America is as divided, as ever, by race, sex, class, religion, politics, urban/rural. Not surprising, since historically our laws were designed to separate us, and our media has stoked fears to keep us that way. Feminist bell hooks used the term “Imperialist White-Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy” to describe the interlocking systems of domination that are foundational to our nation’s institutions: criminal justice, education, healthcare, housing, and many of our policies—particularly immigration. Under the Trump presidency, this is more visible, and more people have become “woke” to the deep divides in our country.
Breaking through all that and finding common cause across the divides won’t be easy—but it can be done.
This is the message of CNN political commentator Van Jones in his new book The Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together. It follows on the theme of his post-Trump Love Army project, which encourages people to connect and talk to each other, respecting disagreement and recognizing that our challenges are intertwined, that being united is our biggest strength, and that the process will be messy and complicated.
In his book, Jones is “calling in” people on all sides of the political spectrum—from the far left and elite liberal to the elite conservatives and the “dirty right.” While recognizing our differences, Jones asks that we acknowledge where we share concerns, burdens, and impacts and work from there—on issues such as mass incarceration, drug epidemics, immigration, and inclusion in tech and green jobs.
I recently spoke with Jones about his book and his challenge to us to not hide behind our differences, about his use of the term “whitelash,” and unique relationships he’s formed to help build bridges.
The interview has been lightly edited.
Jeffries: You open the book with two letters: one to liberals and to conservatives where you lay out the ways in which ideologies on both sides went wrong. You talk about a work that falls to all liberals and conservatives, and break out that work in five points: honoring traditions, upholding religious liberty, respecting all Americans, fixing their respective parties, and solving real problems. What are the most evident differences and similarities between liberals and conservatives?
Jones: I think that it’s a difference in the demographic right now. The Republican party is overwhelmingly White, and the Democratic party is disproportionately made up of people of color. So that sets the table for a lot of the differences between the two parties.
In terms of what they both have in common—they both have been dominated by economic elites that have a neoliberal agenda. In other words, the corporations and Wall Street and others are more concerned about global trade deals than rebuilding American cities and educating American children. And so both parties wound up being captured by the same basic economic class, and both parties therefore had rebellions inside of them: Black Lives Matter on the one hand, and the Trump rebellion on the other.
Jeffries: You point out that “the messy truth” is that there are flaws on both sides, conservative and liberal. But isn’t the messier truth the way in which we deal—or don’t deal with— race and racism? While you discuss it in the book, I don’t get that it is as an important an issue to you as I believe it really is. For example, in your chapter “Whitelash: Myths and Facts,” you define your use of the term “whitelash” as “a militant backlash, powered by White working-class voters, against both the economic and cultural consequences of neoliberal economic policy.” To me that seems to back away from dealing specifically with the issue of racism and how significant it is in our divide.
“It is about race, but it’s also about more than that.”
Jones: I don’t agree with you. There’s a part of White working class throughout Western society that is responding both to economic dislocation and cultural dislocation. And that showed up as Brexit, it showed up as Trump. So, it is about race, but it’s also about more than that. What I say in the book is that if it were only about economic dislocation, then Black people would be voting for Trump. Or Latinos would be voting for Trump. But we’re not because it’s both due to the economic anxiety and the cultural anxiety.
Jeffries: In the book you say, “Whatever resistance is emerging should be organizing not just to protest but to govern as well.” What do you mean by that? Should political candidates come out of these movements?
Jones: Sure, there should be candidates, but that’s not the most important part of governing. If you look at the South African model, at first they tried to govern from below. In other words, they had a mass movement that on the one hand was aspiring to elect its leaders to office but was also trying to change the culture of the country to be more inclusive and to be more democratic.
My quarrel with the progressive movement right now is that it seems to be more interested in critiquing the country than governing it.
I’m trying to make room for a progressive idea that can include straight White working class men passionately without displacing our existing commitment to people of color, women of all color, LGBT, Muslims, Native Americans, etc. When you draw your circle too small, you lose elections. When you then try to throw your base under the bus—our Black and Brown base—you lose elections. What you want to do is keep our base at the center but draw the circle bigger to include more people.
And that’s the idea to get out of the trap of: either you through Black and Brown people under the bus to chase the White guys, or you just leave the White guys out and say we don’t need you. Both of those are pathways to defeat. The pathway to victory is to keep the base at the center but draw the circle bigger to include more people.
Jeffries: Who’s your audience for the book, political leaders or everyone else?
