Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from Rebuild the Dream by Van Jones, recently published by Nation Books. In Rebuild the Dream, the former Obama White House advisor explains how the "hope" bubble burst—and how the American Dream can be recaptured and renewed. For more information go to www.rebuildthedream.com or www.nationbooks.org
This spring 2012 will mark the long-awaited re-emergence of the 99 percent movement. With Occupy as its spearhead, this movement of everyday people remains the most promising development in American politics.
And yet the very framework of the 99 percent requires some clarification and moral nuance. A movement that defines itself as the 99 percent against the 1 percent probably cannot succeed in America. But a movement that defines itself as the 99 percent for the 100 percent cannot fail.
The 99 Percent for the 1 Percent
The “99 percent versus the 1 percent” argument falls short in a lot of ways. The vast majority of Americans do not oppose their fellow Americans, simply because they are rich. To the contrary: more than perhaps any other people on this Earth, Americans admire success. What we detest is greed. We like economic winners; we hate economic cheaters. We cheer economic innovation; we despise financial manipulation. Like most people, I don’t hate rich people who buy yachts. (The workers who build those yachts are happy.) We don’t mind when wealthy Americans buy expensive toys; we do mind when they try to buy governors and Congresspeople.
There is a reason that both the right and left love Steve Jobs (for all his flaws) and hate Bernie Madoff. There is a reason that the original Occupiers claimed the space at Wall Street, not Silicon Valley. Even they love successful entrepreneurs who create sleek and useful products.
Within limits, Americans like the risks and rewards that come with living in a market economy; we don’t mind having winners and losers, but we go ballistic when anyone tries to rig the game. If some of today’s super-wealthy outrage us—it is not because of their material success. It is because of their moral failings.
Furthermore, we expect everyone in America—the 100 percent—to do their best, to be good neighbors and to contribute to the success of our country. In return for enjoying the support of the greatest nation on Earth, we expect those who do well in America to do well by America. We expect them to pay fair taxes, create good jobs here at home, to give something back to this country. In a crisis (like the present one), we expect everyone to pitch in and do her fair share. Those who live up to these duties and expectations have always held a place of honor in our society. Americans always stand with those wealthy patriots who stand with us.
Setting our movement “against” the 1 percent has a logical and a moral limit—there’s always a top 1 percent to be against. Take down the present top 1 percent, and there’s another 1 percent just below them. The real enemy is not the wealthy, but the corrupt. The real enemy is not the 1 percent, but rather those who stand with only the 1 percent and against the rest of us. And many of the 1 percent are on our side. Like Warren Buffett, there are many patriotic millionaires who think that corporations and the wealthy should be paying their fair share and the financial sector should be better regulated instead of rigged against the average investor. There’s no need for us to set ourselves against people who actually agree with us.
We need everyone in our country to be involved in healing our economy and fixing our democracy.
Our moral challenge is to ensure that our movement creates a space for everyone who is willing to answer the call of a deeper patriotism.
But first, let me explain what I mean by “deep patriotism.” It has nothing to do with the short-sighted, hateful jingoism that I call “cheap patriotism.”
The United States is dedicated, in principle, to justice and equality—the very things we are fighting for. When we fail to situate our arguments firmly within the highest values and best traditions of our own country, we needlessly miss opportunities to connect with the heartland and stir the nation. Everyone knows we love those Americans who are struggling; they also need to know that we love America, period.
For decades now, one end of the political spectrum has tried to monopolize all explicitly patriotic language and symbols. Too often, those of us on the other end have let them. We have been wounded and worn down by the jingoistic ways that some of our opponents have used notions of “God and Country” as weapons against those struggling for diversity, compassion and inclusion. For too long we have heard the charge of anti-Americanism being leveled against social justice causes and marginalized constituencies; sometimes we speak and act as if we have accepted the claims of our opponents that the “real Americans” exist on only one side of the political divide.
But I can see no objective evidence that hard-core right-wingers love the United States more than anyone else does—at least not the America that actually exists, the one made up of the Americans we have today. To the contrary, they seem almost entirely unhappy with, scornful of or disgusted by practically everything and everybody in 21st Century America.
