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Rebuild the Dream
By Van Jones
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Jones puts his hard-won lessons to good use, proposing a powerful game plan to restore hope, fix our democracy and renew the American Dream. The American Dream means different things to people, but the center of gravity is always the same: an ordinary person — who was not born with great wealth, but who is willing to work hard and play by the rules — should be able to find employment, live in a good community, make progress financially, retire with dignity, and give his or her children a better life. That dream is fading. On Main Street, too many people are working harder than ever — while falling further behind. They play by the rules, but cannot succeed. At the same time, other Americans, including the worst of Wall Street, break every rule, but cannot fail — because someone has already decided that they are “too big” to fail. The American Dream has been turned upside down and inside out. It is time to set things right. As the first Obama administration official to write a book about his experiences, Jones offers a unique perspective. In explaining why the 2008 “hope” bubble burst, he unveils the seven biggest mistakes made by the White House and its supporters. He explores the origin and fate of the movements that helped to elect President Obama, as well as those that have challenged and shaped his presidency. Along the way, Jones systematically reveals surprising parallels between Obama’s people-powered campaign, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. At this pivotal moment, Jones argues that we must make our economy respect the 99% and work for the 100%, not just the 1%. He proposes serious solutions that fit the scale of our problems. Rebuild the Dream sets forth bold ideas inspired by the progressive values that made the twentieth century the “American Century.” It shows how key public policies and investments can create millions of good, American jobs. America is still the best idea in the world. The American middle class is still her greatest invention. Rebuild the Dream is dedicated to the proposition that — with the right strategy — both can be preserved and strengthened for generations to come.
Rebuild the Dream For the 99%
TODAY’S HARSH ECONOMIC REALITIES and political gridlock are undermining the very idea of the United States as a land of opportunity and prosperity. The American Dream—the idea that ours is a land where any hard-working person can better herself or himself—is at risk of being wiped out, right before our eyes.
It will take a movement of millions of people to rescue and renew it.
OVERVIEW: IT TAKES A MOVEMENT
For everyone who loves this country, for everyone whose heart is breaking for the growing ranks of the poor, for everyone who is seething at the unopposed demolition of America’s working and middle classes—this is both a “people’s history” and a guide for action.
The central argument of this book is that, to bring back hope and win change, we need more than a great president. We need a movement of millions of people, committed to fixing our democracy and rebuilding America’s economy. I have a unique perspective on the matter, as a grassroots outsider who spent six months as a White House insider.
Political pundits and authors spend a lot of time talking about individual personalities, including President Barack Obama’s. But mass movements matter, often as much as or more than individual leaders do. After all, a popular movement helped elect Obama, and two mass movements have changed the terrain on which he is governing.
This book looks at the Age of Obama through a “social movement” lens, exploring the origin and fate of the movements that helped to elect him, as well as those that have challenged and shaped his presidency.
The book is neither pro-Obama nor anti-Obama. It is pro-analysis, pro-learning, and pro-progress for the movement that helped elect Obama. The aim of the book is to prepare citizens and community members at the grassroots level to see their own power differently—and to exercise their own leadership more boldly. Progress is the work of millions.
The social movements that converged in Obama’s 2008 campaign actually predated his historic bid. Those same movements must now rally and revive to win more change, during his second term and beyond. When they do so, the politicians will have to keep up as best they can.
That is why I do not begin my inquiry into any setback in contemporary Washington, DC, by asking the standard question, “What could Obama have done differently?” Instead, I ask more empowering—and potentially game-changing—questions: “What could we have done differently? How could Americans have mobilized or organized hundreds of thousands of their neighbors to win a better outcome?”
We should always hold Obama accountable. But in a democracy, we should hold ourselves accountable, as well. Positive change requires two sources of leadership, not one. We need a president who is willing to be moved, and we need millions of Americans who are willing to do the moving. Under George W. Bush, millions marched to prevent the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But the president was unmovable. Under Obama, we have a president who is more open-minded. But until recently, only the extreme right had done the work of putting hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, willing to pull out all the stops to move him.
