Friday, July 23, 2010

Van Jones Gets It Wrong At Netroots Nation

A lot of folks I know respect and even idolize Van Jones.  Following his demonization by right-wing bigots and subsequent forced resignation as Green Jobs Czar in the Obama administration, there was a real need for progressives to call out the red-baiting and racism.  That's understandable.  The man is undoubtedly super smart and has innovative ideas, and that can't be downplayed.  But having seen him speak a few times and read some of his writing, I can't join the chorus of supporters who give him rock star status.  He may have been a radical at one point in his life, but at this point seems more interested in supporting a moderate Obama administration than real change from below.  This came through loud and clear in his latest speech before the 2010 Netroots Nation where he lectured the assembled bloggers about being too hard on the current administration.

The general message seemed to be that we should hold Obama accountable, but we should do it in a nicer way, or else the far right will come to power.  The "or else" part is actually a fairly old game of lesser-evilism and scaring progressives into silence and support for the Democratic Party.  Check out this excerpt:
... the last time we had a Democrat in the White House, Democrats controlling the Senate, Democrats controlling the House, energy prices through the roof, jobs going down was Jimmy Carter. And we had four years of that and 12 years of Reagan-Bush. If we are not careful, if we are not smart, this could be four years as a precursor to the kind of right-wing backlash that will make us miss John McCain. Make us miss George W. Bush. Don't think it's not possible. There are dragons on the Right who in their anti-immigrant hatred, in their war mongering jingleism, in their commitment to drill and burn their way out of our energy crisis will make you miss John McCain.
I would actually compare Obama's presidency to Bill Clinton's not Carter's.  Clinton's triangulation, his calls for smaller government, saber rattling on Iraq, welfare reform, Defense of Marriage Act, and other moderate, even conservative, policies delivered this country to George W. Bush; the critiques from progressives and radicals on the left certainly were not responsible for the Bush "victory."  Of course Bush did not really win that first election, but it was as close as it was in large part because people who cared about all of those liberal/progressive issues, people whose lives were actually effected by those reactionary decisions during the Clinton years were not motivated to vote.  Once Bush was in power, and despite the fact that most Americans did not believe the rhetoric about weapons of mass destruction, it was still easier for Bush to invade Iraq because of Clinton's own support for occasional air attacks, sanctions that resulted in the deaths of a million Iraqis, and the demonization of Iraqi leaders.  It was easier to cut social services to the very poor and taxes on the very rich following Clinton's supporting the very ideas underlying those cuts.

The Obama administration is setting up the next right-wing government by sending national guard troops to the border, adopting policies of extrajudicial killings of American citizens overseas, increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan, and rejecting a public option in favor of a healthcare bill that may be a bad deal for most people forced to buy bad health insurance.

Of course that same healthcare bill may help some people - particularly those Americans who were denied health coverage - that is yet to be seen. And, there have been some good policy decisions from the Obama administration, not to mention generally better nominees to federal courts (if not nearly as good as they could be).  The danger is that if we follow Van Jones' lead, the Obama presidency may end in 2 years or 6 years and be decidedly more like the Clinton presidency than the Carter presidency - giving a liberal stamp of approval to many of the policies and ideals expressed by Republicans, moving Washington to the right and keeping progressives scared and divided.

I don't want to take away from the great ideas Van Jones has about the environment and the economy.  Much of his speech made some strong points about the need for green jobs, but he also seemed to have a false analysis of where power lies and how best to wield that power.

For example, he said that, "we have to change the terms of debate going through the fall. We have been getting our butts whooped by this drill, drill, drill mantra and it's time for us to seize the terms of debate and show that we have the answers and we have solutions. That is going to be primarily up to you."  Have we really been getting our butts whooped on this issue?  Even while the Gulf of Mexico is filling with oil?  Is it really the job of the "netroots" to change this message?  Not that bloggers and independent journalists shouldn't attack the "drill baby drill" mentality, but it wasn't bloggers that gave a speech from the presidential pulpit calling for more deepwater drilling just days before one of the worst ecological disasters in history.

