Van Jones on Being a ‘Post-Hope Democrat’

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Van Jones

Photo Credit: Zach Gross

Van Jones is perhaps best known as the former green jobs adviser to President Obama who was accused by Glenn Beck of signing a petition saying President Bush was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Although Jones said he wouldn’t knowingly have signed it, he wasn’t sure whether or not he had by mistake. Jones resigned his position at the White House after six months, giving up, he writes in his new book, “the best job I ever had.”

We caught up with Jones over the phone to talk about Rebuild the Dream, the organization he started in June 2011 to advocate for economic justice; his new book (with the same title) which hit shelves this month; and the strategy he hopes will help progressives win in Washington this winter.

Riley: Why is your organization called “Rebuild the Dream”?

Jones: It used to be that the way you got out of poverty and into the middle class was you would go to college and then buy a home. Today, because of the incredible crushing student loan burden, and the high percentage of American home mortgages being underwater, the same aspirations for education and home ownership are a trap door from the middle class into poverty. We feel like the American dream has just been turned upside down and inside out, and nobody’s doing much about it.

Riley: What are the key initiatives that you’re working on?

Jones: Our two campaigns are pretty straightforward. One, we want to push Fannie and Freddie to more aggressively cut the principle on underwater mortgages. Fannie and Freddie control about half the mortgages in America. Twenty-five percent of all the mortgages in America are underwater. If Fannie and Freddie would reassess America’s home values and go with a fair market valuation, we could save Americans $90 billion, and have a little bit more shared pain between Main Street and Wall Street. That’s a big, important value and fight of ours.

The other one is that we’re passionate about these student loans that are crushing a whole generation of American’s aspirations. Kids are graduating with extraordinary levels of debt, and no jobs. To make things worse, on July 1 the interest rate on the subsidized Stafford loans, the most important student loans, will go up from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. That is awful, because those are the loans that you get if you’re smart enough and supported enough to get into college, but you can’t really afford it. Meanwhile banks are getting their money for practically free, with interest rates at a fraction of one percent. There’s no country in the world right now that’s making it harder for their best students to get educated. China, India, Brazil, Germany are all making it easier, knowing that the next generation has to compete in a global market, for their most promising kids to get educated. We’re making it harder.

Riley: You are known for being the green jobs adviser to the Obama administration. This sounds like quite a departure. Why are you personally focusing on these issues?

Jones: Twenty million new people who were in the middle class have been thrown overboard into poverty, or into economic anxiety that feels like poverty.

For economic justice fighters, the entire field has been transformed by the 2008 economic collapse. The field used to be easy to describe, because you knew who your constituents were: They were poor folks in Appalachia, they were black and brown folks in inner cities and they were Native Americans on reservations. That’s it. And you were trying to move people from poverty into the middle class. That was the mission. There’s this new mission now, which is not just to get poor people into the middle class, but to keep middle class people out of poverty.

The kinds of economic problems that middle class and formerly middle class people are facing are different than the problems that the traditionally poor and chronically poor have faced. These are people who often have some educational attainment. They often have a work history. They often have or used to have a credit history that was an asset for them. And yet, they can’t figure out how to stay afloat and make it in America.

If we don’t create a progressive home for them politically, and a progressive agenda for them economically, those people wind up with the Tea Party. Or they wind up in emotional depression and with devastated lives, and then their potential economically, and then as a political force, is dissipated. We’re trying to rise to that challenge.

Riley: In your book, you talk about being a post-hope Democrat. What does that mean?Rebuild the Dream

Jones: Well, that means we’re not going to just vote and hope like we did last time.

Turns out voting and hoping is a bad strategy. You’ve got to vote and march and fight and rally and sit in — do all those things. Democracy is hard work, and it’s not the work of one day.

Post-hope Democrats are basically positioned between the most fanatic of the Obama supporters and the most skeptical wing of the Occupiers, because that’s where most progressives, liberals and independents are. We like Obama. We’re not in love with him like we were in 2008, but we don’t want a Tea Party president. And we love Occupy, but we’re probably not going to a general assembly, and we don’t want to get pepper sprayed. That’s where most of the 100 million Americans [who say they support Occupy] are, between those two poles.

