all these Americans could stand together under a common banner of defending the American Dream.
For the YES! Magazine readership, which is a very conscious, green, and spiritually grounded readership, the idea of defending the American Dream might sit poorly at first. I think that’s because what used to be called the American Dream got turned into the American fantasy, which is the idea that everybody is going to be rich and that buying a bunch of things will somehow make you happy. Well, that American fantasy has led to an American nightmare.
But that does not take away from the power of the American Dream itself. The very first thing Dr. King says about his dream in his famous speech is this: “I have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.” He’s referring to the notion that hard work should pay; that ordinary people, no matter what sort of family they were born into, should be able to work hard and get someplace. Ordinary people, if they’re willing and able to work, should be able to get up in the morning, find a job, and walk through the front door with the dignity of a paycheck able to give their kids a better life. And they should be able to retire with dignity.
That is the American Dream. That is why people have come here from all around the world, and that’s why those of us whose families didn’t choose to come here have chosen to stay—because we believe that we, too, can make good on that promise.
Well, that dream is exactly what is being destroyed for tens of millions of Americans by dream killers who are shoving an austerity agenda down our throats. They have painted a wrecking ball red, white, and blue, and they expect the American people to stand here and salute while they knock down the pillars of America’s great middle class and all the pathways into the middle class for Americans who are not yet there.
I think that we have a responsibility to meet that cheap patriotism with a deeper patriotism that defends the best values of our country.
It’s not a question of wallets but a question of will—whether or not we connect all the people who need work with all the great work that needs to be done in our country.
Sarah van Gelder: You mentioned that you learned some lessons about how to go about that organizing from the Tea Party. What did you learn?
Van Jones: Yes. People think of the Tea Party as a solid organization with a headquarters, a building, a receptionist, a president who you could get a meeting with.
That’s not the way the Tea Party works. The Tea Party is in fact an open-source brand that thousands of organizations use but nobody owns. You have the Tea Party Patriots, Tea Party Nation, and Tea Party Express and other national federations. You also have 3,528 affiliates of the Tea Party Patriots alone. Many of these organizations pre-existed the Tea Party movement—many of them go all the way back to the Perot days. There are some new people, but most have been around for a very long time.
They’ve been able to achieve an incredible amount of cooperation. For example, they have consolidated their values in a Contract from America, which between 50,000 and 100,000 people worked on together as a wiki.
This is a very interesting development. Here you have the most staunch advocates of rugged individualism, and yet this is the most collectivist strategy for taking power that we’ve seen in the history of the Republic—3,528 affiliates all using an open-source brand, writing their documents collectively using a wiki. But they stand for rugged individualism!
Yet, on our side, we technically stand for “solidarity forever,” “Kumbaya,” “can’t we all get along,” “let’s all cooperate,” and yet we act in ways that are extremely individualistic: my group versus your group, crabs in a barrel, “Why did they give her that grant?”
So I think our challenge is to get our movement to be as warm and fuzzy and cooperative as the Tea Party.
The American Dream Movement is trying to take the very tactics that made the Tea Party such a force: identifying pre-existing assets, organizations, and leaders, and getting them to cooperate under a shared brand and framework.
Just like you can’t copyright or trademark the Tea Party because it’s part of American history, nobody can copyright or trademark the American Dream. The deeper patriots who are fighting to rebuild the dream can keep their own organizational affiliation, but use the banner of the American Dream Movement to face off with the cheaper patriots whose policies actually kill the American Dream.
Sarah van Gelder: What is this movement’s jobs agenda? We’re in a period of protracted, high unemployment—how will this movement help?
Van Jones: We’re the richest country in the history of the world—still. Our economy is as big as two Chinas; it’s almost as big as all of Europe. We’re not a poor country, although we may have poor leadership. In a crisis like this—which is the worst crisis that we’ve had since the Great Depression—the government should be stepping forward as a lender, spender, and employer of last resort.
People say, “Well, it’s not possible, because of the deficit.” Au contraire. If we just went back to Clinton-era tax policy and military expenditures, we could kill the whole deficit in 10 years. It’s impossible to deal with the deficit if you refuse to put increased tax revenues on the table and if you refuse to wind down the wars. That’s when you then have the excuse to destroy Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
It’s not a question of wallets but a question of will—whether or not we connect all the people who need work with all the great work that needs to be done in our country.
