Van Jones, one of the most effective organizers and strategists on the left, is out with a new book. Rebuild the Dream, which debuted last week on the New York Times bestseller list, takes its name from the organization Jones helped found a year ago to stir up a grass-roots insurgency against the plutocrats we now call "the 1 percent," and which now seeks to harness the insurgent energies expressed by the Occupy movement into lasting institutional reform. "The American dream—the idea that ours is a land where any hard-working person can better herself or himself—is at risk of being wiped out, right before our eyes," he writes. "It will take a movement of millions of people to rescue and renew it." Van Jones wants to help inspire and shape that movement.
I talked to Jones recently at the University of Chicago's International House, where he was speaking to students about the necessity to turn back Washington’s austerity agenda, just down the street from where Barack Obama used to teach law. (Jones did a stint in the White House as "green jobs" advisor, before being drummed out by a right-wing smear campaign.) We talked about the symbiotic relationship he sees between Occupy and Rebuild, the gap between the fantasy and the reality of Obama, and the difference between the cheap patriots who watch Fox News and the deep patriots who built the American century and now "have another century to win."
You were one of the first prominent national Democrats to embrace the Occupy movement. Tell me about that.
I was just appalled that so many progressives were criticizing them (this was behind the scenes, on listservs)—their lack of messaging, how they looked, that kind of thing. And I just felt that these young people—young and struggling people—had done something very courageous; they’d gone to the scene of the crime against their future and were pointing to the real problem. I remember being a young radical, and feeling that we were sometimes taking on the real tough issues and that nobody came to our defense. And twenty years later I didn't want to be one of those prominent liberals who stood back from a real people's fight.
It's really important to you to reach out and mentor young warriors for justice. Why?
I named the first organization I formed [in 1996, in Oakland, California] the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, because she was an older person who reached out to young people in the Civil Rights movement and helped them find their own voices. And the entire country is different because she did that. The students who did the sit-ins, who did the freedom rides, who did the voter registration drives—they really broke the back of Jim Crow and made it possible for the legislators and the other forces to write all the laws and the rules and regulations and create the agencies and the bureaucracy that implemented the vision. But it was the young people who cracked that open -- they occupied the lunch counters. They occupied the buses. They helped poor Mississippians occupy the voting booths. And they were courageous beyond belief. I see the Occupy Wall Street movement like that.
"Occupy had the anger," you recently told me. "We have answers and solutions." Say more about that.
Occupy obliterated the conversation so that even Republicans had to start talking about economic inequality. But we’ve got to go from changing the conversation to changing the conditions. And the conditions for the working class and the middle class frankly are not that different than they were. People who are struggling are having to shovel too much of their income in the direction of the financial elites. We need to put money back into the American person's pocketbooks.
So how is Rebuild the Dream working towards that goal?
Two ways. The financial sector is sucking the money from all of our pockets, especially when it comes to underwater mortgages and student loans. The way you used to get the American Dream was to go to college and you got a house. Today, those same ambitions are dragging people out of the middle class and into poverty. So the biggest way we can help working class and middle class people in the near term is by one, getting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to reduce the principle on these underwater mortgages and, two, preventing the interest rates from the most important student loans from doubling on July 1.
I didn't know about that. Tell me what we're looking at there.
It's really simple. If you’re smart enough to get into college, but your income is too low to afford it, you get a subsidized Stafford student loan. Right now, the interest rate on those loans is 3.4 percent. Because of the [August] budget deal that was done new loans will jump on July 1 to 6.8 percent. It's the stupidest thing you can do to a generation of young people, and congress and the president should just step in and stop that increase from happening.
Meanwhile, the banks are getting money practically for free…
Right. Everyone else's interest rates are down in the basement some place—the richest people in the country, who need help the least, are getting their money almost for nothing, and the low-income strivers, the ones whom the American dream is supposed to be promised to them, are getting high interest rates.
So you're working with some other folks to train activists?
Yes. We're working with a couple dozen organizations. We don't think we can get from here to where we're going with only peaceful protest, but we can't get there without it. So, April 9 through April 15, groups as diverse as MoveOn.org and the Domestic Workers Alliance are collaborating to train 100,000 people both in economic literacy, economic philosophy, and the philosophy of nonviolence. And we think that is really critical, because what it allows is this cross-sector, cross-organization shared experience, and a shared view of what is going to happen.
As I say in the book, I believe in peaceful protest and voting: these are two blades of the scissors to try to cut off this nonsense that is destroying any potential for the American Dream to be real for the next generation. Elections are not enough; we know that from Obama in 2008; but we still have to win in November. That being said, we're smarter now than we were before. After November, comes December and the lame duck Congress, where the deficit becomes a big issue. If Obama goes back to his grand bargain playbook, we could end up with austerity coming down the pike while we're all celebrating this political victory.
I think one of your contributions to progressive social movements is appreciating the importance of language, both in creating social change and stopping it. You're a phrase maker. Where does that come from?
I think we're in the information war, and, probably more profoundly, a war of paradigms. Paradigms are mental constructs; mental constructs are primarily the stuff of language. When you say the word “patriot,” as long as you think white, male, blond, gun rack, then the people who are actually defending America's best principles, who don't look like that on most days—who don't only look like that—we're at a disadvantage when you try to talk about the future of our country. And so you've got to get in there and "hack that meme."
So you talk about "cheap patriots" and "deep patriots." Introduce that.
The stuff that's made America great—liberty and justice for all; the idea that there should be a middle class that you should be able to get into by working hard; that no matter what your gender and race is you should be able to participate fully in society; that the environment has a value that should be protected by government action, that children shouldn't be made to labor under awful conditions but in fact every child should be in schools learning—all those values are the values that progressives and liberals defended in the last century and still defend every day. We are the ones who are defending America the beautiful through our environmental commitments. We're the ones who are defending the Statue of Liberty's stand for the newcomer through our stand for immigrants. We're the ones who stick up for liberty and justice for all including lesbians and gays and other folks who might be left out. And yet we never claim the deep patriotism that our work implies—to the great detriment of our own cause and of the country. And I'm now, having had my own patriotism challenged repeatedly, willing to stick up for my own love of this country.
What does “love” of country mean to you?
It means I love Americans—the people who actually live here, who look all kind of different ways, who pray all kind of different ways, who love all kinds of people. And I challenge the people who are the opponents of my values to explain how they get to be patriots. As I say in the book, they seem to distrust the American government. They seem to dislike most of the American people. They seem to resent most of America's achievements over the last century, including unions and public education and environmental protection and so many of the things that made the American century the American century. So I don't get why we don't just tell them to sit down and shut up. They can complain if they like, but we have another century to win. We have another century to win!
Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. He writes a weekly column for RollingStone.com.