Originally printed in the September issue of the magazine In These Times. Below you will find the much more extensive interview and answers that did not fit in the magazine.
Born the year they tried to kill hope with the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy, Van Jones is a modern day crusader for the environment, the poor and now the American Dream. Jones served as the green jobs advisor for the White House in 2009 until Glenn Beck falsely accused and vehemently attacked Jones as a 9/11 truther. He resigned his post and began studying every facet of the Tea Party movement.
Partnering with progressive organizations like MoveOn, labor unions, advocacy groups and blogs, Jones is crafting a liberal version of the Tea Party – one focused on giving a voice to the middle class, working poor and the downtrodden.
In late June I spoke with Jones at the Clinton Global Initiative and followed up with him a month later to discuss his career path and the Rebuild the Dream project.
Given chronic government unresponsiveness to environmental issues, at what point does the need for civil disobedience outweigh political loyalties to the Democratic Party?
People who push for change in our country have always been able to chew gum and walk at the same time. The civil rights movement was able to juggle litigation, legislation and civil disobedience and I think that all movements for justice have to be able to develop that capacity.
You were demonized by the right and forced out of your job. Do you think that progressives should use similar hard-nosed tactics (albeit with the truth rather than lies) against conservatives?
I think that we should be willing to tell the truth with the same audacity that they are willing to tell their lies. I think we should recognize politics is about the ability to reward and punish behavior to achieve a desired outcome. That said I don’t think we are ever going to out ugly our opponents. I don’t think we are going to be able to out mean or out nasty people who literally are psychologically motivated on a minute to minute basis to behave in ways that are objectively despicable. So, I think that what we need is a tough minded idealism. Bobby Kennedy comes to mind as a possible role model. Somebody who won’t back down from a fight but who is clearly motivated by higher ideals than just being in the fight.
Your new project is, Rebuild the Dream, unions helping America; creating jobs, creating a stronger middle class. Can you talk about that?
It’s not just unions. It’s unions, grassroot organizations, it’s online progressive groups like MoveOn.org and we expect many, many others. Our view is that the American Dream itself is in danger of being eliminated from American life. By the American Dream I don’t mean the American fantasy that everybody is going to be rich and buying a bunch of things to make you happy, that consumer is some huge blessing to the world. That’s the American fantasy that has lead to the American nightmare. I’m talking about the American Dream.
The first thing Dr. King says in his speech is “I have a dream.” Next sentence: “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.” He wasn’t talking about consumerism. He was talking about the idea that an ordinary person; without a fancy name, could work hard and get somewhere in our country and give their kids a better life. That core idea. Where you are at the beginning of your life does not determine where you are going to be at the end of your life. That’s the American Dream: you can get somewhere by working hard and playing by the rules. There are people in this country that are trying to kill the American Dream. These dream killers have wrapped themselves up in a mantel of a cheap patriotism, as if they love America so much but their agenda is a wrecking ball every institution that has made America great. A wrecking ball for the unions. A wrecking ball for the safety net. A wrecking ball for public education. A wrecking ball for everything that has made America great and exceptional. They’ve taken a wrecking ball and painted red, white and blue and it is on that basis they say they are the patriots and we’re not. I think it’s time for us to actually stand up for America and for American values of opportunity and fairness and advancement through hard work and sacrifice and that’s what Rebuild the Dream is all about. Now my view is that the Tea Party used the tools of democracy very well to highjack the conversation and make the solution to every problem more cutbacks. Well, I think we should use the tools of democracy to take the conversation back.
Is that going to take policy changes?
It will take a number of things. It will take ideas and solutions that resonate with the American people. We have been talking about having a gambling tax on Wall Street. The Wall Street guys sit there with their computers firing off a thousand trades a second. They’re not even touching the computer. It’s an algorithm running it. Yet, we can’t tax those lightening trades. New York Times says if you tax them at one tenth of a penny you could take $50 billion off of Wall Street and use that to invest in America. There’s not a single person in America that doesn’t work on Wall Street who’s going to say that’s a bad idea. Or a lobbyist paid for by somebody on Wall Street. That’s one way we could increase some revenue. We could go back to the Clinton Era tax rates on wealthy people. That would get us $80 billion in two years, just going back to Clinton Era tax rates, that’s not socialism, that’s just going back to what worked in 1990’s.
What about moving back to pre-Reagan era tax rates?
