As the world watches with baited breath the back and forth taking place on both ends of Capitol Hill as congressional Democrats and Republicans battle the White House and each other over the debt ceiling, former White House green jobs czar Van Jones is reminded of what led him to join forces with MoveOn.org to create the Rebuild the Dream movement. The Tea Party’s influence in the House of Representatives has been on full display as the members it helped win elections in 2010 return the favor by digging in their heels so deeply that Speaker John Boehner’s debt ceiling bill is still twisting arms to get the 217 yeas he needs.
Being unable to bring the bill to the floor for a vote was an extremely embarrassing position to be in, but a prime example of how a small group of people can upend the way Washington normally works. According to Jones, the Tea Party and other far-right conservatives are dominating the conversation and he wants to help others find their voice.
On Thursday, Jones’s movement held a rally outside of the U.S. Capitol to protest the turmoil within the monument over the debt ceiling. The group estimates that 450-500 people attended.
“The Tea Party is saying if they don’t get their way they will refuse to have America pay its bills. If America becomes a dead-beat nation, we’re finished as a first-rate power,” he said. “Nobody should threaten [to bring] that kind of harm to America and get away with it. That’s why we’re here. The Rebuild the Dream movement says you don’t threaten America or the American people and get away with it.”
After leaving the White House, Jones spent a year teaching at Princeton University and traveling around the country talking and listening to Americans and hearing some “pretty horrifying” stories about veterans coming home to no jobs; college students graduating to no jobs; and homeowners so far underwater on their mortgages that they were giving banks a windfall, he says.
Another thing he noticed was how much the Tea Party was dominating policy discussions and decided he wanted to help other people find their voices.
“There’s a small group of people who got very loud right after President Obama got elected and they’ve just hijacked the conversation. I’m not mad at them for being so loud, it’s just that the vast majority of Americans have been too quiet since Obama’s election,” he said. “So Rebuild the Dream is my effort to bring the voice of the vast majority of Americans who want a sane and balanced approach to our economic crisis, and want to see corporations and wealthier Americans pay more of their fair share.”
Jones says he’s not disillusioned with the current democratic process, but feels that “democracy only works when everybody has a voice.” He also believes that Obama is doing as well as he can, given the circumstances, but movements like Rebuild the Dream are necessary to provide the support lawmakers need to fight those who want to “destroy” the nation’s safety net. And the movement that helped Obama win the White House, he adds, “was never supposed to be ‘yes, he can,’ but ‘yes, we can.’”
He also in part, at least, places some of the blame for the political dysfunction taking place on Capitol Hill, on mainstream American voters.
“I put the blame on us for having sat down for two years and let really nutty ideas get more and more mainstream to the point where even Democrats are saying maybe we need to cut these programs,” Jones said. “We need America’s government to be strong enough to be a partner to the American people, not strangling the government until it becomes so puny that it can’t even answer your 911 call.”
Despite the obvious differences between the Tea Party and Rebuild the Dream, Jones in many ways admires the former because of how it was able to become so influential.
“They took a very small number of people with some very outside the mainstream ideas and changed the discussion to what they wanted it to be,” he said. “It shows that popular movements still matter in America.”
But he strongly disagrees with their assertions that certain people aren’t “true Americans” and says his movement is “rooted in a much deeper patriotism” that accepts everybody.
“We still believe in that tough-minded American idealism that Martin Luther King stood for and Obama ran on in 2008,” he said. “We reject the fear mongering and some of the negative tone that the Tea Party very quickly came to represent.”
Rebuild the Dream recently held house parties around the nation at which concerned citizens shared ideas about how to fix some of the nation’s problems. Jones said they will pick the best and develop a Contract for the American Dream. In August, the organization will hold candlelight vigils and rallies and meet with lawmakers during the August recess. He also plans to convene a summit in Washington, D.C., in the fall for policy makers, politicians and ordinary Americans.
“Democracy is not about a politician, it’s not about a party--it’s about the people,” Jones said.
(Photo: Charley Gallay/Getty Images for NAACP)