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Exclusive: Van Jones on What We Can Learn From the Tea Party

Van Jones speaks at the "Save the American Dream" rally in Washington, DC, February 26th 2011. (Photo: markn3tel)

Exclusive: Van Jones on What We Can Learn From the Tea Party

Van Jones speaks at the "Save the American Dream" rally in Washington, DC, February 26th 2011. (Photo: markn3tel)

Part of the Series

In late June, Van Jones – a former “green jobs” czar in the Obama administration and currently a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress – officially launched a new organization known as Rebuild the Dream. The group's first mission is to help spark a new economic justice effort called the American Dream Movement, an alliance focused on economic justice fights across the country. Amid conservative efforts to divide Americans by blaming scapegoats such as immigrants and unionized teachers for our county's problems, the American Dream Movement instead seeks to recreate a politics of common purpose – one that advocates for broadly shared prosperity in our country, appeals to a set of common values and highlights the need for creating good jobs that will allow people to work with dignity.

Founded in partnership with groups including, the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, the Center for Community Change and the Campaign for America's Future, Jones describes the endeavor as “a national movement to defend the American Dream itself.”

At the June 24 launch event for Rebuild the Dream in New York City, Jones elaborated on this general idea, emphasizing the need to reframe our national political discussion so that we refute four key lies: 1) that our country is broke, 2) that asking the super-rich to pay their fair share hurts America; 3) that it's patriotic to hate America's government and to undermine our national infrastructure; and, finally, 4) that we are helpless to change things.

Shortly after the New York event, I had a conversation with the ever-busy Jones to discuss the vision for the American Dream Movement, what we can learn from the Tea Party and what it will take to change the direction of national politics.

Defining the American Dream

I first asked Jones to define what he means by the “American dream.”

“By the 'American dream' I don't mean the 'American Fantasy,'” he said, “which is what the commercializers have done with that concept. They've promoted the idea that everybody's going to be rich someday and that buying a bunch of stuff will make you happy. That version of the dream has led to an 'American nightmare' for most people.

“I reject that stuff,” Jones continued. “I believe in something much more fundamental to the American ideal. I'm talking about the idea that you don't have to have a fancy last name to make it in America. That where you start off in life does not determine where you end up. That hard work should pay. And that ordinary people should be able to work hard, play by the rules, have a decent job, a paycheck, that give their kids a better life. That is the American dream that we are seeking to defend.

“The real fight is not between conservatives and liberal, or even between Wall Street and Main Street. The real fight is between 'cheap patriots,' who are trying to destroy the American dream and 'deeper patriots,' who are trying to restore it. It's really a fight between two different versions of patriotism, two visions of what American greatness will require in the next century.

“You have these cheaper patriots who have taken their wrecking ball agenda,” Jones explained, “painted it red, white and blue and used it to smash down all of the institutions that made America exceptional: unions, public schools, the sense of responsibility among Americans to invest in the country that made their success possible.”

How Did We Get to the American Nightmare?

I asked Jones to say more about how we got to the place we're in now: the American economy is in crisis and the historic link between increasing productivity and rising wages has been severed. We have undone the connection in our country between economic competitiveness and community well being. Given this, I was curious about what institutions he thought would need rebuilding, especially in the context of our global economy.

“I don't have a magic answer to the question,” Jones said, “but I do try to promote a process that will get us closer to good answers. It's going to take a mix of approaches, some of them governmental, some having to do with individual behavior, some of them having to do with finding smarter ways for the labor movement to revive. But fundamentally, the deck is stacked against patriotic corporations that want to hire in America.

“You have trade policy and tax policy that encourage companies to take advantage of every possible benefit and to give back nothing. So you have your tax havens, where you can hide your money overseas. If you want to create a job or open a plant, you can do that overseas. You aren't punished for doing that by the tax code; in fact you're rewarded for doing it. It's an exploitative relationship. I say that corporate America would be the worst boyfriend ever: just take, take, take and give nothing back.

“We need to make sure the American government is a partner to the American people in solving this problem. Right now, unfortunately, the American government is a captive of some of the worst economic interests on the planet.

“So there has to be change in trade and tax policy. But also, we can't wait on Washington, DC to fix these things.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

To explore how this change might come about, I asked what people who are not currently part of a union or community organization can do to connect with the movement.

“First, people who are Internet savvy should go to,” Jones said. “We are having house meetings on the 16th and 17th of this month across the country. They can find a meeting to go to. You don't have to be a part of any organization to go to these meetings and bring your best ideas.”