Occupy has done a tremendous service for the country. That said, I think at some point you’ve got to move from anger to answers. I think we have to be as sophisticated as the system that we’re fighting, and I’m not willing to take any tools out of the toolbox in trying to create a country that’s livable for my kids. I want to bring any and all nonviolent tools to the table, and that includes peaceful protest, voting and everything in between. If you don’t vote because the system is corrupt, are you playing tic-tac-toe or are you playing chess? I’m playing chess. I’m not naïve to think that just by voting you get what you want. You cannot get everything you want just by voting. But you can lose everything you’ve got by not voting.

Our organization is really committed to making sure that we don’t just win in November, but also in December, because there are two fights this year, not just one. There’s a fight to deal with our democracy deficit, and try to reelect the president and retake the House in the face of this massive onslaught of corporate money that Citizens United makes possible. Most people have focused on that fight at the ballot box.

But there’s also an economic fight that will culminate in December, and that fight will primarily come down around how the budget deficit gets handled. We need to be able to win politically in November so we can win economically in December. We are training 100,000 people and we’re going to focus our energy on the corporate bad guys this spring, so we can get strong enough to deal with their bought-and-paid-for representatives in D.C. in early winter.

We are trying to learn the lesson from 2008, which is you come out of the voting booth not cheering, but marching.

Further Reading

Visit the Rebuild the Dream website to learn more about the housing and student loan initiatives that Rebuild a Dream is focusing on this spring.

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  • Benbshaw

    The Progressive voters who still support  President Obama  have not held him accountable since his election.  Van Jones’ program to change Fannie and Freddie could be carried out in a short period of time if the President applied some pressure.  The President won’t do so because he does not see Progressive voters as a constituency that he cares about. Wall Street put him, Wall Street is pushing for his reelection. Romney is there as insurance in case something were to happen to Obama.

  • Won

    It is hard for me to accept Monsanto as the bedfellow of my President. In fact I won’t. Go after the corporations – start with Monsanto. Then you and the Democrats might gain some credibility.

  • Patrick R. Saunders

    If Jones and co. are the post hope Democrats, then I am in the beyond hope Democratic wing. When we lost folks like Paul Wellstone, and now Dennis Kucinich in the Congress, the Democrats who are left in the Senate and the House are mostly a bunch of half steppers  and in line with the big bucks wing of the party that came into power in the late 80’s. We are faced again with not even the choice of the two lessers as the GOP has went totally crazy and our President will cling to his big business centricism with a death grip. So we vote for the President and hope that his wife who has a real connection with the working class because of her heritage will cause him to surprise us pleasantly in the second term.

  • CJinTexas

    I don’t disagree with Van’s suggested strategy, however, “winning” in November hinges upon having good, electable, progressive candidates running in ALL races, who have enough integrity to resist being bought off by corporate interests. Until we have at least a 60% majority in the Senate of REAL progressives we will not see ANY “change we can believe in”. Of course we also need a majority in the House as well…. Where will we find these candidates? When our best and brightest, like Tim DeChristopher, end up incarcerated I find it difficult to believe that others will be eager to step up and fill that void.

  • Elise Barron Cain

    I like what Van has to say. I disagree on how he thinks we should go about getting there. Obama’s record to date has shown that he too is a pawn to the big business agenda. Things he touted he would change as president fell flat. He is a war monger, a threat to our civil liberties and soft on punishing the criminals responsible for the financial melt down. America has not yet experienced enough grief to propel them into action. The two party system is not the answer in a plutocracy. I believe it will take WWIII for people to realize how thoroughly they have been duped. Until then we should stand behind politicians like Bernie Sanders. We should educate ourselves. The more I learn, the more find out just how much I do not know. For that reason, I will remain teachable.