And that is where the American Dream Movement comes in, because we want to disrupt this austerity mania and put forward more common-sense ideas. For instance, on Wall Street right now, you have people who are literally sitting with their feet up on their desks, sipping a latte, while a computer runs a thousand trades a second, based on algorithms—and makes tons of money. Yet people say, “We can’t tax rich people because we’ll discourage them.”
We could have a small tax on every one of those lightning trades, and The New York Times says we could pull billions of dollars off of Wall Street to fund massive infrastructure projects across America, and get skilled workers back rebuilding America’s roads, bridges, hospitals, and schools.
Sarah van Gelder: Are other organizations working with you, especially on that jobs agenda? Who’s at the core of this movement?
Jones: We have a number of patriotic organizations involved, including MoveOn.org, The Center for Community Change, AFSCME, the Campaign for America’s Future, Change to Win, the Sierra Club, Green for All, and Progressive Democrats of America. And we expect to get a lot of patriotic and smart business folks to step forward.
Patriotic, responsible businesses in America are getting punished while these global corporations that call themselves American companies get away with murder. A lot of global corporations call themselves American corporations, but they treat America the way that a foreign corporation often treats countries we used to call Third World countries. They take, take, take, and give nothing back. When these global corporations want to use our court system or when they need the support of our military or they want to use our roads, then they’re American corporations. But when it’s time to create a job or to open up a plant or to declare their profits, all that’s done overseas with the tax havens and their off-shore operations. Those are the corporations, plus the worst of Wall Street, that are making the American Dream impossible. And so we have a very serious challenge.
The first step is to identify all of those constituents that need a new economy. We have identified five:
The long-term unemployed—at some point we’ve got to stop talking about extending their unemployment benefits and instead create a good employment program for millions of Americans.
I’ll turn my left cheek, my right cheek, and my other two cheeks, but once you get to the place where it’s clear that the country itself is imperiled, you have to stand up to the bullies.
Number two, veterans are coming home to nothing; there are 17 suicide attempts a day among our young veterans. We took them from a military battleground with support and now we’re throwing them into an economic battleground with no support. We can do better than that.
Number three, millennials are graduating off of a cliff into the worst job market since World War II. We need a youth employment program so that we don’t do long-term damage to the employment and income prospects of a whole generation.
Number four, all of the victims of foreclosures by banks and all of the families whose heads are being held underwater by bad mortgages need relief. American taxpayers and homeowners bailed out America’s banks, and yet America’s banks will not do the same favor for the American people. The bankers themselves would be homeless were it not for the generosity of the American people. There is potential for a movement there.
And fifth, our so-called public employees—our cops, firefighters, teachers, nurses—the backbone of our country, the backbone of every one of our communities. These are America’s everyday heroes. They’re the ones who never abandon America in a crisis. And yet, we’re supposed to throw a million of them under the bus this year alone. That’s morally wrong and indefensible.
Just those five constituencies are about 30 million Americans.
The job of the American Dream Movement is to bring together those Americans and others who are willing to stand up for a common-sense, balanced approach to our crisis, and who are not willing to throw away the American dream just so that rich folks don’t have to pay their taxes.
The real threat to America is coming from folks who are not on television yelling and screaming. You never see them; they’re somewhere behind a closed door, but they’re doing more damage to America in some ways than our sworn enemies could ever dream of doing.
We think we can get the government to be Americans’ government, to be a partner to the American people economically:
- Tax Wall Street so that we can fund infrastructure.
- Remove the subsidies from big oil and other big polluters, and fund the jobs of tomorrow with clean and green solutions.
- Force banks back to the table with Americans, and keep Americans housed in a sane and fair way.
- Also, let’s responsibly wind down these wars so we stop spending over $3 billion a week just on stationing troops overseas and supplying them. Imagine if we had $3 billion to spend in Detroit or New Orleans or Appalachia.
There are many ways for us to reallocate the dollars we have to put people back to work, to secure our safety net, to maintain our status as a middle-class country and a country where people who are not in the middle class have a shot at getting there. But we need a political movement to do that, and that’s what the American Dream movement is all about.
Online Exclusive: The Extended Interview
Sarah van Gelder: What do you say to the folks who are Tea Party supporters? Are they welcome in this movement?