Still curious, I mentioned that, in his public speeches, Jones had spoken of the need to build a progressive version of the Tea Party. I wondered what exactly that meant – what the constituent elements of such an effort would be? What really would we want to emulate?

Jones replied, “The Tea Party is really an extraordinary achievement and people who disagree with their politics do themselves a disservice not to study them very carefully. Twenty-four months ago, nobody was talking about austerity. People were talking about a New New Deal and Keynesianism and about the return of [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt. Twenty-four months later, even the Democrats mostly talk about cuts. That's a big achievement by the Tea Party.

“On the whole, what we call the Tea Party represents a set of preexisting assets – both ideas and individual organizations that long pre-dated the declaration of the new movement. Some of them go back to the Ross Perot days. Yet this set of libertarian ideas was not taken very seriously, even within the Republican Party.

“It's sheer genius to be able to take a very old set of ideas and an aging set of assets and realign them and re-brand them so that they must be taken seriously in the current context. That's something we can learn from the Tea Party: How to take existing infrastructure and ideas but find a way to re-present them to the American people.

“We don't have to go out and start a bunch of organizations from scratch. We can bring together groups that are fighting effectively against cuts, against tuition hikes, but that are fighting alone, without a common banner. I would say, frankly, that we are already outperforming the Tea Party at its peak in terms of popular mobilization, if not in terms of electoral success. They got all this credit in September 2009 for bringing 150,000 people to D.C. and it shook everybody up. Well, we had 150,000 people on the streets of Madison, Wisconsin. We've had major protests in Ohio, in Montana – with the largest protest in the state's history – and more.

“In terms of the level of popular mobilization and fight back, we're probably two to three times the size of the Tea Party. But we don't have a common banner or a shared patriotic narrative about what common values we're advancing.”

The Appropriate Use of Leadership

I asked what sort of leadership would be required in order to make the American Dream Movement into this kind of common banner and also what we can learn from past efforts on the left. Jones pointed to the limits of charismatic leadership.

“We have to be very attentive to the appropriate use of charisma,” he said. “I think we had a big overdose of charisma with President Obama in 2008. People surrendered a lot of their own authority and initiative to our president. This is quite understandable because of his personal gifts and what he meant to the world. But I don't think it gave us the outcomes we wanted.

“The Tea Party has made a brilliant use of charismatic leadership. They have leaders that people can look to – Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Glenn Beck, Dick Armey and others. But none of those individuals could stand up tomorrow and say, 'the Tea Party is over' in a press conference. It wouldn't be over, because they have a network that is much bigger than any individual who is part of that network.

“One of our aspirations is to create a banner under which many leaders can shine and grow and learn, but where no one leader is the personification of the movement. People will always let you down. Principles endure. So having a network that is based on principles and values first, not based on politicians or even a political party, is critical.

“What the Tea Party has been able to achieve is that they have the benefits of a third party, but none of the downside. They can run primaries against Republicans they don't like. They can take very, very strong values-based positions. And at the same time, when it's all said and done, they don't have to go their own way, as they did in the Perot years.

“I think the people on their side of the divide have learned the lessons of Perot and come up with a very positive solution. For lack of a better term, we have not learned the lessons of Nader and come up with our own positive solution. So those of us who are in the American Dream Movement and care about partisan politics still have a great deal to learn from them.”

Hard Struggle and Hard Study

Our time was growing short, yet I was interested to gain more insight into how Jones approaches his own work as a thinker and movement builder. While I doubted that he has a lot of free time on his hands these days, I asked what he has been reading in the spare moments he does have available this summer.

“It's interesting. There's a couple things. Carl Jung is back on my list. That relates to one of three things I feel I don't know well enough yet that I am trying to address. The first is persuasion. I'm still trying to figure out how to be a decent communicator. I think I've improved, but I think I have a long way to go. And I think to really understand persuasion you've got to go fairly deep into understanding human psychology. Jung is somebody I have admired a great deal, but who I still don't know enough about.

“I also am still learning about the American economy beyond green jobs. Green jobs is such a big chunk of the economy: it's energy and water and many other areas in which I feel very well prepared. But I'd like to learn about things like how Wall Street works. That's another of my goals for the summer.

“The last piece is trying to understand and refine my grasp on social media and social networks,” he said. “I think that the Tea Party and Madison and Egypt and the Green Revolution in Iran all showed that you can drive a lot of change in a society really fast with no one leader. You can drive an awful lot of change with surprising tools.

“But I'm old fashioned,” Jones concluded after reflecting another moment. “I think that hard struggle without hard study leads to futility and hard study without hard struggle leads to impotence.”

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