Van Jones, CNN political commentator perhaps best known for his election-night labeling of the Trump victory as a “whitelash,” offers a cogent blueprint for how our divided country can come together in his new book, Beyond the Messy Truth.
Jones hopes his book can spark honest dialogue amidst the rabid partisanship in today’s divisive political environment.
“Most people say they want to be heard, but what they want is agreement,” he says. “I want to understand you. I want you to understand me. It doesn’t mean we have to agree. We can disagree. We at least have to work to understand each other. We need to go into conversation not trying to win. We can do a lot better than we’re doing without anyone needing to change parties, just by trying to be the best versions of our traditions. I want Republicans to be better Republicans. Same with the Democrats. I want to keep open the space for a higher level of disagreement. That’s what happens in a democracy, people disagree and keep space open for constructive disagreement.”
Keeping a space open, he does. In addition to following the “fierce leadership on the margins” and the voices of current progressive leaders such as Ai-Jen Poo, founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Caring Across Generations, and Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, Jones also follows a number of conservative commentators on his social media feed to better understand their positions. “I’m aggressively listening,” he says.
Inspired by Nelson Mandela
The epigraph of the book, an excerpt from Nelson Mandela’s speech at his trial in 1964, signals the deep commitment Jones has to a multiracial, multicultural democratic society. It also suggests the roots of his all-inclusive constitution of community. “We have to prepare not just a critique, but how to govern in the name of all people,” he says. “We have to widen our circle of concern, compassion and constituency so we can have a democracy.”
Jones advocates for a move away from a “politics of accusation” to a “politics of confession” in the quest for America’s ordinary people to solve difficult problems. “Where do people have energy for problem identification, accusation, and then projection?” he asks. “The faster and more forceful person who does this wins. Why is that the game? It’s a more nourishing game to confess and try to take responsibility, try to find a solution, and get people to help.”
Addressing fear and anger
Jones opens the book with a look at how both parties, for decades, hurt everyday people by adopting neoliberal policies that led to poor trade deals and the deregulation of Wall Street; by building the prison population; and by entering disastrous wars. He moves on to describe particular blind-spots of the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as the toxic racial dynamics that contributed to the Trump ascendancy. Jones was the first to raise the issue of race on election night when he described how “whitelash” had been one of the factors leading to the Trump ascendancy. The book affords him room to offer a fuller definition of the term, as well as suggest how to prevent such a thing from happening again. “If we work to address people’s legitimate economic concerns,” he writes, “it follows they will be less vulnerable to politics of fear and anger.”
Jones weaves in case histories and personal anecdotes that help explain his reasoning and assertions. As the founder of several social justice organizations including the Dream Corps, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and Color of Change, he is in no way suggesting progressives stop fighting for their causes and working for change. “We can’t compromise on ending the harassment of our Muslim community, on Dreamers getting citizenship, on prison reform, on public education, on health care for all,” he explains. “But we can’t only fight and have a country. You have to work together. Some days, it takes creative genius to find where we can work together, but it keeps the inflammation down.”
This notion of using creativity to work together is a lesson he culls from Mandela. “He knew to reduce the inflammation around the conflict as much as possible,” Jones says. “He allowed a place of honor and dignity. He had a radical commitment to a multicultural democracy where everyone matters.”
Much of the book’s second half is dedicated to successful examples of progressive campaigns Jones was involved with, several in collaboration with Prince, others in collaboration with conservative figures such as Newt Gingrich. Jones is searching for a “moral center,” not a political center. “We must go where the pain and peril are greatest and the quest for real solutions is the most desperate,” he writes. “That is where we will learn to respect the gifts of those with different backgrounds and polar-opposite worldviews – the people with whom we might otherwise and ordinarily disagree but without whom we can’t solve the real problems. Common pain should lead to common purpose and common projects.”
Seeking growth and connection
Rare is the public figure willing to expose vulnerabilities, but Jones who has broken into tears on the air, believes doing so is the first necessary step for growth and connection. “Blue America isn’t saying to Red America that part of why we’re mad is that we need you. We can’t have a country without you. You have traditions we admire and respect. Instead, we conceal our weaknesses and exaggerate their shortcomings,” he says. “We have a colonial view of Red States – if only they could convert to NPR liberal thinking. But, if we take our rhetoric seriously, we want a multiracial, multicultural democratic state. We want a state that runs on an economy that respects everyone. We want everyone to win.”
In a recent interview with Krista Tippet, Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, who studies the forces that affect decision-making and behavior, pointed out that “the real cause of your belief in a political position, whether conservative or radical left, the real causes are rooted in your personal history … in who are the people that you trusted and what they seemed to believe in, and it has very little to do with the reasons that come to your mind, why your position is correct and the position of the other side is nonsensical.” Jones understands these ideas. He asks us all to aggressively listen to the stories people hold as a way toward understanding and connection. If his charge in Beyond the Messy Truth resonates with readers, if we’re capable of the deep listening he models, together, we just might be able to forge a more just union.
Van Jones speaks at the Rogel Ballroom at the University of Michigan Union
530 S. State St., Ann Arbor
Tuesday, October 17, 7:30pm
Tickets for the event, which include a copy of the book, can be purchased at Nicola’s Books or @ nicolasbooks.com