Tonight, Watch: Van Jones Jumpstarts New Progressive Movement to Confront and Push Back American Conservative and Corporate Dominance
Tonight, in New York City's venerable Town Hall, Van Jones, arguably the most visible progressive "organizer" in America, and surely one of the country's best orators, steps up to assume a bigger role -- that of major progressive strategist and visionary. Tonight is Jones' opening gambit in a large-scale, ambitious effort to create what many hope will be the progressives answer to the Tea Party.
Jones, with major support from MoveOn.org and other groups, will present a big-picture vision for mobilizing progressive forces of many types and stripes under the patriotic umbrella brand of the "American Dream Movement." The goal is nothing less than a broad "open source" movement of millions who, via organizing, house parties, events, technological savvy, and electoral activity, will attempt to shift America's focus away from the budget-cut mentality and the protection of big corporations and banks, to the human and economic support of tens of millions of unemployed and downsized Americans, including returning war vets and young people. (The event, which also features musical group the Roots, will be streamed live beginning at 8:15pm EDT on many Web sites, including AlterNet. Tune in tonight.)
There is much anticipation for this moment, and more than a little skepticism. Many have been wringing their hands, wondering why progressives seem so impotent in the face of the Tea Party. We've been hugely disappointed in the Obama administration for not mounting a more populist, people-oriented challenge to the corporate and banking dominance of our economic system, which has resulted in both the bailout of the banks, and the obscene shift of wealth to an increasingly small number of super-rich Americans. Jones hopes to offer an answer.
It's true that in the wake of the radical right-wing assaults on public workers there has been outrage and push-back, particularly in Wisconsin. Nevertheless, the collection of conservative governors, including those in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Maine, and most recently New Jersey, have spread the gospel of budget cuts and attacks on all things public, including our treasured public school system. Each governor is seemingly trying to outdo the other, but they all operate from the same playbook. So far they are piling up victories that will take some hard work to reverse.
I spoke with Van Jones, and with MoveOn director Justin Rubin, on Tuesday. My initial sense is that they have done their homework. They have done serious thinking and planning and are in a position to create a framework that has the potential to mobilize people who have not yet been engaged. And that will be key, since mobilizing the generally well-off progressive establishment has not proven to be an effective antidote to the powerful right-wing infrastructure and echo chamber. It's time to bite the bullet and energize the grassroots, the disenfranchised, just as the Tea Party, in its early stages, was able to do. Jones will be heading an action center, an operational arm, rebuildthedream.com, which he hopes will play the catalyst to a bigger idea: the emergence of what Jones and Co. are calling the American Dream Movement.
Don Hazen: How did the vision and the structure for the American Dream movement emerge?
Van Jones: Since I left the White House I spent a great deal of time doing two things: studying the Tea Party Movement and going all across the country, speaking to people and listening. What I discovered out there -- and I probably talked to about 30,000 people in the past 12 months, face to face, small groups, big groups, churches, auditoriums, universities, union halls -- what I discovered was an awful lot of pain out there economically.
What I began to realize was people were talking about the same thing, which is the fact that the American dream itself is getting killed off -- just the basic idea that ordinary people should be able to work hard and get somewhere. Get a job. Keep a job. Get a home. Keep a home. Be able to give your kids a better life, if you’re willing to work hard and play by the rules. That simple, basic idea is becoming increasingly impossible for tens of millions of people and nobody’s talking about it.
DH: What kinds of people are we talking about?
VJ: Essentially there were five categories of people that we discovered and encountered over and over again.
Number one are young veterans who are coming home. No jobs. No hope. Now apparently 17 suicide attempts a day. Their family members are feeling, you know, look, my kid was overseas in a military battleground with a ton of support. The next day, they drop him off into an economic battlefield with no support. We should be doing better than that in America. These young people need a movement to rebuild the American dream.
Those young veterans are just a subcomponent of a bigger cohort of young people who are in trouble. We have a whole generation of young people who graduate off a cliff into the worst economy in two generations. And it doesn’t matter if they went to school, didn’t go to school, if they dropped out, or they stayed in, if they got good grades, bad grades. They wind up, way too many of them, on the same couch anyway. And many of them are stuck in these permanent internship positions, and never getting a chance to become a young professional. They need a movement and don’t have one.
Then you have the people who have either been foreclosed on by America’s banks after the American people saved these banks. These banks turn around and throw people out of their homes for engaging in less risky activities than the banks themselves engaged in. Or, even more commonly, ordinary people who are living in homes, they haven’t walked away from their mortgages, and they’re doing everything they can to pay. But they’re underwater desperately and they call these banks day after day begging for renegotiations -- "please cut the principle or cut the rate” -- and the banks do neither and hang up on people. Those people are getting no relief from Washington DC. They need a movement.
Then you have the so-called 99ers of the long-term unemployed. They are discovering, to their horror, that losing a job at the age of 40, the age of 50, they may never work again in America. These are skilled workers. These are many of our most dedicated workers. They should be in the prime of their careers, teaching younger workers. Instead, they’re sitting on the sidelines when there’s all this work yet to be done in America, from fixing our roads, to holding the hands of our elderly people, to teaching our kids. We’ve got this long-term unemployment crisis and the best that either party can do is talk about an unemployment program as opposed to an employment program. They need a movement.
