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

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.

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?

And then the second step in this thought experiment is: What do you think the you of 2013 would be begging the you of 2012 to do this year? Because you want to have a no-regrets 2012. With the stakes this high, it's very easy to sit back. You know, it was very fashionable four years ago to be optimistic, and now it's fashionable to be very cynical. It's very easy to sit back and say, well, I'm just so disgusted by Obama I'm not going to do anything. The problem with that is that tomorrow always comes. And when you're living in the world created by your inaction, you're going to have to then work 12 times harder just to lose less than if you work now to quite possibly make some actual gains.

We're going to fight anyway; we're going to be involved anyway. The question is are we going to just blow this year and then have to spend 20 years cleaning up the mess.

AS: Meanwhile, the right always takes the long view. They keep pushing forward even when they've been defeated in a particular battle. And they didn't exactly love George W. Bush, but they fought to get him reelected.

VJ: No, not at all. And they didn't love George H.W. Bush. And they didn't love Reagan when he was there [in the White House]. That's the other thing.

AS: People forget that. The history has been revised.

VJ: It's been revised. They didn't love Reagan when Reagan was there. When Reagan was there, they thought his talking to Gorbachev was showing a softness. They thought he wasn't pro-life enough. He also raised taxes. So they didn't like Reagan when he was there. They just created their own mythology around Reagan to beat everybody else up with, but Reagan wouldn't be accepted in the Republican Party of today. But they do take the long view, and we take the microscopic view.

The other thing I said in my speech, and I keep saying to everybody is during Bush, you had the right movement -- millions of people for peace. You can't fault the peace movement; we had as many people marching for peace in the streets of America the first six weeks leading up to the Iraq War than we had in the first six years of the Vietnam War. So, you can't fault the peace movement, but you had the wrong president.

With Obama, you had arguably the right president, but you had the wrong movement with the Tea Party out there, pulling things in a negative direction. The key is to have the right president and the right movement at the same time. That's what we've got to be aiming for. You've got to have a president who is willing to be moved -- which is not Bush and not Romney. But then you've got to have a movement that's willing to do the  moving. And that's what we've got to be aiming for, which means that we have to work twice as hard as we did in 2008, not half as hard or a tenth as hard.

You know, I look around and I don't hear a lot of progressives talking about where they're going to spend October in terms of the swing states. I don't hear people talking about the fundraisers that they're doing. I don't hear [of] people doing any of the things that we did in 2008. And if we think we're going to put our minimum up against our opponents' maximum, when they've been given this huge window with Citizens United and all of this voter disenfranchisement, then we're crazy.

And so our opponents have an agenda for the election: It is big money in and ordinary people out. They're bringing big amounts of corporate case and pushing ordinary people out. We have to match that big outlay of financial capital with social and political capital. We've got to talk to people. And we've got to use our Facebook pages and our tweets and our e-mail, and the blogs as well, to inspire people to fight -- not to create this culture of discouragement.  

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