Well sure. I mean where you draw the line is a function of both policy and politics but just the idea we should stay stuck on stupid and hang out here in Bush world, probably the most disastrous administration in the history of the Republic. You can increase revenues. You can also reduce expenses but no American family would say we got a budget problem let’s starve Grandma. That’s a good way to save money. Let’s starve Grandma. Let’s starve the dog and the kids.
No, you cut back on nonessentials and then you tell Junior you’re going to go get a paper route and you increase revenues. That’s how it works for American families and that’s how it should work for American government. You increase revenues by taxing Wall Street, by going back to at least the Clinton era rate on taxes for the wealthy, if not more than that. You also cut back on nonessentials.
What’s nonessential? Well, why are we giving money to all these oil companies? Are they poor? Do they need America’s money? These oil companies that rip us off at the gas pump every week and have all the support from our military to get their for profit products over here. Our public dollars pay to secure their private products here already. America’s not doing enough for the oil companies that we also have to give them tax breaks and subsidies? You cut back on those expenses.
Why don’t we wind down these wars more responsibly and more aggressively. We can stop spending $3.3. billion every single week overseas. Imagine if you had $3.3 billion, one week of expenses in Iraq and Afghanistan, here in Chicago. What couldn’t you fix with two or three weeks worth of expenses to be involved in Iraq and Afghanistan? We could take that $3.3 billion and do some nation building right here in America. You can reduce expenses, shift expenses around but you should also make America’s banks treat American people as well as the American people treated those damn banks. The problem is the banks on Wall Street. They were absolutely irresponsible and they crashed the economy. But they got a bailout. Who bailed them out? The American homeowners and American taxpayers bailed them out. It was our money. But those banks will not turn around and bail out American homeowners and treat them with respect and say listen, we’re going to let you renegotiate your principal, renegotiate your rates so you can stay in your homes. We’re going to stop throwing people out of their houses. We’re actually going to cooperate with you like you cooperated with us. Unbelievable amounts of greed and malfeasance from Wall Street and neglect from D.C. has left the movement for hope and change in shambles, has left ordinary Americans lost, confused and angry. And yet, what we are finding is when we go out with this idea of rebuilding the American Dream, rebuilding America’s middle class, we’re a better country than this, let’s get these young veterans when they come home a job. Let’s give these kids that are graduating off a cliff every spring to the worst economy since World War II and are on the couch for two, three years doing unpaid internships or barely paid internships when they could be out there building the new companies. They could be out there to create the jobs of tomorrow. Let’s give them a better chance.
People, red states, blue states, across the board, they agree that we are a better country than this. If you make it abstract about tax cuts versus tax hikes then you get one answer but if you make it concrete – how can we make America better? – people get excited.
What about policy issues that can directly affect the American worker right now? Making it easier to organize workers in the workplace, living wages, reforming NLRB?
I think those are very important issues and personally I support all three. I do think Democrats when its time to run go to the labor unions and ask for help and support. When it’s time to govern forget to reinvest in making sure the strength of the voice of the American worker can be heard. That’s really important. The voice of American workers has gotten less organized and more faint year after year my whole life. To see American workers and their unions come out so strong for President Obama but to see, until very recently, very little respect for the need to rebuild America’s labor movement coming out of D.C. That’s a source of frustration for me.
Can you tie your current work to the environmental justice movement that was your original entree into politics? Do you see any resonance between your fusion of environmentalism and grassroots anti-poverty/community-building work, and the kind of coalition you’re trying to build now?
Sure. I’ve always been fighting against poverty, corporate abuse and lack of opportunity. I haven’t changed it’s that the victims of poverty, corporate abuse and lack of opportunity grew exponentially. I am still going. This year I published a plan to help the poorest people in America – Native Americans – get clean energy enterprises going on the reservations. Last year was back in San Quentin prison talking to the brothers there about their expertise in a certain kind of recovery and our need for that deep expertise in personal recovery to fix the economy.
At the same time I can’t turn my eyes to the fact that some where near 14 or 15 million people who used to be in the middle class have now been thrown down into poverty. We need a big tent movement that can incorporate all of the economic causalities in our country. The traditional ones and the new ones.
What are the tangible goals of the Rebuild the Dream?
