Carmen García wrote this guest post, with reporting by Ari Melber.
Over one thousand liberal activists gathered in Manhattan on Thursday night, in a bid to counter the Tea Party and elevate a progressive who can tangle with the Becks and Bachmanns that dominate today’s outraged populism. The event launched "Rebuild the Dream," a MoveOn-backed effort to organize around economic issues.
The crowd that filed into Town Hall in midtown Manhattan was a mix of progressives old and young, in work clothes and casual attire. While they mingled and waited for music by The Roots, a second event was staged in a nearby press room. There reporters and bloggers heard from the would-be leader of a liberal Tea Party — the attorney, author and former Obama official Van Jones. Bowing to the lexicon of today’s Left, however, it was clear that Jones was not announcing a “campaign,” (despite the flashy website, social media strategy and PR campaign). He was not launching a lobbying “coalition,” either, (even though the effort was backed by MoveOn, labor unions, USAction, TrueMajority and "many others to be announced"). The event promised the beginning of a movement.
According to Jones and MoveOn, the driving forces behind the launch, "Rebuild The Dream" is the Left’s collective effort to use grassroots organizing and new media to challenge the rhetoric coming out of Washington and strengthen the middle class.
Jones is a natural fit to lead the effort. For many Democrats and liberals, he is viewed as a rare pol who can leverage authority, celebrity and purity. His professional and ideological credentials are in good order; he led up Green Jobs for the Obama administration, and was infamously run out of that job after a misleading and race-baiting campaign by Glenn Beck. Jones never sold out — he blew up.
“He’s a great communicator,” says MoveOn head Justin Ruben, “and we need more great communicators.”
Ruben and Jones say they are following the Tea Party’s strategy. “The thing that we’ve been doing a terrible job of is telling our story,” says Ruben. Highlighting how conservatives managed to unite Birthers, tax-phobes, and social conservatives under one ideological and—perhaps more importantly—rhetorical brand, Ruben said "Rebuild The Dream" could play a similar role for multi-faceted liberalism. It will be a “movement service organization,” he said, with Jones as a visionary — not director — and an opportunity for activists to unite under a “common banner, both literally and figuratively.” There will be "American Dream House Meetings" in mid-July, convened through MoveOn, to gather input on the effort’s goals.
Some major principles, however, have been predetermined.
In Jones’ speech on Thursday, he argued that an active government was critical to building a healthy middle class, regulating responsible employers, and cultivating “good citizens.” He warned the audience about three “lies” animating the conservative narrative: America is broke; Taxing the wealthy is bad for the economy; and “Hating” on our government” is actually patriotic. There was more red meat on these contrast points. Jones offered several lines zinging Right wing greed, including his observation that “Corporate America would be the worst boyfriend ever” — which drew plenty of cheers. Defining an opponent is useful for organizing, but it’s an open question whether Jones’ critique of conservatives is shared by all the potential allies he wants to recruit for this effort.
As Jones spoke, his old boss was 11 blocks away at the Sheraton in midtown, asking for campaign donations. While rarely referenced explicitly, Barack Obama definitely loomed over the proceedings on Thursday. Rhetorically, Jones cast Obama’s election as a step towards larger goals. His tone was deft, toggling between a dose of disappointment with Obama (“We voted for peace and posterity, we got war and austerity”) and a call for people to finish the job themselves (“It’s not yes he can — it’s yes we can”). Substantively, the core premise that liberals need their own populist Tea Party assumes a failure of Obama’s Democratic Party, as well as the extant national institutions on the Left. Finally, it’s worth remembering that Obama functions as something like the negative space on the Tea Party’s canvas; their protest movement is cohesive because its adherants are all mobilized against Mr. Obama. There’s nothing like uniting against a single, clear opponent, and for "rebuilding the dream" or re-electing the President, the Republicans’ disarray has left the Left without one for some time.
For more on Van Jones’ work with Rebuild The Dream, check out this article by The Nation’s Ari Berman. For reporting on the attacks on Jones when he served in government, check out this article by The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel.
Article by Carmen García, with reporting by Ari Melber. Photo: Jones with The Roots, courtesy of Rebuild The Dream.