Rebuilding the Dream Through the Democratic Party?
“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”
-Jesus of Nazareth, from the English Standard Version Bible, Mark 2:21-22
I’ve never been a Democrat, even though my parents were liberal Democrats, and even though I’ve supported some running for office who were definitely progressive. Going from a boy to a man in the 1960’s, it seemed like a no-brainer to me. How could I support a party that had racist segregation supporters in its leadership like James Eastland, John Stennis and Strom Thurmond, and a President elected in 1964, Lyndon Johnson, who campaigned opposing the sending of any more US troops to Vietnam but, after his election, did just the opposite, dramatically and maddeningly escalating that imperialist war?
Of course, there’s always been a liberal/progressive wing of the Democratic Party that has given support to progressive movements struggling for peace, equality and human rights.
Van Jones’ latest book, Rebuild the Dream, analyzes the Democratic Party, the Obama phenomenon, the Occupy movement and the overall progressive movement and puts forward a strategic perspective on how we can change the country given where we are in 2012. It is a book well worth reading. Though I have a number of criticisms of it, Van has done the movement a service by putting his brilliant intellect to work to put forward a set of ideas about how to build what, in his prior book, The Green Collar Economy, he called a “broad, populist alliance—one that includes every class under the sun and every color in the rainbow.”
Building a “broad, populist alliance,” I completely agree, is an absolutely essential strategic task, and constructive debate over how best to build it, and the actual work of doing so, is very much needed, now.
In Rebuild the Dream, Jones calls for the building of an independent movement outside of the Democratic Party, but there’s a real question about how “independent” he sees this movement, particularly when it comes to electoral activity. In a couple of key sentences, he says, for example: “The challenge will be to see whether some part of the 99% can capture a beachhead within an established party—without being captured itself. If it can succeed, the 99% movement will have the standing and the power to force the U.S. political system to be more responsive to the needs of everyday Americans.” (p. 173)
Elsewhere he calls for a movement that is “fundamentally independent of any party, politician or personality,” and he IS critical in many ways of both parties. For example, in the introduction, he writes that “our grandparents crafted laws and policies to protect the country from corporate abuses and Wall Street’s excesses. Unfortunately, both major political parties were seduced into allowing the elites to strip those protections from our law books.” (p. 7) But despite these positive and accurate perspectives, the overall strategic approach of Rebuild the Dream when it comes to the electoral process is that this independent movement should primarily work within the Democratic Party.
Jones puts this perspective forward even though he is critical of the Obama Administration of which he was a part for six months. One of the things which he does in this book is to analyze where the Obama movement of 2008 came from, what Obama and that movement did right and wrong after he was elected President, and what lessons can be drawn from those experiences.
There are two significant ideological perspectives that Van puts forward that are troubling:
-his pretty explicit pro-capitalist orientation. Among other passages, on page 189 he writes, “We need to advance toward a better capitalism.” An appendix by Eva Patterson says of Jones in reference to his book, The Green Collar Economy, “Van’s book is a veritable song of praise to capitalism, especially the socially responsible and eco-friendly kind.” (p. 252)
Without question, within a broad, progressive alliance “the socially responsible and eco-friendly” businesses must be a part of it. But I question if that alliance itself should declare itself pro-capitalist. It seems to me that what is needed is an alliance built around a program on the issues. Debate should take place about what are the best ways to address the range of system-produced crises—climate, health, unemployment, housing, education, cultural violence, inequality, etc.—without the alliance having an explicitly pro-capitalist, pro-socialist, pro-libertarian, pro-anarchist or any other historically-based ideology.
Indeed, the organization Rebuild the Dream which Van helps to lead, produced something like this with its “Contract for the American Dream.” It’s a 10-point program that had lots of input--the participation of 131,203 people according to Jones. It can be strengthened and expanded, but it is without question a solid progressive platform without an explicit pro-capitalist, socialist or other ideological orientation that I’m able to detect.
-his call for a 99% movement which “defines itself as the 99% for the 100%.” I found this to be both troubling and unclear. Does Van really believe that the 1/10th of the 1% which really dominates the US government and much of the world’s economy are potential allies in a struggle for a truly just world? He does write that “many of the 1% are on our side.” Really? I am all for welcoming anyone from anywhere, no matter their race, gender, class, political ideology or personal history, if they begin to see the error of their ways and, through their actions, come over to the side of the people. But it is an illusory view that the vast majority of the corporate ruling class is anything but the numerically tiny but powerful “them” in “them vs. us.”
This strategic view clouds and confuses how we do our work. Our work should be focused among the constituencies who are hurting under this system—many of which Van delineates in the book--and those of all classes who are genuinely concerned about injustice and the state of the planet. And honestly, that’s really not “the 99%.” It’s more like maybe “the 70%,” though over time we can win more and more of that other 30% who, because of their rightist ideology or upper-class privileges, are on the other side.