Van Jones: Well, they’re our sisters and brothers, too. We don’t want the Tea Party members to have to live with the catastrophe that will result from their victory. We don’t want Tea Party members living in communities where they smell smoke and there’s no fire station for 20 miles because of the cutbacks they’re cheerleading for. We don’t want Tea Party members living in homes where they have to wait five minutes, seven minutes, 18 minutes for somebody to respond to a 911 call because of these cuts. We don’t want the Tea Party to have their grandkids going to schools with 45 kids in a classroom, six books, and no chalk. So we’re fighting against the Tea Party in a political sense, but we’re fighting for the Tea Party in an economic, moral, cultural, and spiritual sense.
The real threat to America is coming from folks who are not on television yelling and screaming. You never see them; they’re somewhere behind a closed door, but they’re doing more damage to America in some ways than our sworn enemies could ever dream of doing. If some of these budgets get passed that they’re talking about, you could wipe out more American infrastructure than our sworn enemies could even dream of doing to us.
We admire the patriotism of the Tea Party and their concern for the country, but we think that their patriotism needs to be deepened so that it is more inclusive of all Americans. The Pledge of Allegiance, for example doesn’t stop with the word liberty. It goes on to say “and justice for all.”
Sarah van Gelder: Our readers have been following you for a long time and I know a lot of them were very concerned during the period of time where you were under attack. Now I see that Glenn Beck is at it again. How do you deal with that kind of hostility from Mr. Beck and others associated with Fox News?
Van Jones: With as much patience and compassion as I can. You know, I’m a human being, and this stuff hurts my feelings. Nobody wants to be portrayed even just at a dinner party or in a high school cafeteria differently than who you really are, let alone to be portrayed to millions of people on a daily basis the way I’ve now for almost two years, been misportrayed by Mr. Beck.
But I’ve kept him in my prayers—he’s a part of our family prayers every night. But at this point I’ve had to make a decision that, you know, sometimes I have to stand up to the bully. And we can’t just let poison and lies continue to accumulate in the American system—not just about me but about other progressive, open-minded, big-hearted patriots being slandered and smeared as enemies of the country. That can’t just go on year after year.
We’ve seen the damage that’s built up in the American system because we haven’t challenged aggressively this kind of politics. Obviously Mr. Beck is an incredibly talented and gifted person. His gifts are worthy of a better cause than spreading this kind of hatred and fear in our country. I was very, very down and depressed for a long time, but like most Americans, you get knocked down, and you get back up.
I think most of the YES! Magazine readership will identify with this. You know, we’re not tough people. If you hit us, we’ll cry, if you say something bad about us, we’ll get our feelings hurt. But we are resilient people. We are slow to anger, but there is a line that should not be crossed in our country and that line has been crossed many, many times now by folks who just don’t share our moral sensibilities, our commitment to truth, our commitment to honest discourse, and our commitment to being one country. Those values are worth fighting for, and I intend to fight for them as aggressively as I know how going forward because we can’t solve the ecological crisis and we can’t heal the economic crisis as long as the country is sabotaged by the political machinations of folks who are very good as manipulating hysteria.
I was studying Gandhi, one of my big heroes , and I was so amazed to think about how we’re just like India was in some ways. We have millions and millions of people, and yet we’re being controlled by a small handful of folks at the top, namely, the renegades in our financial sector who just continue to abuse and mistreat the American people. We have sideshows and the politics of distraction from FOX TV and other places. Yet a tiny handful of people on Wall Street are making so much money off of the misery of the American people, they are a tiny minority in a democracy, and there’s 350 million of us—the rest of us—who are struggling and who deserve the country we were promised as kids, which was opportunity and a promise that tomorrow could be better than yesterday.
So, for me, I’ve come through my grief, I’ve come through my shock and disappointment, and I’ve come to a clearer place.
I’ll never go out and pick a fight with anybody. I’ll turn my left cheek, my right cheek, and my other two cheeks, but once you get to the place where it’s clear that the country itself is imperiled, you have to stand up to the bullies. There’s a very high principle that I live by, which is to treat everybody with love and respect and dignity and honor, and to be an example to my sons in doing that. There’s only one principle higher than that principle, and that principle is making sure the truth is not crushed by forces that do not have the best interests of the people or the planet at heart. It’s time now for us, I think all of us, to honor that higher principle and to fight for our country.
Sarah van Gelder interviewed Van Jones for New Livelihoods, the Fall 2011 issue of YES! Magazine.