The amount of political disagreement in the nation is matched only by righteous indignation. But in order to disagree without disrespecting each other, we need to look hard at our own positions, and Van Jones does just that. Exposing liberal hypocrisy on issues like economic self-interest and inclusion, Jones bravely crosses political lines that have come to define our comfort zones. Conservatives, too, need to look closely at where their party has departed from its traditional focus on family, faith, and work ethic. Disagreement is essential in a democracy, but disrespect is tearing at our social fabric. Van’s latest book is Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together.
VAN JONES: I think liberals have a very hard time understanding their role in creating the market for Trump. I think we have a view of ourselves that has a bunch of blind spots in it in terms of how we’re showing up.
I’ve gone all across the country, I got a chance to go to West Virginia, the red parts of Indiana and Michigan, even the red counties in California, I’ve gone to the border, and it gives you the chance to really kind of see the world from the other side as a liberal, as a progressive.
One of the things that I think that we don't understand and that we have a hard time getting our heads wrapped around is we often commit the same mistakes with people in the red states that we accuse conservatives of committing.
For instance, if you only listen to NPR, only watch CNN and only read the New York Times and say “I know what’s happening,” then you’re committing the same kind of mistake as somebody who only reads the Wall Street Journal, watches FOXNews and listens to Rush Limbaugh on the radio—which is not to say that CNN is as far left as FOX is to the right, it’s to say that there’s a particular set of assumptions that you’re being reinforced in, a particular set of ideas. And so you might assume then that any rational person would be outraged by what you’re outraged by and even have the same information that you have, but that’s just not true.
We can sometimes come across in ways that are offensive to people who are in the red states and who are conservative, which shocks a lot of liberals. “I’m not offensive and I’m not offending anybody; I’m liberal I’m up for everybody! I believe in diversity! I believe in inclusion!” But it sounds the same way. A lot of times you challenge conservatives and say, “Listen sometimes you guys sound really racist.”
“Oh my God I’m not – I don’t have a racist bone in my body. You’re nuts! Quit playing the race card on me!”
It’s the same basic thing. Listen to what folks are saying.
I listen to liberals, they say—they basically treat red states the same way that colonizers treat Third World countries.
“These are ignorant backwaters in the south, full of unwashed, uneducated dumb people, and what we need to do is convert them to our NPR religion and forcefeed them some kale so they can actually rise to our level! And once they rise to our level then they’ll be smart enough to quit falling for dumb tricks from their republican masters.”
And I’m like, do you hear yourself? Do you hear how you sound?! Nobody should follow anybody who thinks that way about them.
Just like most people of color will never follow a lot of the Republican Party as it talks about people today “because you don’t have any respect; you don’t understand what you’re talking about; you’re looking down on us and then telling us that ‘we’re dumb if we don’t vote for you.’”
No, we’re dumb if we vote for you, and it’s the same way in reverse.
Let me tell you the kind of stuff liberal say all the time, that liberals think it's perfectly reasonable, perfectly rational, and it’s offensive and wrong. Liberals say about conservatives, especially low-income white conservatives who vote for republicans, that these people are “voting against their own economic self-interest and it's because they're not well educated, if they really understood what was going on they would never vote for these people because they’re voting against their economic self-interest, which is stupid.”
Okay, let's take that apart. Do you know the white people who consistently vote against their own economic self-interest? I'll tell you who: rich, white liberals who vote for tax increases to pay for programs their kids will never use! They’re voting against their economic self-interest!
We don’t think that makes them ignorant, stupid doofs—we think that makes them awesome! “That’s the best thing about rich white liberals, is that they put their values over their money. Their values are more important than their money. They don’t just care about money, they care about their values.” …Interesting. Huh.
So if you put your values over your money you are a noble person, you’re not an idiot, you’re a noble person.
Well that low-income white guy who has been voting for Republicans the whole time will tell you “well guess what? I'm putting my values over money and I’m telling you I don’t want America’s government to go and rob some rich family and take their money and bring it over to my house and try to bribe me! I don’t want America’s government to rob a rich family and use the money to try to bribe me to be dependent on them or anybody else! I don't want America's government to take that money and undermine my parenting choices. If my kids are so stupid they drop out of school, get on drugs and have a bunch of babies, I don't want the government to bail them out. Let them learn a tough lesson that that's a dumb way to live your life. I'm putting my values of independence and common sense over whatever money the government might be able to give me. Even if it hurts me economically, my values are more important.”
Now listen, I would disagree with that guy. Is that a great strategy for building a middle-class? I disagree. But I wouldn’t say the guy is stupid. I can disagree without disrespecting.
See, we don’t have to agree, in fact the whole point of democracy is you get to disagree! Dictatorship, you can’t disagree. Democracy, you get to disagree. That’s called freedom. We like that. That’s good. But you don’t have to disrespect, and you shouldn’t disregard.
And these are the kinds of mistakes that liberals make every day, and you see them on TV, you hear them on the radio, you see them, and if you are that red state voter the one thing you know is “these people hold me in contempt. They look down on me, they don’t respect me, they don’t understand me, and now I can’t vote for them.”