  • Peter McNamee

    Republicans prodded and Democrats coaxed a lot of voters back to the polls four years ago to elect Obama.  But Obama and Democrats failed to deliver on their voter mandate.  Instead of  “change we could believe in,” America got “compromises” and “deals” that made most Americans poorer and deeper in debt.  Obama’s and Democrat leadership hasn’t worked to benefit 99% of America’s families, who lost on the magnitude of over $7 trillion since 2006 while the richest 1% and corporations got wealthier from bailouts and tax breaks Obama & Congress supported or enacted.  Mr. Johnson’s heart is in a good place, but he is peddling the same kind of promises made in 2008; only this time instead of rightfully blaming Obama and Democrats when nothing happens, he has set up the American people to be the fall guys – because we just didn’t “march” right.  Newsflash – marching isn’t going to fix America’s real problems (we have marched and protested and voted against injustice forever).  Electing Democrats or Republicans will not generate office holders who deliver on the “dream” that American people have marched, protested and voted for over and over again.   Time to stop “dreaming” and start taking back the wealth that American workers generated with their toil, sweat and hard work.  If you vote, vote for socialists, or true radicals, who are committed to redistributing the wealth in America’s economy and smashing corporate fascism.   If you can’t bring yourself to voting, then fight back anyway you can.  Stop buying corporate products, make your own stuff and grow your own food, form or join and aggressively participate in a union, a coop or a commune, strike for better wages and working conditions, and if you have a bad bank loan – default – but get out of debt to banks and corporations anyway that you can.  We are in a class war and Mr. Johnson’s solutions are too little, too wimpy, and way too late.

  • Lee Forrest

     Yes. But the alternative to Obama is completely unacceptable.

  • Anonymous

    Search no further, this is all you need to know:
    Less established” elected officials are so busy making phone calls and setting up their impromptu “fund raisers” they sometimes can’t even make it to show up to vote on bills. In contrast, the more established “well connected” politicians, finds the money – in abundance – rolls in automatically.  The sums of money required to be successfully elected to office is surprising. For example “In some cases a campaign may cost 8 million to win and 4 million to lose.” This is no accident. We know corporate lobbyists are well established and “doing the deed” freely at will.
    Someone said (and I paraphrase) “They seem to feel god gives them the right to run things as they see fit, and now they’re trying to kill us.”
    There’s a great film called “PRICELESS” highlighting how some elected officials in Arizona and Maine are “running clean.” These states now offer an alternative public funding system which takes “the big money” out of local politics, restoring representation for the average citizen. Excellent footage is provided with interviews to explain this and more.
    Interviews with farmers discuss how they would prefer to stop the constant spraying of pesticides, however, in order to collect their government subsidies these practices are established SOP. The film shows snippets of various congressmen exclaiming that “without the use of pesticides the world would soon go hungry” while recent university studies document organic farmers enjoy equal and greater production over their chemical spraying counterparts. Labels across the screen disclose the amounts of “contributions” these politicians receive to maintain their predictable positions.
    I have been watching Bill Moyers since “The Journal” from George Soros suggesting “Markets are designed to allow individuals to look after their private needs and to pursue profit but have nothing to do with maintaining a decent society to William Greider’s “The Hoax of Shareholder Ownership”; “Market Orthodoxy is Breaking Down” and more, warning in advance of the 2008 meltdown.
    Bill Moyers cited the often used quote “everybody knows something’s wrong but no one seems to know what to do about it.”
    We spend countless hours trying to make sense clearing up the muddytracks our elected political “representatives” nervously explain away. But nothing changes (for the better). For the most part, politicians have become experts taking all they can from a system that only delivers the goods for those on the books recognized for producing maximum “contributions.”
    “PRICELESS” is the film to see which gets to the point we have been working so long and hard to arrive at. “Get the big money out of politics!” The film explains what must be done – and in some cases what is already being done – and how to do it.
     There is no reason to be confused and for this shameful dangerous problem to be dragged out any longer. Man up! Woman up! Check it out…

  • Jared

    yes, but the jobs act, ndaa, privatization of schools, ongoing use of rendition and torture, raiding of medicinal marijuana facilities, secret drone wars, and keystone xl pipeline are also completely unacceptable.  

