"Rebuild the Dream": Can Van Jones help liberals create their own version of the Tea Party?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 18 2011 5:18 PM

Put the Kettle On

Van Jones tries to help create a liberal version of the Tea Party.

Van Jones. Click image to expand.
Van Jones 

"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."

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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."

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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.

Then it was time for the main event: the Contract for the American Dream. This whole effort is a reverse-engineering job on the Tea Party. Yet the contract is something that the right took from the old, pamphleteering left. This version is designed for maximum efficiency—the most popular items selected at the American Dream parties will be sent to MoveOn, which will start cranking out a manifesto. On four sheets of paper, there are 40 line items for a progressive agenda—"create [health] care jobs," "end the huge waste of wars and invest the money in peace-building," and so on. We were told to select three priorities.

The airing of grievances was over, and we had moved on to talking strategy. There are plenty of progressive dreams on this list, but what did people at the meeting think they could sell? What do they think they should sell? The group honed in on all of the economics items. The most popular item is about tax hikes.

End the Bush tax cuts for the middle class as well and return ALL tax brackets to their Clinton-era rates. Use the trillions of dollars in extra revenue to pay for progressive priorities.

It's agreed. The group spent a little more time debating whether to vote for the item titled "eliminate corporate personhood" or the one to "place elections into the hands of everyday people." The goal of both items is rolling back Citizens United.

"You can't ever do that unless you fix elections so that the people we elect aren't in hock," explained Lauretta Jenkins, one of the '60s veterans and one of the group's most jaded members.

"The corporate personhood" item won out. Then it was time to head to the table of donated sodas, pita chips, tamales, and something that combines corn tortillas and shredded beets. Just before the meeting broke up, we headed to the main meeting room. There had been eight breakout groups, and for the most part they'd selected all of the same items—defending unions, raising taxes, humbling corporations. Real debates had broken out, but when they were over, everyone agreed on setting aside the rest of the left's agenda to agitate full-time against austerity economics.

With that figured out, the next argument began. This movement is two hours old. What is it doing wrong so far?

"I've been to more meetings like this than I care to think about," said Jabari Zakiya. "This paper isn't going to matter. We need to get into the streets."

Cartwright Moore, a caseworker for Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, disagreed with part of that.

"Shutting down Washington isn't going to mean goddamn to some Tea Party activist in South Carolina," he said. "What I want to do in the next few weeks is hire a damn van, fill it with eight people, drive down to Eric Cantor's district and knock on doors. He's not going to crap his pants if we shut down D.C. He's going to crap his pants if Granny Smith says, 'Hey, where's my Social Security check?' "

Now we were getting somewhere! A retired attorney named Timothy Jenkins stood up and informed the crowd that he saw how the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee worked. "Winning is more than just marching in the streets," he said. "It's doing the hard work. It's going to mean taking some time off. It's going to mean not being comfortable. It's not type-written. It's not air-conditioned. It's going to take the people mobilizing themselves. That's what I see missing from here right now."

He sat down. Everyone clapped. And MoveOn would soon be sending out details about the next meeting.

Correction, July 18, 2011: This article originally misstated the number of Rebuild the Dream house parties. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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