Van Jones' Tea Party Envy

Radical power brokers moving fast to manufacture a movement.

Of all that the Tea Party has accomplished, perhaps the movement’s most unlikely achievement to date is the admiration it has inspired on the activist Left. Disillusioned with President Obama and the rapid dissipation of a long-term left-wing dominance that Obama’s victory was supposed to usher in, left-wing activists and commentators have come to look upon the Tea Party as a model to revive their faded political fortunes.

Speaking for many on the Left, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen recently acknowledged, “I suffer from Tea Party envy.” Similarly, the disgruntled twenty-somethings taking part in the Occupy Wall Street campaign have styled their protests as a left-wing and anti-capitalist version of the Tea Party. The latest left-wing admirer of the Tea Party is none other than Van Jones, the disgraced former Obama administration official who was ousted from his post as green jobs czar following revelations of his radical past, which included signing a 9/11 “Truther” petition. Time off from professional politics has afforded Van Jones an opportunity to reflect, and like many on the Left he has concluded that in order to regain their relevance, progressives must take a page from the Tea Party’s playbook.

Van Jones made his appreciation of the Tea Party’s success clear on Monday, when he was the keynote speaker at the Take Back the American Dream Conference in Washington D.C. The conference, featuring a number of prominent left-wing groups, was intended as a first step in the left’s attempt to build a cohesive national movement as a progressive counterpart to the Tea Party.

That is clearly how Van Jones sees it. In his remarks, he chastised the Left for its lack of organization and urged activists to imitate the Tea Party’s strategy. The Tea Party “talks individualism,” Van Jones observed, “but they act collectively.” If progressives wanted the Tea Party’s influence, they would have to stop looking to Obama for leadership and create their own national movement. As his own contribution to movement building, Van Jones announced the creation of his new group, which is called Rebuild the American Dream. According to Jones, Rebuild the American Dream will be a “support center” for the Left as it works to build its own movement. Van Jones also praised the protestors of the Occupy Wall Street campaign, which he hailed as a forerunner of the movement that is supposedly emerging on the Left.

At a time when the leading grassroots movement in the country is the Tea Party, Van Jones’s emphasis on structure and cohesion has obvious appeal on the Left. In this account, the problem is not with the left’s political agenda but with its organization. All progressives need to do to rival the Tea Party’s influence is to coordinate their efforts more effectively and accept that, campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, Obama will not be their savior.

There is a small measure of truth in this. Much of the Tea Party’s success has come from its independence, its adamant refusal to be co-opted by establishment politicians. It is true, too, that effective organization has turned the Tea Party into a potent political force, one capable of swaying elections. What Van Jones and others on the Left miss, however, is that these are as much the products as the causes of the Tea Party’s success, which hinges on a far more critical point: a political platform with genuine and widespread appeal.

No comparably energizing agenda can be found on the Left. To the extent that progressives have a cause, it is a reactionary one. While the Tea Party has pushed for meaningful and popular reform – an end to fiscal recklessness decades in the making, for instance – the Left stands mostly for keeping things the same. Hence its main objectives of protecting entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, raising taxes on corporations and the rich, and helping the re-election of an unpopular president who has already implemented much of their agenda. Dressing up this platform in the inspirational language of the American dream does not disguise the fact that is utterly conventional, a continuation of left-wing politics as usual. It is surely no coincidence that beyond some platitudes about aiding the beleaguered middle class, Van Jones’s group, Rebuilding the American Dream, offers no new or compelling ideas to bring the country out of its current economic malaise.

The staleness of this agenda is notable because Van Jones is said to represent the best and brightest of the Left’s new leadership. If true, that would argue against a left-wing rival to the Tea Party emerging any time soon. So far from inspiring, Van Jones is a prophet of doom who in his book The Green Collar Economy counseled Americans to accept that “the very notion of economic growth” is “something human society will someday be forced to abandon.” Indeed, for all his appeals to the American dream, Van Jones is remarkably tone deaf about what that dream entails. Where the Tea Party calls for less government and freer markets to revitalize entrepreneurship and revive job growth, Van Jones and the Left’s would-be movement leaders channel their energies into condemning capitalism and corporate America. Referring to the Occupy Wall Street protestors, Jones tellingly applauded them for going to the “scene of the crime.”

Whatever Americans’  frustrations with Wall Street, it’s difficult to imagine the country rallying around the cause of class warfare and anti-capitalism. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but is not a substitute for substance. For Van Jones and others on the Left who covet the Tea Party’s clout, that’s a lesson that has yet to be learned.