I know he’s a big hero to many on the left, but Van Jones sometimes rubs me the wrong way. He’s too smiley, or something. Maybe it’s a reaction to having been taken in by John Edwards, but I now prefer my heros to be a bit more wonky, and bit less telegenic. But, at the same time, I also love the guy because he’s so feared and despised by the far right. And I acknowledge that our movement needs people like Jones to stir things up, and to get the airtime that tiny, brilliant, bearded people like Robert Reich can’t… So, it was with somewhat conflicted feelings that I went to see Jones, who, as we’ve discussed before, is now running an organization called Rebuild the Dream, present the final keynote at Netroots Nation 2012… While I didn’t care for some of his rhetorical flourishes, much of what he had to say was spot on. Here are my brief notes, followed by video of the presentation.
The corporate media is pushing a narrative, says Jones, about Scott Walker’s victory in Wisconsin. They want to say that we’ve been beaten, and that we’re demoralized. It takes a lot more than being outspent 8-to-1, though, to demoralize us, he says. Progressives have died for the cause before. Our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents went up against billy clubs and dogs before. They fought for the 40 hour work week, safer working conditions, and civil rights. They put their lives on the line. And we won’t give up because 13 billionaires poured money into Wisconsin. We’ve seen worse.
“What happened in Wisconsin is awful,” he says, “but it actually teaches us something. In this movement, we sometimes have to learn the hard lesson at the right time. What we learned in Wisconsin is very simple. When we do our minimum, as a national movement… I’m not talking about the local forces, who fought beautifully… No, the local forces fought beautifully. The local forces fought well. The local forces stood up. The local forces created a miracle. They turned a national breakdown into a potential national breakthrough… on their own. The labor forces… and lets not forget the African American and Latino communities, especially in Milwaukee, exceeded every expectation. The local forces stood up. They did the maximum. But they fought alone. Let’s be honest here. We’re all friends here. Where were the national Democrats? And where were a lot of us? There’s something wrong with a movement when we spend more time and energy mourning the loss, than we spend time and energy securing the win. We have to take accountability as a national movement. When we do our minimum, and the other side does their maximum, we lose. Is that simple enough? You don’t have to have an advanced degree in politics to understand this. They outspent us 8-to-1. You essentially had the local labor movement fighting 13 billionaires… 12 of whom don’t even live in Wisconsin. Understand this. If we don’t like the way we felt when we woke up in June, having observed but not fought… There were some exceptions, but the civil rights establishment never showed up in large numbers… There were exceptions, but the environmental movement never showed up in large numbers… There were exceptions, but the women’s movement, the national Democrats… None of us showed up in large numbers. We saw it. We observed it. We munched the popcorn. But we didn’t jump into the screen.”
“We have a quandary,” says the former White House Green Energy Czar. We know we’re supposed to be fired up, but wer’re mad. We like the President, but we’re not in love with him like he used to be. Yes, he stands up for Trayvon Martin, and for gay marriage, but we don’t love him the way that we did. According to Jones, we’re “caught between Barack and a hard place.” And, because of that, we don’t know how to get fired up again. We know that just supporting Obama won’t get us the change that we want. And some of us want to teach him a lesson. Jones says he knows that some of us think that Romney and Obama are essentially the same. But, he says, we need to think about what the right has done in the state houses they’ve recently taken over. “If the Tea Party is allowed to score a trifecta,” he says, the consequences would be unthinkable. “Their ideas are already corrupting the Supreme Court. You see that with Scalia’s antics. They already have half of the Congress. If they get the rest of it, and the White House… If the Tea Party governs America… If, this time next year, you are living under a government run by the Tea Party, let me suggest to you that they might use power a little bit differently than we did. When they get power, they use it to decimate us. The last election was a hope election. This one may be a fear election. They’re scared of us – we should be terrified of them. When they get power, they use it to decimate us. Look at what they did in the state houses. They didn’t run on destroying the unions, but the minute they got in they didn’t say, ‘Well, perhaps we should make some adjustments to labor law… let’s have a committee.’ No, they decapitated our unions… And they say that they’re not just going to make some adjustments to the EPA, but eliminate it. Do you think they’re joking? The EPA has probably saved more American lives in the last 30 years than the Department of Defense… If they have a trifecta, they will use it to decimate us. It will be no holds barred.”
He notes that, when we have power, as we did in 2008, after winning the House, Senate and White House, we decided it was time to be bipartisan. We haven’t historically, according to Jones, known how to use power. If they win, however, all the crazy stuff they say, they will do, he warns. And, worse yet, a victory will be a reward for their despicable behavior these past four years. Over the past four years, he argues, the Republicans have betrayed the American people. They’re letting people die because they don’t want to give Obama anything that can be considered a victory, he says. They want to win the Presidency, and they don’t care how much suffering it takes for them to demonstrate how bad of a President Obama is. That’s their character, says Jones. They won’t even pass their own bills right now, if they think it will help America. They want more carnage. And we cannot reward that kind of behavior, regardless of what we think about Obama.
We have to be smart, he says. We have to support Obama, but we also have to hold his feet to the fire. “We have to be as sophisticated at the machine we’re fighting.” It’s going to be hard, but we have to be twice as passionate as we were in 2008. We have to do two difficult things. We have to reelect the President, and we have to hold him accountable. You need two things to get real change, he says. You have to have a President willing to move, and you have to have a movement that’s willing to move him. We haven’t had both at the same time. Under Bush we had a movement, but he was unwilling to move. And, under Obama, until the Occupy movement came along, we weren’t pushing him. It was the Tea Party that was in the streets. We let them have almost three years. Thankfully, Occupy Wall Street came along and started changing that dynamic.
We have to win two main battles. We have to stop the Tea Party in November, and we have to win the budget battle in December. That, he reminds us, is when the Bush tax cuts expire. That’s also when the Pell grant money runs out for poor kids seeking to go to college. All of the cans that we’ve been kicking down the road need to be addressed in December, and that’s when we’ll have our opportunity for change, assuming we’ve been able to keep Obama in the White House. Regular Americans, he says, have paid our share. It’s time for the rich to pay their share. No more “ham and egg” justice. Asking a chicken for an egg and a pig for his leg, he says, is not equivalent, and we need to keep pretending that it is.
And, he says, we have no excuse this time around. It’s not like when we elected Bush. This time, we know for certain what their wrecking ball agenda is. They paint it red, white and blue, but we know what it is. They want to smash unions, eliminate public education, and roll back clear air and clean water legislation. And they have it in their sights. And, what’s more, they’ve shown a “brutal willingness” to destroy what our communities need to survive. At this point, Jones shares Grover Norquist’s comment about how he wants to shirk government down to the size that he can, “drown it in a bathtub.” We know it all now, and we have no excuse, according to Jones…