Put the Kettle On
Van Jones tries to help create a liberal version of the Tea Party.
"I've been unemployed or underemployed since September 2006," said Benito Diaz. "The only thing I've done since then is part-time jobs, not even in what I used to work in. Frustrating is not the word. Yeah, so, the most important thing to me is the issue of jobs."
There are seven of us sitting around Diaz, listening and nodding. This was the sharing portion of the meeting, when everyone got three minutes to talk about how the economy was affecting them and the poor schlubs they knew. When we were done, according to our briefing papers, we were scheduled to talk about "the time in your life when you felt most proud of your community of America." And after that, we were supposed to make some lists.
We were making history, maybe, sitting at one of the inaugural get-togethers of the American Dream movement, aka the Rebuild the Dream movement, aka the insanely ambitious project that Van Jones has been talking about ever since Glenn Beck and some bloggers succeeding in bouncing him out of the White House. This get-together, in a Quaker meeting house in Washington's Dupont Circle, started at 4 p.m. on Saturday and went on for two hours. It was one of about 1,600 * such parties happening around the country last weekend, and one of 10 within a short bike or car ride from my house.
"I came here to D.C. when Nixon was bustin' into the Watergate," said Diaz. "We had Reagan after that. We've had 30 years of Reaganomics and corporate greed. And we're here in part because when Obama ran for president and got elected and all that, we thought were going to see a break. We were going to turn a page. We were going to break these 30 years of Reaganonomics. But we went to sleep. The Tea Party won the elections. We made a bad mistake."
Diaz has asked the question plaguing liberals since February 2009, when the first impromptu, blog-organized protests against the stimulus plan broke out in Seattle and Tampa. What the hell happened to liberal protests? How could the same mall that filled front to back for Barack Obama's inauguration be conquered nine months later by Tea Party activists? Why were members of Congress shouted down at town halls when they talked about health care, when every liberal could Google polls that proved the public option was popular?
Liberals can come up with two answers. They can say that their movement sputtered because Obama didn't govern from the left, didn't nail Wall Street, and proved every Republican argument right by conceding it. Or they can blame themselves for electing Obama, buying the commemorative Shepard Fairey "Yes We Did" poster, and then sitting back and laughing as the Tea Party out-organized them.
I didn't poll the crowd, but I guessed they bought that second story. The Republican comeback was their fault. This is the sense I got before the event began. One hundred thirty-five people had RSVPed online, and about half of them showed up. The crowd skewed older and more skeptical. They've been to a lot of meetings co-organized by MoveOn.org. They've listened to a lot of this'll-fix-everything plans. Jabari Zakiya into the room with a T-shirt and bag sporting the FAIR Tax logo, and to anyone who'll listen, explained how abolishing the income tax ("It's not constitutional") is the only sure way of eliminating gross corporate power.
The meeting started on a slow note. Our leader, Jeff Hops, cautioned that he was reading from a script provided by MoveOn, so if things got overly structured or chart-based, that was why. Then he played an audio message from Van Jones and the other national organizers. "There's no sound system in the meeting house," he said. The assembled approached the speakers of a Toshiba laptop.
"We're all fighters," said the disembodied voice of Van Jones. "People have been fighting back all across the country, against these awful cutbacks, the idea that we should be throwing our public employees and teachers under the bus, the idea that we should be throwing Medicare under the bus. … Seventy percent of Americans agree that we should be raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans. We should be prioritizing jobs, jobs, jobs."
And so we did. The first order of business was sharing our sob stories. The people in their 20s and 30s talked about all of their underemployed friends. The people in their 60s talked about how the left used to be good at this stuff.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Van Jones by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for NAACP.