Jones: I’m trying to talk to everybody who’s interested in American politics. And unlike a lot of progressives and liberals, I don’t need people to agree with me for me to feel that it’s a productive exchange. I’m more interested in understanding than agreement. In a democracy you get to disagree.
“We need Republicans, we need conservatives.”
Where I am is very committed to engaging in the conversation and trying to keep the inflammation down. We need Republicans, we need conservatives. I don’t want all of them to become liberals, because liberals—we have our own problems. I want conservatives to stay conservatives and keep voting for Republicans—but they can vote for better Republicans. These clowns they’re voting for now, if I gave them a deal that would be 99 percent help for Republican base and 1 percent for Muslims, these fools in Congress would vote against it.
So they’re voting for very, very bad Republicans and getting pulled by the dirty right into authoritarian, racist, sexist directions that are not necessary for the conservative cause.
I will be an opponent to the conservative call because I am a progressive. But I have enough sense to know the difference between, you know, Paul Ryan and a neo-Nazi.
I’m not going to change my mind talking to a Trump voter about what I believe, and I don’t expect them to change their mind fundamentally. But if they can get a little bit more understanding, and I can get a little bit more understanding at the margins we might be able to find some common ground and get something done.
We’re going to fight over 80 percent of this stuff, but there might be 20 percent—on addiction, or criminal justice or jobs—where we don’t have to fight, and shouldn’t fight.
Jeffries: You mention working with some controversial figures, mainly Newt Gingrich. You talk about your admiration for him, and you mention him wanting to return the republic to its philosophical roots and restore American liberty. That to me kind of sounds like Trump’s Make America Great Again. It’s like asking someone in an abusive relationship to forget their abuse, their past, and let’s just move on. Would Newt Gingrich not be that “bad Republican” or “clown Republican?”
Jones: For people who don’t ever try to pass a bill, just sit around and complain about what’s going on, the stuff I say is probably confusing. So, if you don’t ever do that, then it’s hard to understand how you can cooperate with people who you might disagree with on 10 other issues. I’m trying to pass bills to close prisons and get our people home. So let’s start with that.
The people who are in an abusive relationship are the prisoners who are being abused by guards. The people who are in an abusive relationship are the Dreamers who are being chased out of the country by ICE. The people who are in an abusive relationship are the transgender people who are being driven to suicide in the hundreds by society. I am willing to do anything and work with anybody to end the abuse against them.
“There are problems we can solve without anybody having a change of party affiliation.”
The whole liberal culture has curdled into something it wasn’t supposed to be. How am I supposed to close prisons with no Republicans yet Republicans control the White House, the Senate, the House, Supreme Court and two-thirds of the state legislatures.
Like, that’s a very basic question that people who tell me I shouldn’t be working with Newt Gingrich can never answer. I’ve never met anyone who said “Van, please, please, get my loved one home but don’t work with any Republicans.’’ Nobody who actually has their life on the line raises these criticisms.
Jeffries: What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
Jones: That we gotta do a better job. I hope that people who are sick of the crazy and tired of the crazy will welcome at least an attempt to have a sane and hopeful conversation about how to get out of this mess. For me, the takeaway should be that, we can do a lot better. There are problems we can solve without anybody having a change of party affiliation. The dirty right, the rise in violence, racism, and sexism needs to be opposed by all sides. But all sides also need to look in the mirror because you don’t get to a Donald Trump as your president if both parties are healthy and all of our movements are healthy.
There’s something really desperately wrong with the progressive movement and the Democratic party and the mainstream Republican party to wind up in a situation like the one we’re in. And we have to do more than just point fingers at the president at this point. Now, it’s been damn near a year, we should be far enough along in the grieving process to actually do some reflection.
I’ve reformed two police departments. I’ve gotten a racist killer-cop fired. All this stuff people say that should be done, I’ve done. And have come to the conclusion that we have to approach these things with a little bit more sophistication. Because we sometimes wind up ceding what we’re fighting. If you come at it the wrong way, you actually build your opponents' coalition for them. And then you give authority to people who shouldn’t have it.
I want Donald Trump to have to fight for every person he’s got, I’m not gonna let him have a single person easily. I want for progressives in particular to be able to say look, “Not only do we have a better plan for you, we care more about you, we understand you. And by the way, we want you to care about and understand all these other Americans—Muslims, Latino, LGBT, or what have you.’’
And that’s what’s messy, it’s just both sides beating their chests and calling each other names.
This article was funded in part by a grant from the Surdna Foundation.