Some may think this book is too soft on Obama. To them I say, my critique is informed—and tempered—by my intimate knowledge of the mess he inherited. I have first-hand experience with the political and media constraints under which the Obama White House has been forced to labor. Thus I do have more empathy for Team Obama than do many who share my politics.
Others may think the book is too tough on the Obama White House. To them I say, no politician or administration is above criticism, nor is any social movement. Obama has not been perfect, nor have the sixty-six million of us who elected him. We all have a lot to learn and more work to do. The key is for us to evaluate honestly the areas where both the insiders and the outsiders have fallen short.
For myself, I have come to see any American president as a person on a tightrope; on any issue, he can lean only so far to the left or the right, before the political laws of gravity begin to punish him. The genius of the Tea Party is that it didn’t try to move the tightrope walker; it moved the tightrope itself, successfully pulling the national conversation and the entire political establishment far to the right. As a result, the White House had to operate in a very different environment than the climate that prevailed when Obama was first elected. Later, the Occupy Wall Street protests moved the tightrope back, so that now even the GOP has to pay some lip service to economic inequality.
We need to keep moving the tightrope. To do that, we need a better understanding of the recent past and the opportunities of the future.
In the chapters that follow, I summarize the main insights that I have gleaned from reviewing the past years of political struggle in the United States (2003–2011). During those years, I was blessed to play an active role—both outside and inside the halls of power. I developed most of the themes during a year of teaching and conducting research at Princeton University, while I was also a fellow at the Center for American Progress.
The ideas come from many sources, but the cornerstone is the “Contract for the American Dream”—a ten-point plan for jobs and economic opportunity in America. It was written collectively by 131,203 people (online and offline), with the support of dozens of organizations. More than 300,000 people endorsed it. Working on the contract deepened my thinking, as did the 2011 process of launching Rebuild the Dream, a strategy center in the fight to heal our economy and repair our democracy. I hope that my perspective and observations will be useful to a wide range of actors and observers.
The book is divided into three sections.
In the first section of the book,
• I examine the political movements that ultimately coalesced around Barack Obama in 2007 and 2008. I analyze the successes and setbacks of both the Obama administration and grassroots movements seeking change during the administration’s first two years. I answer the question: What can Americans who want to fix the system learn from the movement for hope and change that united around Barack Obama in 2008—and from its collapse after he entered the White House?
• I examine the rise and triumph of the Tea Party movement in 2009 and 2010. I answer the question: What can we learn from the Tea Party’s equally impressive capture of the national debate in 2009—and its successful pivot to electoral politics in 2010?
• I examine the recent emergence of Occupy Wall Street and the 99% movements. I answer the question: What can a movement defending the embattled working class and imperiled middle class achieve over the long term—and how might it go about doing that?
In the second section of the book, I introduce new tools for analysis, including:
• The Heart Space/Head Space grid, which highlights the emotional or non-rational dimension of social change;
• The “American Story” framework for studying political narratives, which underscores the role of villains, threats, heroes, vision and patriotism in moving the American public; and
• A novel application of swarm theory to the Obama phenomenon, the Tea Party, and Occupy Wall Street.
In the final section of the book, I suggest possible pathways toward creating a movement powerful enough to rescue the 99%.
this: “I have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.”
Dr. King was not talking about commercialism or consumerism. He was talking about something more fundamental and sacred: the principle that we should live in a country where everyone counts and everyone’s dreams matter. He was expressing his desire that America be a place where all would have the opportunity to flower and grow, achieve their personal best, and contribute their best selves to the world. In 1961, Dr. King said, “The American Dream reminds us that every man is heir to the legacy of worthiness.”
The best of the American Dream is not about living a life of consumption; it is about being able to live a life of productivity and contribution. In our system, everyone should have a shot at pursuing her or his dreams—and hard work should pay off. We should not be lying when we tell our children, “You can make it if you try.” Smart choices, honesty, and hard work should be sufficient keys to a fulfilling life. Trying to make that version of the American Dream real is what has made us the greatest nation in the world; our parents and grandparents struggled and sacrificed to make that vision attainable and to keep it alive for us.
We should not surrender it without a fight. Certainly, we should not give up on that vision just so the richest among us can offshore more jobs and get more tax breaks.