And that’s a big part of what’s going on. We are not as good as we think we are with this inclusion thing, with this understanding thing, with this empathy thing. A lot of us grew up in neighborhoods or in circumstances where the straight white male had power and was abusing that power, and so we formed an opposition to that abuse of power. And it’s very hard for us to actually be able to go on the other side and say “wait, there may be some situational circumstances where maybe we’ve got some power that we aren’t using fairly, where we may have come to some assumptions or some conclusions or have some prejudices that in some circumstances we may be the ones who are mistreating people or misunderstanding people.”
That’s tough, because when you've been in that one down situation and been mistreated for so long and you still are being mistreated—as a woman, as a person of color, as an LGBT—and you're still being triggered every day and you're still being re-traumatized every day; for somebody to say “Yes, and the truth is messy. There may be some situations where maybe you’re reenacting some of the very things that you would never want and you may be showing some prejudices, even though you’ve been a victim of prejudice your whole life.” Nobody wants to hear that, but that’s a part of what’s happening.
And so, without ever relaxing our relentless fight for justice for the people who have been traditionally left out we also have to start opening our heart a little bit more and our ears a little bit more for people who may now newly be feeling left out, either because of their economic situation—it’s stagnant or declining—or maybe because they just don’t fit in to the new arrangement the way they used to and so they may have some hurts, they may have some ouchies, they may have some need for a hug and some understanding.
And that's the next level. Once we do that we’ll be fine. I believe we can peel off enough people who may have voted for Trump (or who may have stayed home) that we’ll be alright. But if we’re not willing to look in the mirror, we’re going to end up where we’re headed, and where we’re headed is very bad.
I think the fundamental thing that I would say to conservatives is that it appears that what we used to call conservatism has been replaced by something else, and a very sneaky set of maneuvers has given us not true conservatism but just anti-liberalism, and that that is a fundamental problem.
A conservative would defend America from all enemies, foreign and domestic, including any allegation that a foreign power tried to mess with our democracy.
We would expect our conservative friends to be at the forefront of defending American democracy, but that is no longer kosher because it would put you in bed with the liberals who are screaming about Russian interference.
“And so I’m not going to defend the country because I’ve got to stay anti-liberal,” they’ve got to be against the liberals.
There are so many conservative opportunities in unlikely communities, so many opportunities for conservatives to make real progress in unlikely communities, but for some reason they don’t do it.
Who is more passionate about marriage and adoption than Republicans (who are pro-family and anti-abortion) and lesbian and gay couples (who want to get married and adopt kids)? So the two biggest champions of marriage and adoption don’t work together because Republicans don’t see their ally—they literally don’t see that the LGBT community is actually the ONE community in America whose marriage rates are going up, as opposed to all the rest of us, and who understand the need for adoption and fight for it.
The Muslim community should be embraced and celebrated by conservatives, because look at the work ethic, look at the low-level divorce rate, look at the incredible premium on entrepreneurship and education, look at the commitment to family and faith.
The Muslim community should be ripe picking for conservatives, but instead they’re Al Qaeda, they’re all lumped into the most negative category.
The same with African Americans. The two strongest institutions in the black community? Hip-hop and the church. Churchgoers? That’s some Republican stuff.
Mostly Democrats are on a secular thing, or “spiritual but not religious.”
African-Americans incredibly strong churchgoers.
Hip-hop? Nobody is rapping about being on welfare, it’s about entrepreneurship, it’s about material access, and that’s very, very consistent with republican values.
But the only thing you hear about black folks on a lot of the conservative TV stuff is all negative. There’s no celebration of our religiosity or our entrepreneurial drive, it’s just all “look at these lazy criminals.”
Well, when you don’t find a way to connect with African-Americans, Muslims, LGBT stuff, the stuff you actually agree on? That’s when people start asking tough questions about “what is this?”
Conservatism? It seems to be marbled with a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with conservative ideas: Some anxieties, some maybe bigotries, some antagonisms, maybe some white solidarity identity politics or white grievance politics. Something else is in the batter than just conservative ideas, because conservative ideas can play very well across the demographic spectrum.
And so I don't want Republicans to stop being Republicans. I think I've never seen a bird fly with only a left wing or only a right wing, a bird needs two wings to fly, so you need conservatives, you need liberals.
But we need better conservatives. We need conservatives who really are willing to put the country first, who not only just saying, “Well I'm not prejudiced, I would've never...”
Well don't just say it! Then show it, do it. You’re concerned about what’s going on in Chicago and you want to say “look at those black people killing each other.” No: those are Americans dying in Chicago.
“Police are killing black people.”
No, police are killing unarmed Americans. American police are killing unarmed Americans.
Show up. Go to the funerals. Talk to the grandmas. Show how your conservative ideas can help. Jack Kemp did that. I haven’t seen a Jack Kemp Republican since he died.
So you asked the question, what I say to conservatives? I would say: “stay conservative.” I'm going to stay liberal. We can constructively disagree and make the country better.
I'm going to try to make the Democrats better, but you’ve got to try to make Republicans better.
It's not that you're conservative, it’s that you’ve now become—you’ve curdled into something that’s more anti-liberal than actually for ideals and ideas that can appeal to everybody and bring the country together. Get back to that and we’ll be better off.