The first goal is to consolidate all of the causalities of the present economic crisis and turn them into champions for real economic solutions. That consolidation is really key. We have lots of economic fight backs that are happening across America. People are fighting against union busting, veterans are fighting for better treatment coming home, young people are trying to keep their tuition down and get their job opportunities up. Homeowners are fighting for better treatment from these banks that the American taxpayers saved. But they are scattered and if we keep fighting alone we are going to keep losing alone. We should not underestimate the power of bringing all these fights together under a single umbrella of saving the American Dream. Each sub-fight is part of something much bigger and much more aspirational. It also let’s people who are not paying attention to politics every second of the day find something as big and inclusive as the Tea Party has done on its side.
The first thing is to consolidate the progressive economic movement under a common banner. The second objective is to use this crowdsourced policy agenda we are on the verge of releasing, the Contract for the American Dream, to get elected officials and other influential people to sign on for an agenda of prosperity and not austerity. That work will come. We had 127,000 people online and in person, high-tech and high-touch, crowdsource a jobs agenda with ten main points of action that we are going to release. It will be the first of its kind. Seventy organizations across the country, 127,000 people, 1,600 house meetings that we had to help crowdsource this jobs agenda. Twice as many house meetings as the Tea Party when it launched on April 15, 2009.
This Contract for the American Dream will have tremendous moral authority because of the level of participation. Tremendous political impact because it will give people, whatever political party – Bobby Kennedy Democrats or Jack Kemp Republicans, a sane economic agenda to rally around. Lastly, it is about helping people at the grassroot and local levels get very creative at solving the problems that are presenting themselves. We cannot imagine we are going to fix all the dysfunction in D.C. overnight and then help will be on the way from the federal government instantly.
There is a path we have to walk between where we are now and were we need to go. There are a lot of local efforts such as community gardening, social enterprises, green businesses, neighbors helping neighbors that can all be tied together. We have beautiful bottom up solutions as well as bold top down policy proposals with real momentum behind them. I think this American Dream movement already can claim huge numbers with house meetings in every Congressional District.
Why try to revive a concept, “the American dream,” which may never have been a reality for most Americans?
First of all let’s be clear what we are trying to revive. We are not trying to champion the American Fantasy like I’ve mentioned before, that everyone is going to be rich, buying things is going to make you happy. But we do believe most Americans see as part of our identity the best of the American Dream which is just the idea that you can make it if you try and that hard work should pay. In a crisis we don’t turn on each other, we turn to each other, we help each other acheive our personal bests in America. That is not a fashionable view among coastal leftists and college town activists but for ordinary Americans that is the cornerstone of their expectations about what it means to be an American. For that to be thrown under the bus, mainly so rich people and corporations don’t have to pay taxes is heartbreaking for tens of millions of people but it is their energies and their idealism that needs to tapped right now.
How do you create a progressive version of the Tea Party when there’s no progressive version of Fox News Channel to present anything your group does as newsworthy?
Well the first thing you would do is pick a great reporter. I don’t know maybe pick Aaron Krager and In These Times! We have a progressive media infrastructure. I remember a time when people said there is nothing we can do. Rush Limbaugh is controlling the discussion. Until we can have a Rush Limbaugh to go head to head with him we are just doomed. People were saying that five years ago. People said enough is enough and created the blogosphere. The 2006 and 2008 cycle the blogosphere was much more important than anything Rush Limbaugh said or did.
Now everyone is saying you can’t do anything because of Fox News, Fox Television, Fox Entertainment for sadists. Our movements are more dynamic than that. Right now I hardly see anybody looking at television anyway. Best I can tell they are looking at these smaller screens – iPads, smartphones, and laptops – they are watching video on those screens. They are not watching Fox, MSNBC or CNN. I think what you are going to see, even over the next several months, will be real innovation in communication where we once again match the conservative disinformation machine. Then they will try to match us. It is a huge mistake to underestimate the communication and creative capacity of progressives. We have many more potential assets for communication, including about 95% Hollywood, than the right wing does. We should never forget that.
Why do we need an opposite or an answer to the Tea Party? Why would we want that?
Just two years ago most of us were feeling at least somewhat optimistic and encourage about America’s future. Two years later we are mostly sad and morose and the main reason for that is the success of the Tea Party at hijacking D.C. and derailing our hopes and dreams. If someone wants to live in their own cave they may be able to escape the influence of these conservative libertarians but most of us are going to live in neighborhoods where our schools are being defunded, where our water and air may be compromised and where jobs are going to be increasingly scarce because of the poisonous affects of the Tea Party ideology and extreme tactics. We have to, while still holding them in our hearts as fellow Americans and fellow human beings for whom we want the best, everything we can to give the American people a coherent alternative. Right now the only alternative people see to the Tea Party is just the status quo with more pain and suffering. Most people don’t understand that the Tea Party program will double, triple, quadruple the amount of pain and suffering. It is really a ratification of the status quo of corporate rule and not a refutation of the status quo of corporate rule and abuse of the American people. We have to present the public with a coherent alternative that is not the status quo made worse but is the America we thought we were voting for in 2008.