On the other hand, those attracted to the 99 percent movement, almost by definition, want to embrace the whole country. We love the nation we have—as it is actually emerging and developing—in all of its multi-racial, multi-faith, gender fabulous, twitter-addicted and body-pierced glory. Yes, some small-minded people have tried to hide their intolerance behind the flag. But that kind of cheap patriotism should not be the only kind of patriotism with a megaphone (or a people’s microphone) in America.
The 99 percent can embrace a deeper patriotism. After all: the millions who identify with The 99 percent are the ones actually fighting, in Dr. King’s words, “to make real the promises of democracy.” In essence, we are standing up for a patriotic principle: “liberty and justice for all.” And many of us take that “for all” part pretty seriously.
Deep patriots don’t just sing the song, “America The Beautiful,” and then go home. We actually stick around to defend America’s beauty—from the oil spillers, the clear-cutters and the mountaintop removers. Deep patriots don’t just visit the Statue of Liberty and send a postcard home to grandma. We defend the principles upon which that great monument was founded—“give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses who yearn to breathe free.” If an embrace of immigrant newcomers was good enough for our grandparents, it should be good enough for our grandchildren. The skin color of today’s immigrants may have changed, but our national values should not.
Deep patriots include people in the business community who want to create jobs in the United States, don’t dodge their taxes, invest in the country and run corporations that respect our air and water. Deep patriots love and respect everyone in the country, regardless of the person’s skin color, sexual orientation, income, faith or tattoos. Deep patriots defend the institutions that make a middle class society possible, including public education, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and a stable business environment for businesses to grow and prosper.
Deep patriots love the whole country, red states and blue states – including everyone in the Tea Party. That’s right: in fact, we love them so much that we do not want them to have to live in the high-risk, low-protection, puny-government world they say they want. Deep patriots don’t want Tea Party members to have to wait seven minutes – or 15 minutes – for someone to pick up the phone when they dial 911. When grandma collapses, a government employee (yup!) should answer on the very first ring.
We don’t want them to suffer through the catastrophe that would result from their victory. Deep patriots don’t just fight against our opponents. We fight for them too.
We must challenge directly the flaws and limitations of cheap patriotism. Left unchallenged, this shrunken, negative and limited version of American values is perhaps the most dangerous ideology in the country.
Please note: the real fight is not between “liberals versus conservatives.” I purposely do not call the advocates of cheap patriotism “conservative.” After all, conservatives conserve things; they don’t smash things. These cheap patriots have taken a wrecking ball—painted it red, white and blue—and now are trying to smash down every institution that made America great. Our parents and grandparents fought for certain protections—for laborers, for the environment, to restrict corporations—because they saw the devastation that occurs without those safety measures. The cheap patriots want to destroy their achievements. They want to smash down the safety net, public schools, worker’s rights, civil rights, women’s rights—even the scientific method and rational discourse. They want to flush down the toilet all of the wisdom of the last century—and yet they still be called “conservatives.” I don’t think we should pay them that compliment.
They insist that the government is trying to take over the economy. In fact, the very opposite thing is happening: the corporations are trying to take over our government. And the ultra-libertarian ideology of the Tea Party offers us no defenses against that outcome. In other words, the real threat to our liberty is gathering around conference tables in the boardrooms of global corporations. A purely negative, “don’t tread on me” version of economic liberty—the unrestrained free market, at all costs—actually makes it harder for the country to defend itself from corporate domination.
Their agenda would essentially hand the United States over to global corporations to do with us as they will, in the name of the free market. Their version of liberty creates a society in which the market is free—and the people are not. Their version of liberty actually ensures and guarantees domination. Not domination on the part of the government, but an equally pernicious form of domination on the part of corporations that will quickly wind up owning the government.
The cheap patriots seem to despise most of the American people, hate America’s achievements and fear America’s government. So how come those people get to be called patriots—but not us?
A movement of the 99 percent for the 100 percent—powered by a deep love of working people and laying claim the best of our nation’s values—could yet transform our nation.