They don’t dress alike, they don’t carry the same signs, and they tend to vote for different candidates during elections, but the truth is that the right-leaning Tea Party and the left-leaning Occupy movement may simply be two faces of the same disillusioned, disaffected coin. That’s what Van Jones -- a former special adviser to the Obama administration on environmental issues, a New York Times best-selling author, and a member of NRDC’s Board of Trustees -- argues in his new book, Rebuild the Dream, which is being published today. Though their suggestions for treatment couldn’t be further apart, both movements have diagnosed the same national ailment: acute anxiety disorder, brought about by severe economic uncertainty.
“It used to be the case that the way to get out of poverty and into the middle class was to get a college degree and buy a house,” Jones told me last week during an interview. “Now, with underwater mortgages and these massive amounts of student debt, getting a house and going to college is a way to get pulled from the middle class down into poverty. It’s upside-down and inside-out. So people are right to be angry. But we’ve got to move from anger to answers. This book is about a pathway for turning passion into progress.”
Like many, Jones felt a surge of energy and optimism in 2008, when progressives believed that they’d hit the public-policy trifecta with the election of Barack Obama to the White House and the control of both Congressional chambers by Democrats. “I think we felt that we had everything we needed to govern,” he said, looking back on the period immediately following the election. “We didn’t realize that’s only a third of what you need to make change. You also need to have a media [outlet] as powerful as Fox, and you have to have a grass-roots movement as strong as the Tea Party. We didn’t have either. We got check-mated.”
He watched with befuddlement -- which turned quickly into sorrow -- as the energy that had catapulted progressives to center-stage winnowed and waned. Meanwhile, the Tea Party movement rushed in to fill the grass-roots activist void. Jones is no fan of the Tea Party’s politics, but he does admire, openly, the way that the diffuse, decentralized group has used a combination of canny optics, media savvy, and provocative messaging to take full advantage of the way our political system, not to mention the human political brain, actually works.
At one point in Rebuild The Dream, Jones approvingly quotes the linguist George Lakoff, who has noted that “liberals have the idea that if you just tell people the facts, people will be rational and reach the right conclusions. The facts will set you free. They won’t!” It’s a frustration familiar to anyone who has ever tried to convince a climate-change denier that global temperatures are rising, that human activity is responsible, and that something must be done about it right now. Rationalism’s honorable arsenal -- science, data, and empiricism -- is of limited use when your opponent has come to the fight armed with his own fact-deflecting epistemology.
Jones still believes in the power of science (thank goodness), but he says it it must be tethered to a broader, and more broadly compelling, social narrative to have any effectiveness. And this, he says, is where environmentalists and progressives can learn a thing or two from the Tea Party, whose members always take pains to link their political prescriptions to narratives -- albeit overwrought, alarmist, and increasingly paranoid ones. “The rational part of the human brain is actually a small, and relatively new, part,” Jones told me. “There are other parts of the human brain that we also have to take seriously, and those have to do with emotions, associations, the power of storytelling.”
A data-filled op-ed by a climate scientist in a national newspaper is a fine start, in other words, but it’s no match for the emotional power that attaches to the sight of tens of thousands of energized protestors congregating in front of the Lincoln Memorial, as the likes of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin stir them into a frenzy. This power is generated in what Jones calls the “heart space,” separate and distinct from the “head space” that too many progressives routinely fall back on, believing -- like Lakoff’s trusting liberals -- that facts alone ought to be enough, whether or not they happen to be accompanied by passionate stories. “There are other ways of knowing and building motivation,” Jones said. “We’re mammals. It has an impact on people’s psyches when they see large numbers of people gathering.”
The anti-environmental storytelling apparatus has many architects: think tanks, pundits and sympathetic media outlets all play their essential parts. The stories they co-write are spread virally, by relatives and co-workers and Facebook friends. By the time the story is being shouted through a microphone at a Washington, DC, rally, the audience already knows all the details. Thus do these narratives get reinforced, retold, and codified -- whether they’re rooted in the truth or not.
Take the story, promulgated by the fossil-fuel industry, that oil and coal can be just as “green” as renewable energy sources like wind and solar. “Look at the number of deceptive ads from the oil and coal industries,” Jones told me. “If you watch any of the political [cable] channels, they have these ads that present oil and coal as if they’re green, job-creating options. And they just overwhelm the public with this propaganda. BP [British Petroleum, responsible for the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil spill two years ago] makes something like $64 million a day in net profits. So basically one oil company makes more money in net profits in a week than the entire environmental movement spends in a whole year” on messaging and outreach.
Given such institutional imbalances, Jones is grateful for any signs that progressives haven’t given up the fight. And he sees such signs, particularly in the Occupy movement that emerged late last year in New York City as a site-specific, sit-in protest against corporate greed, but morphed over time into a decentralized international movement. The Millennials (people born between 1980 and 1998) who animate the Occupy phenomenon, Jones writes, “have the potential to make meaningful contributions that will put the baby boomers to shame." In Rebuild the Dream he points out that their ecological awareness -- much like their technological savvy, or their color-blindness -- is practically inborn; they naturally include environmental issues, including the urgent need for renewable energy sources, in their larger critiques of corporate malfeasance and social inequity. “When you’re going up against those kinds of odds,” he told me, “what’s surprising is the persistence of environmental consciousness, the persistence of a clean-energy demand in the face of this massive, overwhelming propaganda to shut it down.”
The new environmental counter-narrative, he believes, must speak first and foremost to the issue that Americans say concerns them the most: jobs.
“The only ways to rebuild the good parts of the American dream are to get on with advanced infrastructure, [such as] rail and other investments, and to start re-powering the country with clean energy. It’ll be a good way for skilled workers to get back on their feet; plus those investments pay off over a long period of time to society as a whole. The jobs and technologies of the future are going to require cleaner and greener technological solutions. We may as well begin to figure that out now. If you just leave it all up to the market, you’re still going to run out of this stuff. It’s not renewable. We can figure out trickier and riskier ways to scrape the bottom of the bucket for the last remaining polycarbons, but at some point you’re just stringing the addict along. There will be a price to pay.”
In the end, Rebuild The Dream, like its author, is optimistic. Jones saw the rallies in 2008, the football stadiums filled to overflow capacity with cheering, hopeful, energized voters who were demanding change. And he knows that it can happen again, even if those who would stand in the way of real economic and environmental justice are swimming in profits -- and using those profits to tell the stories that they want the world to hear.
As he puts it: “The only way to get around the power of organized money is with the power of organized people.”
Image: Mark Taylor/Flickr