The crisis of American Democracy did not start with the 2008 financial collapse. After the Great Depression, our grandparents crafted laws and policies to protect the country from corporate abuses and Wall Street’s excesses. Unfortunately, both major political parties were seduced into allowing the elites to strip those protections from our law books. For at least thirty years, the wealthy and privileged have been rigging the system to acquire more wealth and privilege. At this point, 400 families control more wealth than 180 million Americans.
This great wealth divergence has resulted in an unjust and dangerous concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the few. It has pushed millions, especially the rising generation and communities of color, into the shadows of our society. The middle class continues to shrink, and the number of poor people continues to grow. The political elite has failed to take the necessary steps to restore opportunity to the majority of Americans.
As a result, the very idea of the American Dream has become a cruel joke to millions who are working harder than ever and falling further behind. In an October 6, 2011, article entitled “Flat-lining the Middle Class: Economic Numbers to Die For,” Andy Kroll reported on TomDispatch.com: “In 2010, the average middle-class family took home $49,445, a drop of $3,719 or 7 percent, in yearly earnings from ten years earlier. In other words, that family now earns the same amount as in 1996. After peaking in 1999, middle-class income dwindled through the early years of the George W. Bush presidency, climbing briefly during the housing boom, then nose-diving in its aftermath.”
America once was a country in which we believed that those who worked hard and played by the rules should be able to advance. But the worst of the top 1 percent have turned that old formula upside down. Too many people on Main Street (let alone the back roads, alleys, and side streets) are finding today that they cannot succeed—no matter how hard they work, and no matter how scrupulously they follow the rules. At the same time, other Americans, including the worst of Wall Street, apparently cannot fail—no matter how inept, corrupt, or lazy they are, and no matter how many times they break the rules.
Someone has already decided that they are “too big” to fail.
CHEAP PATRIOTS VERSUS DEEP PATRIOTS
The time has come to turn things right side up again and declare that America’s honest, hard-working middle class is too big to fail. The aspirations of our low-income, struggling, and marginalized communities are too big and important to fail. The hopes of our children are too big to fail. The American Dream itself is too big to fail.
And we are not going to let these things fail.
Of course, it will not be easy to stop the dream killers. Tax policy that burdens working families and gives the biggest breaks to the superrich has helped to keep more and more of our national wealth locked in the private safes of the top 1 percent. This alarming economic polarization, combined with the constant flow of good-paying jobs overseas, threatens to end our status as a middle-class nation. Too many of our big banks and largest corporations are behaving in a manner that is both irresponsible and unpatriotic. Their conduct makes it that much worse for the many patriotic and responsible businesses—especially small businesses—that follow the rules and provide good jobs to their employees.
Additionally, many well-intentioned people have been recruited into a powerful crusade—the Tea Party movement—that promises the American people economic relief by slashing taxes and taking a wrecking ball to America’s government. The impact of the Tea Party’s reckless policies would be to financially decimate our government, further dismantle America’s middle class, and strengthen the chokehold that the top 1 percent has on the economy. Nonetheless, the Tea Partiers effectively seized the public narrative in 2009 and congressional power in 2010, quelling the wave of hope generated by the 2008 election. They have succeeded at painting their agenda “red, white, and blue.” If we are to have an economy that works for the remaining 99 percent, this kind of “cheap patriotism” must be sidelined in favor of a “deep patriotism”—one that honors the accomplishments of our parents and grandparents. After all, they used the tools of both free enterprise and democratic government to build a society that sets the global standard.
THE BATTLE IS JOINED
Fortunately, a new force has emerged with the long-term potential to both repair America’s democracy and renew the American Dream. A massive protest movement has risen within the United States, eclipsing the Tea Party. It aims to fix our political system, heal our economy, and end Wall Street’s tyranny over our lives. The outcome of the battle remains uncertain, but the highly anticipated “fight back” in America has begun. It’s about time.
