Thursday, August 18, 2011


Harry Targ

Seventeen community activists met Tuesday August 16, 2011 to view Van Jones’ speech initiating his “American Dream Movement.” The 70 minute video was followed by 45 minutes of discussion on how progressives in Central Indiana should respond to the national, state, and local economic and political crises of 2011.

Participants included activists from various local organizations: the local labor council and building trades, the peace movement, Planned Parenthood, the independent Obama campaign organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the local alternative newspaper, the Lafayette Independent.

Jones gave his inspirational speech hoping to initiate a national progressive movement at Town Hall, in New York on June 23, 2011.

Jones, a former advisor to the Obama administration on green jobs, resigned from office after being attacked for radicalism by Fox News. The specious attack on Jones preceded similar attacks on the community organization, ACORN, and Department of Agriculture expert Shirley Sherrod. In none of these cases did the Obama administration defend the targets of lies and slander.

In his speech, which was designed to inspire progressives to organize house parties and other public meetings in every city and town in America, Jones identified four lies that have come to shape our political discourse.

The first lie, plastered across the screens and print media, is that America is broke. Presenting data and analysis, Jones showed that the US economy was not broke. In fact, the United States remained the richest country in the world, but the wealth and income was shifting ever more dramatically from the vast majority of the population to banks and corporations.

The second lie, he claimed, which has become part of common wisdom, though untrue, is that if the rich are taxed more equitably, the economy will be hurt. He presented evidence from periods of America’s greatest growth, from the 1940s to the 1970s, that wages, profits, taxes, and productivity increased together. But since 1980, wealth has increased while taxes declined along with jobs and wages. In other words, radical tax cuts have made the rich richer but the population at large poorer.

The third lie is that the problem with today’s economy is the existence of an active, involved government. As President Reagan put it: “Government is the problem, not the solution.” Jones spent much of his speech pointing out that capitalism as an economic system would not have developed, nor individual corporations profited, nor communities survived without government. Roads, schools, health care delivery systems, protections from fire and crime, and basic environmental standards all result from government programs. The American people pay taxes to provide the supports for corporations and banks that accumulate the wealth produced by workers.

The fourth lie, and for Jones the most damaging, is that the people are helpless to reshape the course of American economic and political life. As so many learned from weary parents: “You can’t fight city hall.” For Jones that proposition contradicts all of American history. Movements to end slavery, for civil rights, for worker rights, for moving toward equality for women, for environmental justice, all occurred because of peoples’ movements.

So Jones in his June speech called for local meetings around the country. He urged these meetings to generate ideas for building a new national movement out of local activism.

Since the speech some 1,500 house parties were held, generating 25,000 ideas for the development of a “Contract for the American Dream.” 125,000 people rated the ideas.

In early August a ten-point “Contract for the American Dream” was posted on a website ( The ten points included:

1.Invest in America’s infrastructure.
2.Create 21st Century energy jobs.
3.Invest in public education.
4.Offer medicare for all.
5.Make work pay.
6.Secure social security
7.Return to fairer tax rates.
8.End the wars and invest at home.
9.Tax Wall Street speculation.
10.Strengthen democracy.

In the discussion following the video, the Indiana activists reflected on what if anything a coalition of progressives represented at the video showing could and should do in the community. Most attendees agreed that the crisis in our community and the state and nation was severe; that we needed to begin organizing. But we asked: how, who, and for what goals? Questions were raised about whether a progressive coalition should engage in electoral work, participate in the local Democratic Party or not.

Some participants suggested distributing progressive literature on jobs, health care, the threat to reproductive rights, and ending wars at the local Labor sponsored September 3 picnic, Labor’s Family Day in the Park. Others talked about organizing a series of panels presenting the major issues our groups are concerned about.

While the problems of organizing seemed enormous, everyone agreed that attendees and friends should be invited to another meeting to continue the dialogue. It was felt that with further discussion we could adapt the Contract for the American Dream to our local needs and capabilities.