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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."

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In a riff that drew on his experience as a public-school student in rural Tennessee, where his parents also taught in public schools, Jones asked the progressives in the room to stop for a moment and put on their "thinking caps." He even made the image of a pointed cap with his hands, placed atop his head. He continued:

And we would think. And, lo and behold, somebody would come up with the answer. Why is that? Because we had a moment to go deep, and a public school teacher who cared.

The day after his opening speech at Take Back the American Dream, AlterNet asked Jones to put on his thinking cap and help us figure out what happened in Wisconsin, and what it means both for the progressive movement and the nation going forward.

Van Jones: I think that Wisconsin was a real wake-up call. The lesson is pretty straightforward: this is what happens when we put our minimum against their maximum. The people in Wisconsin fought very, very well. They were fighting against a national conservative establishment. There were  13 billionaires that got involved in that fight, only one of whom even lived in Wisconsin.* So, our opponents in Wisconsin were doing their maximum.

Our national movement was doing its minimum. You didn't see the big national Democrats there. There were exceptions, but in general, you didn't see the national civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the women's movement -- we left a lot of artillery unused.

Adele Stan: And a lot of people are saying that, when the Wisconsin Democratic Party stated complaining publicly that the Democratic National Committee wasn't helping, the message was that the national party had already determined that the Wisconsin Democrats couldn't win the recall.

VJ: Sure. Fair enough. I don't know what the thinking was, but the most important thing I think for us to keep in mind is that the lesson isn't that we're going to get routed in the swing states; the lesson is we're going to get routed in the swing states unless we put forward our maximum effort, which we failed to do in Wisconsin. And people need to be glad that the alarm clock rang in June rather than in November. But rather than being demobilizing, it should be galvanizing. That's my main point and observation.

And I think that people need to do a though exercise here. Remember how you felt when you woke up and found out that we lost in Wisconsin. Now, imagine how you're gonna feel waking up to President Romney and a Republican sweep of Congress. Now, I say that because we have a lot of progressives who are saying things like they're so disappointed with Obama that they're not going to do anything to help him get reelected. I think that is ill-considered because we feel this way right now, but tomorrow always comes. And when we're actually living in a world where the Tea Party is the government of the United States, which is where we're headed, we're gonna wish we had done more.

AS: And we'll have a Tea Party-controlled president and Supreme Court.

VJ: Yes. Trifecta control. I think a thought experiment based on the way people felt on the morning after Wisconsin is just to propel yourself to June 2013 and imagine that we live in a country where the Tea Party runs the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives -- and has picked two Supreme Court nominees. How will you feel then, no matter how frustrated you are with Obama right now, how will you feel then?