  • GradyLeeHoward

    Hey Pete, where does your vote go when you  put it down the 3rd party hole?
    You have excellent comprehension of institutionalized injustice and I agree with all your wealth control strategies. Mr. Vann Jones actually did the right thing if/when he signed a petition demanding further 9/11 investigation. Mr. Vann Jones in labeling people like himself post-hope is only recommending voting for Barack Obama again as a survival strategy. Mr. Vann Jones knows, and knows of, many insecure people about to lose their jobs and places to live. These people will not be able to shift their bank accounts and spending because they ain’t got none to speak of. It’s almost like Mr. Vann Jones is in a camp, a death camp turned inside out like an amoeba that is eating the scenery. If no viable third party candidate arises by Halloween we’d be fools not to re-elect the less than satisfactory President Obama, if only so we can buy groceries one more time.

  • GradyLeeHoward

    Yeah, see what I told Pete above.

  • GradyLeeHoward

    Let’s get him back in then twist his arms. 
    The public failed to mobilize his first term.
    Let’s not be fooled again.

  • GradyLeeHoward

    You need 8 million dollars to ‘step up and fill that void.”
    People with that kind of loot ain’t shaped right to fit the hole.

  • GradyLeeHoward

    Peron used Eva and Evita like hood ornaments.
    I like your “business-centric” concept.
    It is accurate.
    Maybe Peronism is a way of delaying corporate fascist feudalism.
    Maybe Michelle will toss organic produce from the East Portico.

  • GradyLeeHoward

    Cool- Romney is a spare tire, very descriptive.
    Obama would put Beau on top the van, but he would give him Atavan and blindfold him first.

  • GradyLeeHoward

    Vann Jones is more like Green Giant than green jobs?

  • GradyLeeHoward

    Nope, it’s a start, but it’s not all we need to know.

  • Carolee1079

    Mr. Moyers always presents a program which stretches my mind.  I think it should be mandatory viewing for all members of Congress.

  • DaveH

     I have to agree with you.  BTW, I can’t help noting (RE Peter M.’s comments)  that Van *Johnson* was an actor.  Though come to think of it, an actor that perhaps we could look to for some inspiration as well — After all, he stood up to tyranny (in the form of Humphrey Bogart) in _The Caine Mutiny_…

  • DH Fabian

    We talk about the hardships of the middle class, and of homeowners; there are some good solutions out there, if only we weren’t essentially at war with Congress. But I wonder, at what point (income line) is a person no longer regarded a person to today’s generation? When it comes to poverty, our only response is to call for job creation — which we’ve been doing for decades now. We’ve lost a massive number of jobs since Reagan, while at the same time, have increased the number of people desperate for jobs by getting rid of poverty relief. More people in need of jobs, far fewer jobs, would normally result in increased hunger and homelessness, but no one is talking about it. Millions of Americans, getting by on wages that have fallen far behind the cost of living, are a single job loss from losing everything. How do you get another job when you have no home address, no phone, no clean clothes/bath, no bus fare? Yet it appears that we must have very little poverty, based on the lack of public discussion about it. What becomes of all these people?

  • DH Fabian

    No, Democrats didn’t have to coax anyone to vote — people were eager. Keeping up with what’s happening in Congress isn’t always the most exciting thing, but this political cycle is unique because of the Republican strategy. As promised, they have stopped serving as representatives of their constituents solely to focus on “making Obama a one-term president” — and they have gone to some unprecedented extremes in the process. We have actually seen Republicans vote against their own proposals, simply because the president said, “Sounds OK to me.” They have practically said that they are ready to take down the entire country, if that’s what it takes to get rid of President Obama. So, are they blackmailing us — either surrender democracy, giving them full control of the government, or they’ll destroy the country?

  • Peter McNamee

    In fact, the Republicans are willing to burn America to the ground rather than cede governance to anyone other than the current ruling elite.

  • Peter McNamee

    The trouble with the strategy of voting for the second worst candidate is that it doesn’t really help. In the end, it actually just makes suffering more acceptable to most Americans and prolongs the suffering. It fundamentally a denial of America’s core problems and like any form of denial it leads to worse outcomes than confronting and addressing the problem. We are past reform, America needs radical restructuring and Democrats aren’t willing to provide that kind of leadership.