Van Jones has a new book out this week, in which he lays out a way of thinking about progressive politics now and in the coming years. I talked with him yesterday about movement celebrity, race in politics and staying hopeful.
Who’d you write this book for and why?
I wrote the book for what I call the post-hope Democrats and progressives who make up the majority of the liberal left right now. People who like President Obama but aren’t in love with him anymore. People who want him to have a second term because they don’t want a Tea Party president, but who know we need to do more than just elect a president.
The book is actually three books in one. The first section is a reflective critical history of the social movements that elected Obama and those that challenged him, mainly the Tea Party and Occupy. The second is a set of analytical frameworks to help people make sense of the narrative structure of recent social movements. The last part is a series of proposals from policy to politics to get the country back on track. It’s a book for people who want to know how things went wrong in the past, and also for those who want to figure out how we can move forward.
What’s making you hopeful these days?
I’m hopeful because of the fact that the vast majority of people in the country agree with progressive ideas and values, even when they are put head-to-head with right wing ideas. That should not be true. The right wing, especially those portions that are committed to corporate liberty and extreme ideologies have a huge advantage over progressives when it comes to their media messaging operation. They should be able to garner 80-90 percent approval for their agenda, and they can’t. That means we have tremendous opportunity to grow a real movement that is not based on any personality or politician or political party but is grounded in the needs of the vast majority of working class people.
But aren’t you that personality, as many people have suggested, some happily and some not?
The strategic use of notoriety is one hallmark of movement maturity. For instance, the Tea Party is a successful social movement whether you agree with their ideas or not. Its ability to abort our agenda in Congress is a sign of success. They have famous personalities, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, even a Dick Armey, but the Tea Party can’t be reduced to just a Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck fan club. That was also true of the Civil Rights Movement, which was not reducable to Dr. King or even any single organization.
Progressives are still swinging between the extremes of deifying or demonizing prominent leaders, when what we should be doing is using them well. That’s what we’re trying to do at Rebuild the Dream, put a diverse group of emerging and established leaders to work. It’s a criticism I welcome and one I can address by pointing to actual models that work.
Race can become a dividing line in progressive politics, as anywhere. What is your message to people who might have become cynical about racial inequity being adequately dealt with?
You can mark the ups and downs of racial justice politics by three statements by now President Obama over the past four years.
The famous Philadelphia speech he made in the wake of the Reverend Wright controversy was the most significant statement on race during a presidential race, and it represented a high point of mature racial discourse in America. Fast forward to Skip Gates’ arrest at his own home for no reason. Now Obama is the most powerful man in the world; he says what any sensible person would say, that the arrest was foolish. The white backlash is so fierce that the President is forced to do a beer summit and sit eye-to-eye with a racist beat cop from Boston. After that, the President never mentions race again. The most powerful human being on earth, if he has brown skin, cannot discuss race in America. The first black president can’t mention the word black. Then we’re treated to almost two years where the black moral witness disappears from the American discourse. No one [with a very few exceptions] feels comfortable raising any of these issues in a powerful way. The country lurches to the right so much that even Heriatge Foundation-minted ideas are confused with socialism.
Then Trayvon is killed. The president makes the obvious point that if he had a son, his son would look like Trayvon, ending the prohibition on talking about the persistence of racial hatred and bigotry in our body politic. This is a big deal. We will now see the return of black moral witness and other anti-racist witnesses to the American dialogue without having to do any of the apologia that has been required before this child’s murder.
The book was released on April 4, and this isn’t the first time you’ve done something big on that day. What does that date mean to you?
As you know, it’s the anniversary of Dr . King’s assassination. Also, he was assassinated in 1968 and I was born that year. I’ve always had a relationship in my own mind and heart with Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy, who was also killed that year. I’ve been teased in the media for renaming my action figures after them when I was a child. Four years ago [Green for All] did the Dream Reborn conference in Memphis, where Dr. King was killed and near where my own father is buried. So, yes, it is an important day for me.