Monday, August 13, 2012

Van Jones sets out to rebuild the dream

My friend Van Jones has a new book, Rebuild the Dream. The cover is visually a little too red, white and blue for me. But, as he has always been, Van is charming and insightful about his own political evolution, his brief participation in the Obama administration, and where we might go from here to win the country back for the 99 percent.

In the book's introduction, Van strikes me as overly careful. He writes

… I was not among the hundreds of thousands of well-wishers in Chicago who flooded into Grant Park to cheer him on [on election night, 2008]. I was in Oakland, California, far from the center of the action. I watched history unfold on a flatscreen television, sitting with my family on the sofa at a friend's house. … If anyone had suggested that night that I soon would be relocating to serve a tour of duty in Obama's White House, everyone would have chuckled. It would have seemed impossible. .

Nonsense. I remember seeing Van a week or so after the vote and asking when he was going to DC. That night he scoffed, but soon he was off to work in the White House for a green economy. And not long afterward, the wacko right media whiners successfully made an example of him for having come up in genuinely leftist circles in the San Francisco Bay area. Here, actual communists were plentiful and leftwing nut-cases all too common as well. Not surprisingly, Van could be tied to some of our outliers and he was, becoming an early scalp for Obama's right wing foes. He still appreciates the President:

Every time President Obama stands behind the presidential seal, he offers millions of children -- of every color and hue --the irrefutable proof that they can be anything they want to be when they grow up. It is easy to be dismissive or cynical about this point, but we should not take it for granted. Who knows what magic his example is doing in the minds of youth around the world? Obama makes an inestimable contribution every day -- not just as a president, but as a precedent.

This book is Jone's effort to figure out where do we all go from here. In that effort, he recalls the struggles of the Bush era, recounting a movement history that is in some danger of being erased under the burden of subsequent disappointments. In his view, the struggles of that era gave birth to the movement that eventually elected the President and we'd be swallowing a right wing narrative if we forgot that.

In many ways, the movement that elected Obama was born in 2003, taking the form of a massive, desperate effort to derail Bush's planned invasion of Iraq. …the antiwar mobilization failed to prevent the war, but it became the sign -- and the seed -- of things to come. …

… flourishing of electoral activism [against Bush] was much bigger than Senator Kerry's official presidential campaign. … it was much broader in scope than the Democratic Party. In 2004. we saw the birth of a genuine pro-democracy movement -- standing up against the entire apparatus of one-party rule in Washington, DC.

…A bottom-up movement fueled by hope and demanding change ended GOP domination [of politics] in just twenty-four months. In the 2006 midterm elections, no House, Senate, or gubernatorial seat held by a Democrat was won by a Republican. Not only did Democrats not lose any seats, but they also gained, winding up with a 233-202 advantage in the House of Representatives, and achieving a 49-49 tie in the United States Senate (or 51-49 advantage, if you counted Independents Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman).

Obama's election in 2008 was the ultimate fruit of that movement -- a movement that said "Yes WE can!" not "Yes HE can!"

So what went wrong after 2008? Jones rehashes, briefly, the administration's political mistakes and especially the contradictions that killed Organizing for America once it became a subsidiary of the Democratic National Committee (and thus could not push Democratic party obstructionists.) But he focuses on what happened among social movement activists:

…looking back, I do not think those of us who believed in the agenda of change had to get beaten as badly as we were, after Obama was sworn in. We did not have to leave millions of once-inspired people feeling lost, deceived, and abandoned. We did not have to let our movement die down to the level that it did. The simple truth is this: we overestimated our achievement in 2008, and we underestimated our opponents in 2009.

…Among those who stayed active, too many of us (myself included) were in the suites when we should have been in the streets. …the main problem was that the movement itself was naive and enamored enough that it wanted to be absorbed and directed. Instead of marching on Washington, many of us longed to get marching orders from Washington. We so much wanted to be a part of something beautiful that we forgot how ugly and difficult political change can be …

Of course it didn't matter what we fantasized -- political struggle flowed on and pretty soon rightwing populism (and racial anxiety) was as energized by the Obama presidency as we had been by Bush's usurpation and his wars. But with people continuing to suffer from the one percent's depredations and unable to get any relief from the political system, people took to the streets in the Occupy movement last fall and gave us the 1% v. 99% political frame we all struggle within today. Jones affirms the Occupy movement -- but he insists that to remain significant, the movement kindled by immediate need has to move into new arenas.

… thus far, Occupy Wall Street has not tried to occupy the institutions of established, formal political power (for example, elections and political parties). Many at the core of Occupy don't want to engage with political institutions in that way. Some fear being co-opted by the Democratic Party, labor unions, Moveon.org, or by more established political activists (like me!). Rather than getting caught up in all the electioneering, Occupiers are choosing to focus on the hard, risky, and often-thankless work of direct action protest. They are committed to building their own community, presence, and power through direct, participatory democracy. They fear that too much entanglement with the existing system would kill their independence, idealism, and chutzpah.

For Occupy -- as the bright spearhead of a much broader movement -- that choice is sensible. But it almost certainly cannot serve all the needs of the broader movement, which potentially includes millions of people. Tens of millions of people are not going to be taking part in consensus-based general assemblies anytime soon, and even if they could, the existing system would still impact every aspect of their lives. Some groups need to step forward to make sure that the interests and ideas of the 99% are represented in political campaigns and in the established halls of power. …

These conclusions underly Jone's current initiative, the Rebuild the Dream movement. In the movement's own words:

Rebuild the Dream is a platform for bottom-up, people-powered innovations to help fix the U.S. economy. Using 21st-century digital technology, we advance highly inventive solutions that are designed to protect and expand the middle class, while creating pathways to prosperity for those who are locked out of it. Our goal is to put America back to work—and pull America back together.

Color me a bit of a skeptic. Movements are made when people who feel they have nothing left to lose take extraordinary action -- this has a whiff of think tanks and funder focus-groups about it, not people's enthusiasm. Time will tell whether it can grow into authenticity.

But like Jones, I believe that progressives win the changes we need when we pursue both an inside and an outside political strategy. He says this clearly:

I believe in both electoral politics and peaceful protest; they are two blades of a scissor, and both are needed to make real change. Some see marches, sit-ins, and public demonstrations as unruly, scary, or out of fashion -- so they reject protests. Others think our democracy is so corrupted by big money and media madness that participation is beneath them -- so they reject electoral politics. I believe that progress is made from the bottom up and from the top down. Therefore, I believe that nonviolent direct action and smart voting are the twin keys to meaningful change.

This seems quite right to me.

There have been several generations of highly talented, charismatic progressive citizens who failed to grasp or were unwilling to take up the arduous work of carrying left ideas inside the halls of power as well as on the streets. Van Jones' life is actually an example how many of these potential leaders seem to have ended up on side tracks. If he had come up in the 1950s in a place where there was any chance for a Black lawyer of his talents, most likely he would have tried his hand at electoral politics. But in the '80s and '90s, outside advocacy careers seemed possible and to have more integrity, so politics was often left to less capable and less committed community leaders. Part of retaking our democracy has to be reaffirming the moral respectability of political struggle inside institutions. It's all very well to be pure, but somebody has to get in there and govern. Those people should include the best of our community leaders, not just the most ambitious. Democracy only works for the people when the people are willing to struggle within it. That, for some, means taking up the demeaning life of day to day politics.

1 comment:

Ronni Bennett said...

Sounds immensely worth the purchase. So much to read, so little time - but this goes to the top for me.

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