Van Jones’ Resignation: What it Means

What Happened:

President Obama’s election inspired Progressives who have ground our teeth while the Bush Administration worked to dismantle everything that we believe government should be for.  For environmentalists, many of us were especially excited when Van Jones went to the White House.

But this article is not about Van Jones. It’s about how to respond to the dirty side of politics and the degrading attacks used by the Right Wing Noise Machine.  It’s about the failure of Progressives to understand what was happening so that we could effectively fight back.

The Right chose Van as their “target du jour” for a reason.  They didn’t choose him because he signed a petition requesting an investigation of the Bush Administration.  Plenty of members of the current Administration have done that.  They didn’t choose him because he used the same bad word that Rahm Emmanuel uses every hour and Dick Cheney was caught on tape using to describe a New York Times reporter during the ’04 election.

They chose Van because they knew that they could use him to invent a subtle narrative that would create anxiety for millions of Americans.  That narrative is the story of a scary black man:  maybe he is a Communist; maybe he hates America; maybe he is angry; who knows, maybe he secretly advocates violence.

Glenn Beck calling Obama a racist and the media saturation coverage of Jeremiah Wright during the election are just two examples of many in the media trying to get this narrative to stick to Van’s former boss.  They have been unsuccessful (so far) because Obama has crafted a “post-racial” brand with much of America.  But the Right’s strategy is clearly to start with Van Jones, and then continue to use racist imagery against the Administration whenever they can.

The Right’s strategy is to define the President and his team as “others” who are not like “us” in order to rally their base against both progressive issues and the Obama Administration.  If you are a Progressive, then you and I dropped the ball in protecting Van, and the Administration, from this strategy.  We did not understand what was happening, were not coordinated, and we were not effective.  For many of us, including me, this is due in part to our inability to see that Glenn Beck and others have a strategy to prey on the potential for racial anxiety in their audience.  There is no other way to explain why they chose Van instead of so many others.  I know that this will make many people uncomfortable.  It makes me uncomfortable.

What We Do Now:

Here are three things Progressives need to do to address this situation.

  1. Admit that there is a strategy to manipulate racial anxiety in the Right’s attacks on the Administration.  Be ready to call it out, no matter how uncomfortable it might make you.  Collaborate with folks who have been working for years on racial justice:  they have much to teach the rest of the progressive community about what just happened to Van Jones.
  2. Work Together Better.  If we want to win big wins, then we need to build more power, which requires that we strengthen our alliances.  It starts with investing time in building and strengthening relationships with other Progressives working on issues other than our own.  Devoting key resources to build these relationships must be a priority if we want to win long-term.  If you stay in your silo and only work on your issue, then you will save a little time now, but you will also get results like environmentalists just got when Van was chased out of the Administration.
  3. Be “Assertive”!!  We don’t need to be a**holes, but we can’t back down or be polite.  Create pressure on the Administration.  They NEED us to create more effective counter-pressure in order to help them not cave to tactics like we saw in August town hall meetings around the country, and the targeting of Van.

We can’t undo our recent mistakes in not supporting Van Jones.  But we can learn from that experience.  That means admitting what happened, investing resources to work together more skillfully, and being more assertive in response to the next Right Wing attacks.