Transcript: Live Chat with Van Jones and Ari Berman on the State of the Obama Coalition in 2012
On June 1, 2012, The Nation hosted a live chat with Rebuild the Dream co-founder and president Van Jones and reporter Ari Berman on grassroots activism and the 2012 election. During the hour-long chat, Jones and Berman answered reader questions on topics such as student loans, the mortgage crisis and the effect of Super PAC money on on-the-ground organizing. Below you’ll find an edited transcript of the chat. You can also read a CoveritLive replay here.
Sarah Arnold: Hi, everyone. This is Sarah, your moderator. Welcome to our chat with reporter Ari Berman and Rebuild the Dream president and co-founder Van Jones.
Van Jones: Hello!
Ari Berman: Hello! Thanks for having us. I'm Ari Berman, contributing writer for The Nation and author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics.
Sarah Arnold: Welcome both of you! Thanks for joining us. To start, you’ve both written a great deal on the subject of Obama and grassroots activists. Could you talk a bit about your most recent projects?
Van Jones: I am the author of the New York Times bestseller, Rebuild The Dream. I am the president and co-founder of RebuildTheDream.com. We are mainly fighting to ease the pain of homeowners whose mortgages are underwater and students set to graduate with tons of debt and little access to jobs.
Ari Berman: Van, congrats on your book being a bestseller!
Van Jones: Thanks, bro.
Ari Berman: My book recently came out in paperback, with a new afterword focused on the 2012 election. Right now I'm starting work on a story about the Obama campaign's grassroots organizing efforts in 2012 and whether they'll be successful against the Romney campaign & Super PAC onslaught from the GOP
Van Jones: It is a great book!
We both are trying to tell the hidden history of people's movements and social movements in the Obama era, and in the time leading up to it.
Ari Berman: Thanks. Van, let's get right to it—how can Obama get re-elected if the jobs situation remains dire? What should his message be?
Van Jones: That we may have hit our head on a ceiling at first, but things are beginning to get better. Romney would tear the floor out from under the American people. That the Ryan budget is a wrecking ball for everything that made America great in the last century. I don't think even Democrats understand how extreme and crazy even the GOP "moderates" have become.
Ari Berman: Won't it be difficult for Obama to argue that things are beginning to get better if the jobs numbers are underwhelming and unemployment is rising? Seems to me his best chance is to run against the GOP Congress, which is blocking any action on job creation, and to tie Romney to them.
Van Jones: Exactly! He has to point out how much worse things will be under the GOP. Romney is a job destroyer, not a job creator. That was his record in both the private sector AND the public sector.
Ari Berman: Do you think that message is getting across right now?
Van Jones: Not yet. But it is early. This will be a fear election, not a hope election, on both sides. They are afraid of a big government takeover of the entire economy—which is a false, hyped-up, ridiculous fear. We are afraid of a big corporate takeover of the economy—which is a valid fear. But it will be fear on both sides.
Ari Berman: What can the Obama campaign or progressive voices do about Democrats who are undermining that message by defending Romney on Bain? Bill Clinton just did this yesterday.
Van Jones: Ah, Bain!
Speak out. We need to have more voices of the victims of Romney Economics speaking out. It is not just a question of progressive Democrats versus blue-dogs. It is a question of TV personalities and climbers, versus real victims of Bain. The victims need the microphone more often.
Ari Berman: Let's switch gears a little. How can grassroots organizing combat the onslaught of Super PAC money we're seeing in this election? Howard Dean told me not long ago "Super PACs have made a grassroots campaign less effective.” Do you think that's true?
Van Jones: We will see. Let me say something about this.
Ari Berman: Go ahead
Van Jones: It is true that the tidal wave of corporate cash is undermining the voice of the people. You can see this in Wisconsin. There is still hope for a win there, evicting Walker, but it is going to be a much tougher fight than it should have been. That tsunami of cash will soon be flooding the swing states, but the low-cost ways of connecting people are more powerful and more ubiquitous than ever.
If everyone goes full out, and really mobilizes everyone she knows, we will win. We will win if we do EVERYTHING, as if our lives depended upon it. We have Facebook friends and twitter followers and all kinds of technology. I do believe that the social capital and intellectual capital can trump the financial capital. At the end of the day, it is one PERSON/one vote, not one DOLLAR/one vote. We should not forget that.
Ari Berman: Do new grassroots strategies need to be developed in order to counteract Super PAC money? Will the door-to-door organizing of '08 work in 2012?
Van Jones: Door -to-door will be important. But touch strategies will count most, the ones that empower people to move the people they already know. Progressives have TREMENDOUS social capital. The question is: will we take the GOP/Tea Party threat seriously enough to counter it. *High touch* strategies will count more.
Ari Berman: Let's get to one more topic before we open it up to the public: you've been writing and speaking a lot about Occupy Wall Street. How can we grow the 99 percent movement, make it a central dynamic in 2012, and how do you respond to criticism that you're co-opting the message of OWS?
Van Jones: The themes of the protests of 2011—from Wisconsin to Wall Street—were deeply resonant with the American people. With people around the world, really. There were probably 200,000 "occupiers"—the people who risked their safety to sleep out doors, who braved the cold and the pepper spray. The world owes them a debt. At the same time, about 33 percent of Americans agreed with the critique they elevated—that income inequality is a threat, that corporate cash has too much influence in DC, that Wall Street is out of control. That is 100 MILLION people.
Nobody can claim exclusive rights to speak for 100 MILLION Americans, and the vast majority of people I know in OWS are happy that so many other leaders and organizations have stepped up and stepped in to expand the movement of the 99 percent.
Ari Berman: Just 33 percent? Polls showed sizable majorities agreed with the core OWS message, if not necessarily the movement itself
Van Jones: That is the hard number of people who said they "strongly agree" with all the issues, taken together, when raised in association with the protests last year. So even after the media smeared OWS and things cooled down, you had a majority agreeing with the concerns, and one-third of America STRONGLY agreeing.
My point is that no one group can, should or could say they speak for the entire 100 MILLION, let alone the majority of Americans who agree in some way, let alone the 99 percent who are suffering. So all leaders need to step up. Nobody can speak for OWS, except those who did the occupying. But everyone needs to stand up to defend the 99% of Americans who are suffering and insist that the economy work for the 100%. That is everyone's job. The people who should be criticized are those who stayed on the sidelines, not those who jumped into the fight. :- )
Ari Berman: It seems like OWS and allies were successful in getting the lexicon of 99 percent into the political dialogue and somewhat successful in shifting the political debate from austerity to jobs, although I do worry that we're hearing a lot more discussion of debt and austerity now than we were a few months ago.