After Van Jones, former White House special adviser for green jobs, resigned from the position in 2009 amid controversy and misconceptions over his political activities, the activist and author busied himself with other work. He led the Green Opportunity Initiative for the Center for American Progress and held a teaching fellowship at Princeton University. Then he took a year off.
"I just went around the country talking to people and listening," Jones told The Root. He repeatedly encountered the same kinds of stories: Veterans with no employment opportunities upon returning from the battlefield. Young college graduates who can't find jobs. The long-term unemployed who fear that, at age 40 or 50, they may never work again. Homeowners saddled with underwater mortgages, struggling to keep their houses. Cops, firefighters, teachers and nurses slashed from city budgets.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., he kept hearing that taxing the wealthy kills jobs and that cutting social programs is the solution for trimming the deficit. According to Jones, the disparity boils down to one thing: "There are forces in America that are trying to kill the American dream, who are willing to throw the middle class under the bus so that rich folks and corporations don't have to pay fair taxes," he said, arguing that these groups have too much dominance over our economic system.
Fueled by this perspective, this month Jones launched the American Dream Movement, aimed at a middle class that he says is working harder than ever, yet is struggling to maintain its livelihood. With support from MoveOn.org and other groups, he hopes to build a coalition of the progressive faithful as well as demographics outside the base that will rival the Tea Party.
Jones talked to The Root about his vision for the movement, his sudden legal action against Fox News and why liberals have been so quiet for the past two years.
The Root: What do you think is the solution to America's economic problems?
Van Jones: Here's what we know: We've got to get education strong in America again. We've got to focus on innovation. We've got to start protecting companies that want to hire and build in America. But you can't even begin to do all that policy work if you're going to take a one-sided, lopsided approach to the budget problem, which is cuts and cuts only.
If a family has budget problems, you don't say, "We need to save money, so let's cut out Grandma's food." You would cut back on nonessentials and also ask Junior to get a paper route to increase revenues. America's government needs to solve budget problems in a balanced way: Cut back on nonessentials, and begin to increase revenues.
TR: What are we spending on that you consider nonessential?
VJ: Rolling back the Bush tax cuts on the superwealthy should be a no-brainer. There's money to be gained there — $80 billion in a two-year period, just by rolling back the Bush tax cuts. Wall Street, which wrecked the economy and got a bailout, is now white hot and making tons of money.
What drives me nuts is this idea that the smart, hardworking people on Wall Street should not be taxed because we don't want to discourage them from being so industrious. Yet a huge amount of trading on Wall Street is done by computers making thousands of trades every second. If you took literally a tenth of a penny every time that happened, you would pull tens of billions of dollars off of Wall Street, and nobody would even notice. You can't discourage an algorithm.
Another thing you might want to [focus on] is winding these wars down responsibly. We're spending $3.3 billion every week in Afghanistan and Iraq. There's a lot that you could do, but whenever I go to Washington, D.C., I hear, "We're broke, and we've got to cut everything." We're still the richest country in the history of the world.
TR: With the conversation in Washington focused on budget cuts, what makes you optimistic that you can change it?
VJ: I remember 24 months ago, when people weren't talking about any of this stuff. Twenty-four months ago we were still honeymooning after the Obama inauguration, talking about the new New Deal and what FDR would do. What happened is, people who don't like those kinds of ideas mobilized aggressively. They used the tools of democracy to change the conversation to what they wanted. But they don't speak for everybody.
There are just as many people with a very different set of economic ideas. But we expected that the Democratic majority in Congress and the president, by themselves, would be able to implement smart policy without us doing the hard work of democracy. When was the last time we saw people with progressive views rallying, marching and going to town hall meetings and speaking with passion? I'm not mad that the so-called conservatives are so vocal. I'm just concerned that people with other views are so quiet.
TR: Why have they been so quiet?
VJ: I think that people, understandably, hoped that the Democratic majority in Congress and the president would be able to implement the things that people voted for in 2008. A lot of people were really taken off guard by the venom and hostility that was directed at this president right from the very beginning — even in the middle of a crisis, when usually the country comes together. It took a while for people to understand that these people, who were defeated at the ballot box in 2008, were going to fight even harder and treat 2009 like an election year.
TR: A lot of people are also frustrated that President Obama hasn't challenged the economic issues that you're raising. What, then, do you think the American Dream Movement's relationship with the government should look like?
VJ: I think it's wrong to make this about President Obama. The entire Washington, D.C., establishment is off track. But the discussion in Washington, D.C., will change when the discussion in the country begins to change. We worked hard in 2007 and 2008, and then we sat down and munched popcorn in 2009 and 2010. The president himself said that change doesn't come from Washington, D.C. — it comes to Washington, D.C. That's how it works in our country. And it's time for a different set of ideas.
TR: Last week you sent a cease and desist letter to Fox News regarding Glenn Beck's charges, among others, that you're a violent communist who believes that the U.S. government carried out the 9/11 attacks. Given that Beck has been talking about you for the past two years and he's about to go off the air, why are you just now doing this?
VJ: I had taken the approach of turning the other cheek. I'd actually engaged behind the scenes directly with Glenn Beck's producers, making sure they were well-informed that what he was saying were falsehoods. My highest hope was that at some point, by engaging behind the scenes and staying positive in public, we could show that people can change and come together.
In hindsight it looks naive, but I was willing to put up with a lot of nonsense to try to get to that outcome. However, the human body only has four cheeks on it. [Laughs.] And I turned every cheek I could.
The straw that broke the camel's back for me is that I was no longer a government official, and [was] talking to people who are really hurting in America and beginning to rally behind this "American dream" concept. Glenn Beck not only continues to attack me; he also attacked the people standing up wanting jobs and fairness, and said the American dream itself was some sort of subversive conspiracy.
At that point I realized this was never going to end. I want to have a serious discussion about what is going on in our country and put forth serious solutions. I can't do that if voices on Fox are echoing falsehoods to millions of Americans about me every day. I needed to correct the record.
TR: As for action steps, you're having people submit ideas starting on July 5, and asking them to sift through them all for the best ones. Why this tactic?
VJ: We're going to use some technology tricks and tools to make it very easy. There will be ways to just click and rank which ideas are gaining ground. But this tactic also has some roots. We're taking a page from some pretty successful movements.
During the apartheid regime, the African National Congress sent its organizers to townships all across South Africa under pretty repressive conditions. They asked people to write down on scrap paper their best hopes and visions for South Africa and put them in rain barrels. Then they took all those ideas and produced a document called the Freedom Charter, which guided the South African struggle all the way through Nelson Mandela's release.
It was written by the people, and that's why it had such moral authority. We could have asked economic experts and just gone with what they said, but that wouldn't have the power of 100,000 people putting in their ideas in their language, and having something that reflects the people who want a more balanced approach.
TR: What happens after that?
VJ: Without prejudicing the process itself, I suspect that we're going to have ideas worthy of taking to elected officials and other community leaders, and getting even more buy-in. In October there will be a massive summit in Washington, D.C., called the Take Back the American Dream Summit. At that point in time, it will be a clear force to be reckoned with, and a surprising alliance of voices.
Right as the presidential cycle starts, it will be good to have a different conversation. More importantly, as everybody is getting ground down by the economic pain, people who've got some sane ideas will have a bit more optimism about the possibilities in our country.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.