Lastly, the people that the media call the public employees, I call them America’s everyday heroes. These are the cops, the teachers, the nurses, the firefighters. The people we were taught to respect as kids. The people who never abandoned America in a crisis. We are now, without blinking an eye, throwing them under the bus at the first sign of economic distress and abandoning them. One million public employees apparently are going to be thrown under the bus in America.
Now, these are massive constituencies and DC has nothing to say to any of them. We think that it is time to give them a vehicle, and a voice, to speak and to be heard in the organizations that are carrying the fight for them, to not just be left to fight alone. But now, most of the people in those categories are fighting and they’re fighting every day. But they’re fighting alone, and even the organizations that are fighting for them are fighting alone. We think that the simple act of creating a common banner for these groups and for these constituencies to begin to coalesce under could gel to change the conversation.
DH: What is giving you the optimism that this effort can work?
VJ: One reason we have such confidence that this is the right way to go is because the fight back has already begun. AlterNet knows this better than anyone else-- it is in fact the case that the fight back against this sort of economic catastrophe and the political damage being done, is well underway.
We’re probably twice as big as the Tea Party at its height already -- the Tea Party that got all this attention for bringing 150,000 people to DC in September 2009. No small feat. But we have 150,000 people on the streets in Madison, Wisconsin, and that was just one city. We had 20,000 people marching down Wall Street just a few weeks ago, protesting abuses of the banks. Montana had the biggest protests in the history of the state a few weeks ago. Ohio has had massive protests. We had people at town hall meetings of congresspeople, after the Ryan budget came out, screaming about Medicare. We already have a massive constituency, bigger than the Tea Party’s core base. We already have a level of activity, activism and outrage probably twice as big as the Tea Party at its peak. And yet nobody’s watching from Washington DC, invisibility in the media, and a lack of cohesion and coordination. We think that can be fixed.
We’ve joined forces with some of the biggest name-brand forces in the progressive movement. This whole effort powered now by MoveOn.org, five million members, our biggest organization, but not them alone. Joined by the Center for Community Change, led by Deepak Bhargava, which has a national network of grassroots, low-income people of color and low-income organizations. And also the Campaign for America’s Future, which is going to be doing a massive summit called “Take Back the American Dream,” that will be happening in October.
Then, we have many, many other partners, including partnerships in development with labor, with progressive business organizations, and others, to stand up for the American dream and to challenge these cheaper patriots with a deeper patriotism that actually honors and respects the values that built America’s middle class, that we are all in this together. That those people who do well in America, should do well by America and be willing to pay fair wages and fair taxes to keep our country strong. And everybody should have an opportunity to work their way into the middle class and to stay there and retire with some dignity. Those ideas are American ideas that should not be thrown under the bus so that corporations and rich folks don’t have to pay their taxes. That is the stand that we are taking.
DH: What can we expect moving forward?
VJ: We are at the beginning now of a big process and here are our big first three steps: The launch Thursday night: I will be doing sort of an extended TED talk on the economy, but also Shepard Fairey will be DJing. We’ll hear from the Roots. They’ll perform and that will launch this whole effort to cover the course of the summer. We’re going to do something that, to my knowledge, has not been done at this scale in a very long time. We are going to crowd-source a grassroots agenda. We’re calling it contract, not the contract for America, the contract on America, the contract from America, but the Contract for the American Dream.
We are going to have thousands of house meetings all across America and we’re going to have some online technology tricks and tools to get the best thinking and wisdom of the American people. We are going to build that as a document to begin to guide and accelerate our struggle going forward. The third step will be the Take Back the American Dream summit here in Washington DC. We think that in the process of doing this we are going to stand up and give a voice and a vehicle for people who, right now, constitute a silent and silenced near majority, who want a more balanced approach to America’s financial problems.
DH: That sounds pretty significant. Justin, what about MoveOn?
Justin Rubin: We got into this because we were seeing strong energy among our members particularly since Wisconsin. More energy around economic stuff than we’d seen around any issue in a long time. And there is a tremendous, palpable sense of frustration among our members. They were seeing huge cuts coming down in their communities, and trying to figure out how they were going to make ends meet and pay the bills at the end of the month and figure out how to afford their kids’ education.
They feel that in Washington DC, the conversation there is a kind of bizarre parallel world, where America’s economic problems were, "How do we make huge cuts to Medicare and Medicaid and the other programs that help build the middle class?" And "How do we afford more tax breaks for millionaires?" There is a strong sense that we need to have a powerful voice -- that we need to fight back in a unified way against this kind of right wing economic agenda and have a reasonable conversation about solutions that would actually make the American economy work for regular folks.
DH: Who are you going to have that reasonable conversation with?
JR: We’re going to have it with the American people because that’s where change has always begun in this country. And then we’re going to bring it to state capitals and to Washington DC. We have powerful ideas and a common banner. The American Dream as a unifying theme can bring together many of these disparate fights going on in many states that really are about common values and themes, but aren’t being talked abut that way by us or by those engaged. So the idea is about articulating our shared values and our shared vision for the economy, which is what that Contract for the American Dream process is about doing. So that’s the first thing we need to do.
Van Jones and Justin Ruben have much more to say, and I urge everyone to tune in tonight, Thursday, on AlterNet and hear the pitch. Visit their Web site, RebuildtheDream.com.