Van Jones on Rebuilding the American Dream - Rolling Stone
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Van Jones on Rebuilding the American Dream

The former White House ‘green jobs’ advisor has a new project: rebooting the progressive movement

Van Jones

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Tonight in New York City, with the help of MoveOn, The Roots, and guest DJ Shepard Fairey, Van Jones is trying to get the band back together – to, in his words, “bring some of the spirit of 2008 back.”

The event is the kickoff for the Rebuild the Dream campaign, which hopes to give the progressive mass movement that rose up to elect Barack Obama a new banner to march under – “with no superhero, no single leader, no messiah,” says Obama’s one-time green jobs czar, “just the American people standing up for the best values of the country.”

Jones hopes Rebuild the Dream – whose launch at 8 p.m. Eastern at New York’s Town Hall will also be streaming live on – will mirror the success of the Tea Party on the right, fighting for the economic casualties of the Great Recession who Jones believes currently have no voice in Washington’s deficit-obsessed policy debate.

“It’s time for a movement of deeper patriots to stand up for the country,” says Jones, “against this wrecking ball agenda for America.”

Earlier this week I spoke by phone with Jones about his new campaign:

What’s the big idea behind “Rebuild America?”

We see a huge disconnect between what the political elite is talking about in Washington, D.C. – now in both parties – and what ordinary Americans are talking about in barber shops, nail salons, bowling alleys, and houses of worship. There is much, much more concern about jobs, and much more openness to solving the budget crisis by more balanced means – including raising taxes on rich folks – than D.C. seems to understand.

The American Dream itself is being killed off in America. Just this basic idea that ordinary people should be able to find a job, keep a job, keep a home and give their kid a better life. I’m talking about the young veterans who are coming home, to no job and no hope. When they were overseas in somebody else’s country on the military battleground, these young people got a lot of support. They get back home, they get dumped off into an economic battleground with no support.

They’re part of a larger cohort of young people in America, many of whom who are graduating off of a cliff into the worst economy since World War II. There’s an incredible youth unemployment, crisis, where even kids who want to work and have an education wind up stuck as interns, for two years, three years, four years – never becoming the young professional that they expected. Those young people need a movement to rebuild the “American dream.”

You have the people who are being thrown out of their homes by America’s banks, or the people who are staying in their homes but they’re underwater on their mortgages and desperately need the banks to renegotiate – cut the principal or cut the rate – and the banks just ain’t up on it.

To other groups – the so-called “ninety-niners” – the long-term unemployed in our country who are finding out just because they lost a job, just because they’re forty years-old or fifty years-old, that they may never get a job again. Our most skilled workers. They should be in the prime of their careers. They are in need of a movement to rebuild the “American dream.”

And then lastly, most visibly, America’s cops, teachers, firefighters, nurses. These are the backbone of America, the heart and soul of our community, who are being thrown under the bus. We’re talking about massive, massive, constituencies of economic casualties in our country that D.C. isn’t even talking about. And, we think that a movement that brought their voices forward would make a tremendous difference. It could change the discussion in the same way that the Tea Party movement changed the discussion.

What gives you confidence that you can turn this into the Left’s version of the Tea Party.

The fight back is already happening. This movement for a more sane approach to American problems is already twice as big as the Tea Party movement right now. The Tea Party movement shocked the world because they had 150,000 people who came to Washington D.C. in September 2009. We had 150,000 people on the streets of Madison, Wisconsin, fighting for the American dream. A massive protest in Ohio. Young people fighting against tuition hikes all across the country. People running into these town hall meetings screaming about the Ryan Budget and Medicare.

The genius of the Tea Party was that it took, frankly, a bunch of very small groups a bunch of corporate cash and presented something under a single banner, that the media could then relate to, and Fox News could then report on as a solid, singular phenomenon.

We’re united by a passion to do something about what’s happening in the economy, and to not let a bad situation be made worse. The private sector already imposed an austerity program on the American people – that was the crash. We don’t need a public austerity program on top of a private austerity program. We think that’s reckless and foolish. It’s all cuts and no revenue. But there has not yet been a voice from the American people making that point, and we want to help to make that point, through the American Dream movement.

You talked about recapturing that 2008 magic. Do you see this as taking up a vacuum left by the Obama campaign? Is that an indictment of the president, who you now seem to be lumping in with the Washington establishment as part of the problem?

In 2008, we would never have had a movement called, “Yes, he can.” It was “Yes, we can.” But in the past two years, the “we,” was not present. You can blame anybody you want to for that, but I think we have to start taking personal responsibility for the shape of American politics. My view is that the entire DC establishment – both political parties – have gotten away from the addressing the problems I just described.

But just to be clear: As much as Barack Obama inspired the movement, the movement inspired Barack Obama. The movement for hope and change in America predated Obama’s candidacy. Rebuild the Deam is a continuation of the movement that rose up in 2003 to oppose George Bush’s war. That whole movement poured into the John Kerry campaign and we came within 100,000 votes in Ohio of beating Bush. By 2006 we had a huge breakthrough – Nancy Pelosi in the Speaker’s chair a majority in the Senate. Then, in that environment that we created, a young senator Barack Obama saw that something powerful happening. He said, “If I work with these people, we can make history.” The man met the movement met the moment and we were able to do something extraordinary. So this campaign is just a continuation of a long wave of the use of technology bringing people together in increasingly democratic and creative ways to solve the country’s problems. Movements ebb and flow, and this movement is about to flow again.

What comes next, after this party tonight?

Our next step after the launch will be to spend the summer crowd-sourcing what we call the “Contract for the American Dream” – which is an effort to hear from people who have different ideas, more creative solutions for America’s problems. There will be a thousand town meetings, there will be online tips and tools, and then in October we’re going to have a massive summit, the “Take Back the American Dream” summit here in Washington, D.C.

Does this effort have any blessing or laying on of hands by the White House or by Obama himself?

What I’m looking for a laying on of hands by the American people – that’s the main thing. But I will say this in case this is not clear: I do not think Barack Obama should be primaried. However, if QuestLove runs, I’d think about it. The Roots, man! The Roots!


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