Corporate America’s millions of casualties are beginning to find their voices, stand together, and fight back—against joblessness, homelessness, and despair. The destruction of America’s middle class is meeting with angry opposition in the streets. The protest wave began in February 2011. It was powered by public fury over union-busting legislation proposed by Tea Party governors in Wisconsin and Ohio. It grew throughout the spring, as students mobilized to oppose tuition hikes, and foreclosure victims resisted evictions. In the summer of 2011, hundreds of thousands took to the streets in every U.S. congressional district to rally against devastating budget cuts under the slogans “Jobs Not Cuts” and “Save the American Dream.”
Then, on September 17, a few hundred activists calling themselves Occupy Wall Street pitched their tents in Manhattan’s financial district. Their daring tactic captured the imagination of millions in America. The boldness of their action ignited a passion for change in hundreds of other cities in the United States and around the world. The tiny spark that was struck in the Wisconsin winter became a national and even global prairie fire by the end of the year.
Most importantly, in a country that has been divided along so many lines of color and economic condition, the Occupy Wall Street protesters created a new identity that can include and unite the vast majority of Americans. Their simple slogan—“We Are the 99%!”—is now the rallying cry for everyone who is struggling against an economy that enriches the few at the expense of the many. That rallying call is meant to underscore the ways in which the nation’s economy is failing everyone—except the very top 1 percent. It is intended to empower members of America’s supermajority to understand ourselves as having a shared plight, a common cause, and enough power to change things.
There is reason for hope. The United States remains a rich nation—the wealthiest and most inventive in the history of the world. Global competition and technological advances pose challenges for American workers, but we should always remember that the proverbial pie is bigger than ever today—and still growing. As a nation, we are getting richer; our GDP is still greater than it has ever been. The problem is not that the pie is shrinking; it is that working families are taking home smaller slices of it, as wealth and income are concentrated upward. It will take smart policy, better business practices, and community-driven innovation, but we still have the power to reclaim, reinvent, and renew the American Dream.
The growing movement faces three important challenges:
• To transform some of its protest energy into electoral power;
• To shift from expressing anger to providing answers; and
• To balance confrontation with aspiration and inspiration.
At this pivotal moment in history, we can make our economy respect the 99% and work for the 100%. To do so, we must develop and promote serious solutions that fit the scale of the problems that the protests of 2011 highlighted.
This book proposes some.
America is still the best idea in the world. The American middle class is still her greatest invention. This book is dedicated to the proposition that—with the right strategy and a little bit of luck—the movement of the 99% can preserve and strengthen them both.
enterprises, and industries of the twenty-first century. Our government should be a partner to these emerging problem-solvers in the U.S. economy, not the old problem-makers.
Finally, I am personally committed to America’s success. The reasons are deeply personal. I know America very well—good, bad, and otherwise. My family has lived on these shores for unknowable generations—through our enslavement, through a century of Jim Crow terror, through the Civil Rights Movement, and into these challenging times. By way of my Native American ancestors, I can claim roots that go back millennia, right here on these lands. My blood is mixed with the soil. Just by leafing through the pages of my family photo albums, one can see all of the joy and pain that is our country. The stolen land and stolen labor that helped build this nation are a part of my heritage. So is the heroic effort by which Americans started smashing down barriers, healing ancient hurts, and—in Dr. King’s words—making real the promises of democracy.
I believe in the possibilities of the American Dream—in part, because the dream of equal opportunity sustained my ancestors. As a proud son of America—and as the proud father of American sons—I have a duty to continue the work of helping to make an America “as good as its promise.”
THE ROOTS OF HOPE
FOR MILLIONS OF PEOPLE THE THRILL of seeing Barack Obama beat the odds to become president of the United States was one of the most exciting and uplifting experiences of our lives. The feelings of joy, hope, and anticipation were heady and unforgettable. But did Barack Obama alone create the hope that so many of us felt in 2008? The assumption that he did is sensible. He is a brilliant man and a gifted orator, who emerged as the perfect counterpoint and antidote to President George W. Bush. Candidate Obama gave Americans the opportunity for a much-needed reset. Today he is still among the world’s most admired and beloved leaders. Barely out of his forties, he has inspired hundreds of millions of people, both in the United States and around the world.
