Van Jones: The Problem of Confusing ‘The Movement’ With ‘The State’

Van Jones is cofounder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Color of Change, and Green for All and a former adviser to President Obama on “green economy.” His new book, Rebuild the Dream, examines what the movement for social transformation needs to learn from the Obama campaign and his presidency.

Jones lays out the issues with the complexity that they deserve but also makes it clear why it is important for “the movement” to not confuse itself with “the State.” It’s a lesson the Jesus Movement also needs to continually reckon with. Here’s an excerpt:

In America, change comes when we have two kinds of leaders, not just one. We need a president who is willing to be pushed into doing the right thing, and we need independent leaders and movements that are willing to do the pushing. For a few years, Obama’s supporters expected the president to act like a movement leader, rather than a head of state.

The confusion was understandable: As a candidate, Obama performed many of the functions of a movement leader. He gave inspiring speeches, held massive rallies, and stirred our hearts. But when he became president, he could no longer play that role.

The expectation that he would or could arose from a fundamental misreading of U.S. history. After all, as head of state, President Lyndon Johnson did not lead the civil rights movement. That was the job of independent movement leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, and Fannie Lou Hamer. There were moments of conflict and cooperation between Johnson and leaders in the freedom struggle, but the alchemy of political power and people power is what resulted in the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As head of state, Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not lead the labor movement. That was the job of independent union leaders. Again, the alchemy of political power and people power resulted in the New Deal. As head of state, Woodrow Wilson did not lead the fight to enfranchise women. That was the role of independent movement leaders, such as suffragettes Susan B. Anthony and Ida B. Wells. The alchemy of political power and people power resulted in women’s right to vote. As head of state, Abraham Lincoln did not lead the abolitionists. That was the job of independent movement leaders Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and Harriet Tubman. The alchemy of political power and people power resulted in the emancipation of enslaved Africans. As head of state, Richard Nixon did not lead the environmental movement. That was the job of various environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, and other leaders, like those whom writer Rachel Carson inspired. Once again it was the alchemy of political power and people power that resulted in the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The biggest reason for our frustrations and failures is that we have not yet understood that both of these are necessary-and they are distinct. We already have our head of state who arguably is willing to be pushed. We do not yet have a strong enough independent movement to do the pushing.–Van Jones, excerpted from Rebuild the Dream

Read a longer excerpt here.

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