I continue to believe that what the independent progressive movement needs is an explicit “third force” strategy, not a take over the Democratic Party strategy, or a strategy to establish a beachhead within it.
A “third force” strategy was first articulated that I know of by Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1984 during his first presidential campaign. He tied it to the building of the Rainbow Coalition as a coalition bringing together African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, farmers, workers, feminists, lesbians and gays, peace activists, environmentalists and others disenfranchised or disturbed by the system. It also openly welcomed those who were committed to building a third party, although as Rev. Jackson became more politically powerful during his 1988 Presidential campaign, those who supported that objective began to be marginalized. Then, in 1989, the incredible potential of this popular alliance was essentially destroyed when organizational changes were forced through from the top that took away the Rainbow Coalition’s dynamic and movement-building character.
That tragic ending of this promising movement doesn’t negate the soundness of the third force strategy, or the continuing need for it.
A third force would, almost certainly, mainly support progressive Democrats at first as far as its electoral tactics, but it would also welcome the involvement of Greens and others who support or run as independents for office. Decisions as to who to support and how would be made democratically. Perhaps more importantly, a third force would be supportive of the kinds of electoral reforms that would open up our corporate- and two-party dominated, undemocratic electoral system and make it possible for many more voices and viewpoints to be heard. Such reforms must include public--not corporate--financing of elections, instant runoff voting, proportional representation, reasonable—not restrictive—ballot access laws, free media time for all candidates who show a base of support, etc.
But a third force must do much more than support or run candidates for office, and in this respect Jones’ book has some good things to say. He writes about the importance of the “Heart Space” and the “Outside Game.” The Occupy Wall Street movement is a good example of both, which Van is positive about: “Occupy Wall Street has inundated the Heart Space with visceral hurt and authentic anger. They leveraged massive creative talent in service to their message, and used social networks for distribution. In all of this, they’ve played a strong Outside Game as well. Their action was edgy—it provoked police response and demanded a response by the broader establishment.” (p. 133)
Jones also talks positively about civil disobedience. Referring to the Take Back the Land network, he writes: “police have come to execute the eviction [of the owners of a foreclosed home] and are faced with crowds of people willing to be arrested, and in many instances, the police have just left. Then the banks have waited for things to quiet down before they make a second run at it.” (p. 207)
He also mentions the civil disobedience campaign at the White House in the summer of 2011 against the tar sands Keystone XL pipeline where 1253 people were arrested over a two week period. However, it is literally a one-sentence mention.
This is my final main criticism of Rebuild the Dream: its very limited focus on the climate crisis. Jones himself seems to be aware of this when he writes, over three-quarters of the way through the book on page 184, that, “in this book, we have barely touched upon the environmental crisis. But since I wrote my last book, The Green Collar Economy, things have gotten mostly worse—in many cases much worse. . . Catastrophic climate change, driven by human activity, is still the biggest threat to human societies, not to mention innumerable other species.” He then writes several pages about this “biggest threat.”
Unfortunately, in this section he does not repeat the ideas from an important paragraph in The Green Collar Economy, about the need for a “World War II level of mobilization” on global warming. This is what he wrote in 2008, echoing similar calls from Al Gore, James Hansen, Bill McKibben, Lester Brown and others: “Reversing global warming will require a World War II level of mobilization. It is the work of tens of millions, not hundreds or thousands. Such a shift will require massive support at the social, cultural, and political levels.” (p. 58)
I have to honestly wonder if this omission, especially given his stated understanding that this greatest-ever threat to human civilization has gotten worse, is related to Van’s Democratic Party orientation. The sad truth is that the Democratic Party, particularly Barack Obama, has moved backwards over the last few years as far as how he and his party are addressing, or not addressing, the climate crisis.
We should learn from the words of Jesus, one of the greatest organizers in human history. Let’s find ways to keep our “wine,” our independent progressive movement, in new bottles. Let’s appreciate and build upon all of the various media, cultural, alternative economic, political, direct action, training and other groups that, collectively, are much more powerful than the sum of the parts.
Let’s be clear that though there are many Democats part of this broad independent progressive network, some of whom have been elected or are running for office, the Democratic Party is not part of our movement network. Let’s come together as progressive Democrats, as Greens, as other independents, as revolutionaries, as reformers, as grassroots progressive Republicans, into a new third force that can truly transform our society before it is too late.
Ted Glick has been an organizer and activist since 1968. He has prioritized work on the climate crisis since 2004. Past writings and other information can be found at http://tedglick.com, and he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jtglick.