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Does the Liberal Establishment Care About Anything But Itself? The Hard Lessons of Wisconsin

"The lesson of Wisconsin is pretty straightforward," says Van Jones. "This is what happens when we put our minimum against their maximum."

Photo Credit: A.M. Stan


Van Jones has a bone to pick -- with his liberal and progressive friends. In a hard-hitting speech delivered Monday, June 18, at the Take Back the American Dream conference in Washington, D.C., Jones took the greater progressive movement to task for, as he described it, sitting down on the job "in [this] moment of maximum peril."

Jones kicked off his speech (video at the end of this story) with a promise to address the problem of "the voice that's been missing" after paying tribute to Rodney King, a "regular brother with regular-brother problems," who was found dead two days earlier.

King's famous plea ("Can we all get along?"), made as Los Angeles erupted into riots after the exoneration of the police officers whose brutal beating of the unarmed King was captured on camera in a gut-wrenching video, "still resounds," said Jones. He went on:

We have this extraordinary moment now, as we look at November and the months beyond [to determine], who are we in this mess, in this catastrophe, in this country? Are we doing to turn  to each other, or are we going to turn  on each other?

Jones' speech was designed to alert progressives to the perils of passivity, especially as so many express disappointment in President Barack Obama -- for drone attacks, for deportations of undocumented immigrations, for not standing up to Wall Street firmly enough. 

Rattling off various elements of America's "catastrophe," as he described it, Jones cited families imperiled by layoffs and the implosion of the housing market, which has led to millions left with homes worth far less than their original purchase price, and others in or near foreclosure. He spoke of the kind of racial violence that led to the death of Trayvon Martin. He mentioned the right's attempts to move "the dirtiest energy ever created" -- oil from the Canadian tar sands -- across the American landscape.

Add to that the Republican war on women's rights, the war on voting rights and the rash of anti-immigrant legislation, and the U.S. might seem like a pretty scary place to be right now. And so it is.

While a certain disillusionment about Obama may appear to provide an excuse for those who have scaled back their activism, it doesn't explain what happened in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker survived progressives' attempt to recall him in a lopsided victory against Democrat Tom Barrett. (Jones had much to say about that, both in his speech and his interview with AlterNet, which appears below.)

At Take Back the American Dream, which is produced by the Campaign for America's Future, and earlier this month at the Netroots Nation conference in Providence, R.I., (where Jones also spoke), the result of the recall election landed progressives in a pensive mood. To say the left is demoralized by Walker's recall victory, a theme touted by the corporate media, is too easy; the atmosphere at both conferences was more one of reassessment.

Walker's victory, even after his unpopular evisceration of the state's public employee unions, is due in part, Jones said, to the inaction of the liberal establishment. Walker's so-called "Budget Repair Bill," which sparked an unprecedented 180-day occupation of the state capitol building by protesters, did more than eliminate most collective bargaining rights for teachers and other workers; it also cut $2.6 billion from the state's education budget. Consequently, according to a  state report (PDF) issued this spring, Wisconsin public school districts cut 2,312 positions from the payroll, and 73 percent of districts laid off teachers.

And it's not just happening in Wisconsin. In Pennsylvania, 9,000 fewer educators are employed than a year ago; nationwide, 250,000 teaching jobs have disappeared, according to the White House.