I don’t understand the progressive movement right now. If my son was playing soccer and kicked in three goals while the other team kicked in one and he quit, I’d be mad at him and disappointed. That’s how we are – we got the House, the Senate and the White House. Our opponents came around and got the House and we just quit. It doesn’t make any sense. This fight, this lopsided propaganda offensive against all of America’s best values and achievements. The right wing is losing in the polls. They have this lopsided propaganda war against the achievements of the New Deal, against the idea we are one country, against the idea Americans including wealthy Americans should stand together in face of this crisis. And they are losing 60-70 percent of people say jobs are more important than this phony debt crisis they’ve created. Similar 60-70 percent of Americans say the wealthy should be asked to shoulder more of a burden going forward. 60-70 percent say we should wind these wars down more aggressively and bring the money and troops home to rebuild America. So we are 60-70 percent super majority with our basic ideas despite the fact that our opponents have launched this one-sided propaganda war against America’s values and achievements.
We should be quite hopeful that in an economy like this when we haven’t put up a coherent alternative in the face of the most determined onslaught that we’ve seen in many of our lifetimes that we are still at 60-70 percent. So I don’t think we should be discouraged at all. We should be more determined than ever to go ahead and make the corrections we need to make, learn the lessons we need to and get on with building the next American century.
What kind of leaders does this campaign need and from where will they emerge?
The good thing about the leadership of the American Dream movement already is that it looks like America. We’ve got everybody from Planned Parenthood to Faithful America inside one network fighting for a better economy. From the AFL-CIO to the Center for Community Change from the Domestic Workers Alliance to the Sierra Club. I’ve got a big mouth and getting a lot of attention now but that is going to shift pretty dramatically once we release the Contract for the American Dream and as more voices rally around it. More will lift it up and say this would be good for my community – I’m Latino, I’m lesbian, I’m a student, I’m Asian, I’m a farmer but this contract would help me. That is going to be a big game changer and I am excited to be a part of something that from the very beginning knows part of the Tea Party success is that it has many leaders. Glenn Beck can lose his TV show but it doesn’t stop the Tea Party. Sarah Palin can fall down the stairway of public opinion but it doesn’t stop the Tea Party. They have multiple leaders and clear values.
The progressive, for lack of a better term, economic movement has not been clear and bold on our values, we haven’t produced multiple leaders yet, but they exist in large numbers in labor unions, in grassroots organizations and even in the D.C. think tanks. We haven’t worked together to lift up those voices but that is going to change.
The contract will lay out the goals. Is that how you expect the progressive groups to come together and have their own specific leaders in their own communities under the one banner?
That is the strategy said with more precision than I have been able to say in this interview. That is exactly the strategy. We have engaged 70 organizations, 127,000 people in the process to identify the best ideas. People put forward about 25,000 ideas, online and in person. We had 5.6 million ratings of these ideas.
The Tea Party has their Contract from America, it gives them a common basis to refer back to whenever they get down the road. They also have a common brand. We have not had a common agenda or a common banner. Part of what Rebuild the Dream is trying to do is be a support center to help this massive American Dream movement consolidate. One way to think about this – just like Dick Armey is a former public official who works at a support center called Freedom Works but the Tea Party movement is much bigger than either Dick Armey or Freedom Works. Van Jones is a former public official who works for a small support center called Rebuild the Dream but the American Dream is much, much bigger than the support center. Part of what we are having to learn is this is new way of consolidating and realigning our best ideas to the country.
Literally, how did the Contract From America get formed? It was crowdsourced with nearly 50,000 people. How did we form the Contract for the American Dream? It was crowdsourced with more than 127,000 people.
How did they launch? They had 800 house meetings across America. We doubled that with 1,600 house meetings with more the 25,000 people in every single Congressional district.
How will this movement put people into positions of power so that they can enact the needed changes?
The Tea Party is such a great example. They got people together based upon values and principles first and then some people ran for office, some primaried Republicans, some people just focused on communications. The things is that you have to be clear on your principals, values and the common banner.
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