Veteran progressive activist Van Jones has written a new book titled Rebuild the Dream. He says progressive change must be demanded by a massive, grassroots movement on a par with the civil rights era.

Anyone whom Glenn Beck considers an anarchist radical, a black liberation theologian, a black nationalist and an avowed communist is clearly someone with a story worth hearing. And former Barack Obama advisor Van Jones, whom Beck drove from the White House with relentless, racist, red-baiting attacks in 2009, is telling his now.

Obama's former "green jobs czar" has written a new book titled Rebuild the Dream and took his message to MoveOn and Democracy Now! audiences on April 3, the day before the book's release, the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

"Ultimately, this book is just the prologue to what comes next," he wrote in an email to MoveOn members. "… America is not broke. We are a rich nation, and we can do much better than we are doing. We need a game plan for victories now and in the years to come."

The first step in that plan, Jones said, is building a grassroots movement as big as anything ever seen, on a historic scale with the civil rights movement.

"This book offers my best thinking about how we can get there," the 1993 Yale Law alumnus wrote.

***

That Jones, one of Time magazine's "100 most influential People in 2009, is the most progressive individual in decades to occupy a desk inside the White House is evident from the self-description he offered DN!'s Amy Goodman.

"I’ve had a very colorful past," he said. "I distinguished myself as an activist, as an outstanding left-wing activist, in the Bay Area. You’ve got to work hard to distinguish yourself in the Bay as a left-winger. And I did that, with great pride. I was on the left side of Pluto in my 20s."
"We need a game plan for victories now and in the years to come."
Now, he continued, "I’m probably the only person in American life who was a grassroots outsider, who became a White House insider — I was there for six months — and then became a grassroots outsider again."

Jones told Goodman that his understanding of how social movements work gave him a unique, "360 view" of White House workings when he was on the inside.

"What I saw when I was there, and after, is this massive misunderstanding between the insiders in that building … and the outsiders that help to elect those folks, and huge misopportunities," he said, "missed opportunities for positive change."

Jones concluded that social movements elected Obama, but White House-level operatives often didn’t understand how those movements worked.

"They really believed that it was polls and pundits and politicians and precincts," he said.

That kind of operational piece was of almost singular value to administration operatives, while the social movements that gave them their jobs -- "the professional left" -- were considered annoyances, Jones said.

"That attitude, which is very dismissive, cost, I think, the White House," he said.

***

Goodman noted that the campaign against Jones began in July 2009 with Fox News host Beck's smear campaign.

"He is an unrepentant communist revolutionary, a founding member of S.T.O.R.M., period," Beck said in one clip. "That’s what it is. He is a guy who stands for cop killers, period. That’s who he is."

Six months into his tenure, Jones said he chose to resign his post rather than be a distraction to the nascent debate over Obama's health care reform proposal. The administration signaled full support for him. The decision to resign was his and his alone.
"You have to have a head of state that is willing to be moved. But you have to have a grassroots movement to do the moving."
"My calculation was, 'Listen, I’ve had a very colorful past,'" he said on DN!. "… I said, 'If we’re going to have to litigate that, right on the verge of healthcare, I don’t see how that’s a win-win for me or for the president or anybody else. So I chose to step away."

After leaving the White House, Jones took some time off and spent a year teaching at Princeton, where his office was located 10 feet away from progressive icon Cornel West.

"I never heard the words plutocrat and oligarch so many times," he said. "But it was an amazing experience to be able to observe from an academic point of view what was going on."

Among the things Jones realized was he had been one of the first targets of a new, more desperate set of right-wing tactics employed by Fox News commentators and right-wing bloggers.

"What you saw going on was a right wing in sheer panic mode," he said. "They threw out the rule book. And you had provocateurs like Glenn Beck, Breitbart -- Andrew Breitbart -- now the late, stepping forward and basically taking a relatively advanced information system and firing into it lies, smears, viruses, for which we had no antibodies. So they bug-zapped me."

Eventually, an advertising boycott forced Beck off the air, Jones noted. But initially the White House was rocked back on its heels.

"We had an information system that was very advanced, but a wisdom system that had not yet caught up to what tricksters like Beck and Breitbart could do," he said. "And so, that’s the moment that we were in."

***

Progressives also misread the reality of Democrats controlling the White House and Congress, Jones said. Having what he termed "alleged control" of the federal government is only one-third of what is needed. Also necessary are media and grassroots movements that can change the conversation.

During the first two years of the Obama administration, Fox drove the media, and the Tea Party monopolized the streets, he said on DN!. The left was largely missing.
"Richard Nixon didn’t lead the environmental movement. He hated it. But he signed the Clean Air Act. He signed the Clean Water Act. He created EPA. Why? There was a movement in the streets."
"You have this massive economic crisis, the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, two wars, an ecological catastrophe going on with the climate and no significant street presence for the left," he said.

Essentially, this imbalance of power led to a "checkmate for the forces of progress," Jones said.

***

A primary lesson from the past three years is clear, Jones said. Progressives must take a much smarter approach to their own messaging and media operations.

"We have, I think, the wrong theory of the presidency, still on the left, even two-and-a-half years in, three years in," he said. "We still think that the presidency is the site of all the power that we need, and so we have to either cheerlead for the president or criticize the president or be mad at the president or defend the president."

Turning to history, Jones argued that President Lyndon Johnson did not lead the civil rights movement. Grassroots leaders -- Dr. Martin Luther King, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bayard Rustin and others -- did.

"You have to have two sources of power, not just one," he said. "That’s the big lesson for this past three years. … You have to have a head of state that is willing to be moved. But you have to have a grassroots movement to do the moving."

As the Tea Party showed in a negative way, and Occupy Wall Street and Keystone 350.org showed in a positive way, street movements move presidents, Jones said.

"If you have a movement, you can get the best out of a terrible president," he continued. "Richard Nixon didn’t lead the environmental movement. He hated it. But he signed the Clean Air Act. He signed the Clean Water Act. He created EPA. Why? There was a movement in the streets."

Post hopers who don't care anymore, who won't vote because it doesn’t matter who is president, are also wrong, Jones said. Millions took to the streets protesting the Iraq War but nothing happened because of a president who refused to listen.

"You’ve got to have a president who will listen and millions of people in the streets," he said. "That’s how you get the change done."

Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.