Yes the "netroots," not to mention the millions of ordinary Americans who don't happen to have a blog, can have an effect on what Washington does and the future of our country and this planet, but you can't blame them (blame us) for the bad policies and decisions of this President, his administration, and the other powerful politicians in D.C.; and you can't argue that there is some smart, strategic way to save the planet and get what we deserve out of this administration but first all us bloggers and lefty activists need to get on the same page and figure it out, and in the meantime stop picking on the President.

The truth is I'm not sure Jones actually wants us to hold this President accountable, maybe because its success has something to do with his own success, or maybe because he knows Obama and genuinely likes him, or maybe for some other reason.  But his speech seemed at time schizophrenic, at once interested in pushing policies this President hasn't championed while simultaneously trying to discourage criticism of this President - we should hold this President accountable, but we should do it in the right way, and I'm not going to explain what that right way is.  It is unsurprising to hear this from an individual who has been both an outsider and an insider at the highest levels at a conference that attempts to position itself on that same fine line.

So here is what Jones says about accountability and our role as citizen activists:
... there's been a lot of talk about your need to hold the new president accountable. I agree with that. Frankly, I think we have been putting too much faith and confidence in our president. Frankly, I never agreed with that. My basic view is we don't need the president to fix everything, we just need the president to stop breaking everything, that would be my first order of business. But the challenge here for you is that you have to figure out a way now as you go from opposition to proposition, from protest to governance, how to hold somebody accountable in a way that doesn't mean beating them accountable, kicking them accountable, spitting on them accountable.
First, shouldn't he be giving this lecture to Rahm Emanuel who called plans by liberal groups to target moderate Democrats on healthcare "fucking retarded," or Democrat Barney Frank who called protests for the Employment Non Discrimination Act “a stupid thing to do” and “immature”?  Is it really progressive critics of the President who need to figure out how to hold this administration and Democratic leaders accountable in a nicer way?  I could write a love letter to Nancy Pelosi, but my guess is she is more interested in currying favor with people who can write checks than with people who can write love letters.  At any rate, the left showed Obama a tremendous amount of support.  Progressives voted for him in droves and told everyone they knew to do the same.  Now, despite our disappointment, we are asked to continue to rally around him?  Should progressives ever expect more from our political leaders than they expect from us?

We do not have to figure out how to govern because we don't govern.  President Obama isn't our peer; he's the leader of the most powerful empire in the history of the world.  I understand he isn't a dictator, but the point is his administration has tremendous power and a mandate.  Many of us may have helped get Obama elected, but that doesn't mean we are now in power.  Majorities can support an end to the war in Afghanistan, a health care public option, genuine Wall Street oversight, but that doesn't translate into legislation or executive orders. The notion that being nicer to politicians would help, ignores what has actually worked historically for ordinary Americans - strikes, protests, demonstrations, and movements that make demands and speak truth to power.

I'm all for moving from opposition to proposition, but it isn't true that progressives are simply about opposition.  A public option is a proposition, investing in solar and wind power is a proposition, supporting gay marriage is a proposition, an amnesty for undocumented immigrants is a proposition.  When political leaders ignore those propositions, or worse oppose those propositions, or worse propose something awful, the only way to hold them accountable is to call them out and, maybe not spit on them, but at least criticize them harshly, if appropriate.

Van Jones would like to see a large scale investment in projects that both create jobs and help the environment.  I agree.  We absolutely need that.  But the last time we had anything close to that kind of public works program, it followed intense labor struggles - there were sit down strikes and entire cities were shut down (or rather run by the working class not the bosses).  Unfortunately, Jones' recipe for similar change relies on being nicer to people in power and hoping that will save the world.  For those of us without access to power and wealth, this is a recipe for failure.  To unleash our power, we must fight for our ideals, independent of political party.

Obama seems like a nice guy and I'm glad he's in the White House if McCain was the alternative, but so far his presidency is a big disappointment and he needs to know I feel that way.  I think he can handle it.