Economic justice was a major theme at last week’s Netroots Nation conference and Van Jones’s keynote speech previewing a new “American dream movement” was widely considered the highlight of the progressive summit.

Jones and will officially launch the new “Rebuild the Dream” campaign in New York City tonight. This morning I interviewed Jones and MoveOn executive director Justin Ruben about what the campaign will look like and what they hope to accomplish in the coming year.

Jones, a former green jobs adviser to the Obama administration, envisions “Rebuild the Dream” as a progressive response to the Tea Party. “The entire DC establishment, in both parties, has been captured by the bad logic of war and austerity, and the gravitational pull of the Tea Party,” says Jones. “The peace and prosperity agenda that most of us voted for in 2008 doesn’t have a center of gravity anymore and that’s why people feel so demoralized. But we’re about to re-establish that center of gravity.” The aim is to “change the conversation” by building a movement for economic justice that will advocate on behalf of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, college graduates who can’t find a job, Americans who’ve lost their homes or whose mortgages are underwater, and embattled cops, firefighters, nurses and teachers.

The pushback to the nation’s austerity craze began in Wisconsin, which inspired Jones and MoveOn to launch their new campaign. “Madison is bringing out a new sense of hope and determination among people in the political process,” says Jones. Adds Ruben: “We were seeing energy after Wisconsin, from our members, that we hadn’t seen in a really long time, especially on anything related to the economy.” Now they want to connect what is happening in Wisconsin to the rest of the country under one common banner. “There will be more moments like Wisconsin,” says Ruben. “And we’d be crazy to try to predict what they’ll be. Part of what we’re doing is creating a context so that if Wisconsin happened now, there would be even more mobilization in the country around it. It won’t just be solidarity with Wisconsin, but will spark more energy around the country that will be locally and nationally focused.”

Along with MoveOn, some of the most influential groups in the progressive community have signed on to the “Dream” campaign, including the AFL-CIO, SEIU, Campaign for America’s Future and the Center for Community Change. The goal is to move beyond dependence on President Obama and the national Democratic Party by building and boosting independent sources of power, which can then persuade elected officials to support a progressive economic agenda. David Dayen of Firedoglake summarized this nicely after watching Jones’s speech at Netroots Nation:

It’s also a moment to create a movement based on principle. In a very telling moment in Jones’s PowerPoint presentation, he described how the issue groups filtered up to the Obama meta-brand in 2008, and in one move, he wiped out Obama from the picture in favor of the American Dream Movement. In other words, an icon or a symbol of progress won’t cut it anymore. The movement is sustained not based on an individual but on an idea. It’s a movement that says “I support Democrats when they support me.” It’s the only way for a movement to endure, rather than become subservient to a personality. And we’ve seen proof of this just this year in places like Wisconsin and Ohio.

The first step, Jones says, will be to create a giant crowd-sourced document and hold thousands of house parties over the summer to solicit ideas for a new “Contract for the American Dream.” The coalition will then use that document as an organizing and activism tool, pressing elected politicians to support the “Dream” agenda, possibly as early as over the August Congressional recess. These efforts will be bookended by the national Take Back the American Dream Conference in October. Maybe by that point, Washington will start to take notice.

–Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. Follow him on Twitter at @AriBerman.

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