What, or who, inspired Obama? From what source did he draw the courage—and the audacity—to run for the highest office in the land, as a freshman senator from Illinois? He said in 2004 that he had no intention of running for president in 2008. What changed his mind? What shifted in America that altered his thinking about the possibilities he saw for himself—and for the country? To answer these questions, one has to look beyond the time frame of the 2008 campaign and examine the rising political and social movements that predated—and in fact prefigured—Obama’s historic bid.
Sober analysis makes it clear: the movement for “hope and change”—in all its multiracial, tech-savvy, people-powered promise—did not originate inside the 2008 Obama for America campaign, nor did it arise fully formed out of the snows of the Iowa caucuses. Key precursors were well established before Obama ever declared his intention to run. Obama’s campaign helped to crystallize an emerging “hope and change” movement, giving it language, symbolism, form, and a visible champion. In fact, the movement predated the 2008 electoral season altogether—by at least five years.
2003: A PEOPLE-POWERED MOVEMENT IS BORN
In many ways, the movement that elected Obama was born in 2003, taking the form of a massive, desperate effort to derail Bush’s planned invasion of Iraq. Millions of Americans marched, signed online petitions, and spoke out to stop the war. They used the Internet to self-organize in a way that was original and stunning; membership in a tiny, online group called MoveOn.org swelled into the millions, and the organization became a household name. Thousands of women flocked to the banner of a new peace group called Code Pink. Activists from antiglobalization struggles brought forward a youthful fighting spirit and creativity, much of it birthed and shaped in the 1999 Battle in Seattle, in which people gathered from around the world to protest a meeting of the World Trade Organization. Important coalitions such as Win Without War and United for Peace and Justice sprang up to give voice to the peace-seeking majority of Americans.
In just six weeks, the nascent antiwar/pro-peace movement had mobilized more people against the invasion of Iraq than had been organized to stop the Vietnam War in the first six years of that conflict. And the movement quickly linked to similar mobilizations across the globe. The New York Times declared that the peace effort had become a second “superpower,” embodying and expressing the force of world public opinion.
It is especially important to remember that at the head of all this there was no “One Great Leader.” There was no singular messiah, no superstar stepping in to play the role of savior. There was no single organization, giving orders.
And yet in depth, breadth, creativity, and speed of development, the peace movement was without precedent. With no solitary hero directing its efforts, the push for peace produced some of the largest demonstrations in the history of humanity—with tens of millions of people self-organizing against the Bush juggernaut.
Ultimately, the antiwar mobilization failed to prevent the war, but it became the sign—and the seed—of things to come.
2004: ANTIWAR MOVEMENT BECOMES ANTI-BUSH MOVEMENT
When the bombs started falling in Iraq, the war protestors could have quit, gone home, and given up. They could have thrown up their hands and said, “This is too hard. We can’t do anything about the way things are going in this country.” But they didn’t quit. They held onto their “hopes,” and they still wanted “change.” They refused to give up on America.
As a result, the antiwar movement of 2003 became a movement for nonviolent regime change in 2004. The people birthed a grassroots crusade to unseat a sitting, wartime president. The Democrats nominated a good, dedicated, and accomplished presidential candidate, U.S. senator John Kerry. For all his strengths, Kerry was never seen as a superhero. Yet it almost didn’t matter; the people were growing a supermovement.
Former Vermont governor Howard Dean’s heroic effort in the 2004 primaries had already shown the power of new, online tech tools and unorthodox campaign approaches. Dean’s novel fund-raising model used the Internet to solicit small donations (eighty dollars on average) from a broad base, inverting the traditional high-cost, high-touch formula in which candidates relied on a few wealthy, established political donors for large sums. This was the model the Obama campaign would later perfect and ride to the White House.
All across the country, ordinary people got involved in the 2004 presidential election with unusual passion and fervor. This was especially true for young people (the Millennials), who began to emerge as a major voice and force through edgy new groups such as League of Young Voters, Hip Hop Summit, Hip Hop Caucus, PunkVoter, HeadCount, Generational Alliance, and Voto Latino, as well as Rock the Vote, United States Student Association (USSA), Black Youth Vote!, and campus PIRGs.
Film director Michael Moore’s electrifying cinematic intervention, Fahrenheit 9/11
- On Sale
- Apr 3, 2012
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Bold Type Books