The importance of being centrist Pt.2
Paul Jay speaks with Benjamin Jealous at the Tides Foundations’ Momentum conference in San
Francisco about the fight of the progressive community.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. We’re in San Francisco at the Momentum Conference of the Tides Foundation, and joining us now is Benjamin Jealous. He is the youngest president and CEO of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People]. Thanks for joining us.
BENJAMIN JEALOUS, PRESIDENT AND CEO, NAACP: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
JAY: There is a feeling, starting from the inauguration, that President Obama, in the name of inclusiveness—which is how, for example, Rick Warren, who’s against gay rights and in theory against much of what Obama, his administration, believes in, was invited to the inauguration as part of the invocation process—that this inclusiveness that has included a deal with PhRMA that guarantees PhRMA profits for a decade, that bringing in insurance companies in a way that is starting to become what some think might be a guaranteed level of profits for insurance companies, that there’s a point where you can’t include your opposition to the point that you merge with them, and there’s a point where you struggle against what you think are the enemies of progress, and there’s a feeling of just a lack of that struggle against coming from the White House. Do you think there’s some truth to this?
JEALOUS: Our job is to fight sort of to the left of the administration, to create room for them to come towards us. And that’s something I think people need to really understand, that in the White House we have somebody who’s a trained community organizer. He understands his position on the field; he understands our position on the field. And like anybody who’s played the other place on the field, he has a real critique. You know. And so you—we often—you know, the conversation’s what the—with—you know, come down to: if you guys would do a better job of doing what you’re supposed to do, if you would just get out and don’t worry about what we—you just get out there and fight for what you believe in, it’ll make it easier for me to do more of what you want to do. But if you guys are going to sort of kind of pull back and just try to ride in my wake and get this done, we’re all going to hit, you know, choppy seas and we’re all going to get seasick. I think the left, whenever we find ourselves in a situation where you can say, well, he’s not giving us what we want, really have to quickly turn and look at ourselves and say, you know, are we fighting as hard as we can? Are we pushing as hard as we can push? Are we making it as uncomfortable as possible for him not to do the right thing?
JAY: But can you make it uncomfortable, really uncomfortable for him not to do what you consider the right thing, unless there’s an actual possibility that you won’t vote or support or get your voters out for him? Like, if you take the banking reform, it’s hard to find anyone that supports the banking reforms in the progressive liberal community, or for that matter much of the—even on the right. Wall Street and the way the stimulus package was constructed, the way the bailouts of the financial institutions were constructed, there were others choices there. Isn’t it up to him to lead in this process?
JEALOUS: But look at the next wave of banking reforms. He’s gone out there, and he said said, look, financial services regulatory reform is my second priority after health care. And, you know, we’re trying to get organized to have real influence on that process, and we see some opportunities to use that process to get rid of some of the worst actors in the financial services industry in this country. Most progressives don’t even read the business page, couldn’t even tell you what financial services regulatory reform is, don’t think that it’s tied in to their agenda to get rid of poverty in this country, and it’s absolutely central to it. So, you know, again, I think that, you know, six months in, we’ve won a bunch of victories. I think if we want the next set to be even more meaningful than the ones that we’ve won to date, we have to push much harder, and we also have to really be in this game. I mean, I see people—Van Jones just resigned. A lot of people are disheartened. He’s a close friend of mine. I’m a bit disheartened. But the reality is people then turned around and said, "Well, perhaps we should take our marbles and go home. Perhaps we should stop supporting the president." We had donors who were talking about organizing to protest. Van resigned his job because he’s been inside the White House. He knows exactly what’s at stake. He knows how passionate the folks inside are about making a real reform. And he felt like he’d be—you know, this vicious personal attack on him, you know, on this person who is a best-selling author, this person who was on Time Magazine’s list of the hundred most influential people, was becoming a distraction. But he has—you know, I guarantee you that when he comes outside, he’ll be pushing just as visibly and vocally and with as much force—.
JAY: This kind of goes to the heart of what I was talking about before, which is, if there isn’t a sense that the White House, under the leadership of the president, is passionately fighting for the things he campaigned for and people voted for and leading that in a kind of militant way, instead of what we’re seeing, this kind of compromise, compromise, and conciliation—and this Van Jones thing to me is a very critical litmus test of this—you have a right-wing talk show host who gets to decide who’s going to work in the White House. It’s not about just Van Jones; it’s about a principle. Do you defend your—
JEALOUS: Right. No. And they’ve got four more people out there who they’re going after right now.
JAY: —do you defend your people? And I think it’s fascinating that the thing they really went after Van Jones on wasn’t that one day he called himself a communist; it was 9/11. In the end it was actually that he’d signed some petition questioning whether the Bush administration had properly dealt with 9/11. And if everyone that thought that would lose their jobs, there would be a lot of unemployed people at the end of the day.
JEALOUS: No, no, that’s exactly right. And the lesson that young people should take from this experience is the amount of power and influence Van Jones has been able to create as an activist and the fact that that won’t go away now that he’s left the staff of the White House, rather than taking a lesson of fear, as many did from the McCarthy times. But the—you know, I think what you’re talking about is actually a culture that’s much deeper on the left than just the president. I mean, ever since the Civil War, we have been quick to forgive, quick to "Let’s bring the Confederates back." And, quite frankly, my constituents are often the ones who’ve lost the most, right? At this moment, you know, the Van Jones situation is a little different. The Rick Warren situation, you know, Rick is probably, you know, if you will, the best of the most conservative. I mean, he’s [inaudible] good environmental platform, for instance. And so I can see why they went with him. I think a lot of people, including myself, would have preferred to see Joseph Lowery open and then close than him open and Joseph Lowery close. But what we really need is we need the support of the Rick Warrens of the world to moderate the other side. You know what I’m saying? To say to the other side that they need to be just as Christian as the left in our willingness to forgive. You know what I’m saying? In our willingness to give second chances.
JAY: I mean, here’s what I’m saying. There’s—like, the Obama that got elected got elected ’cause a movement ignited, and people that never voted before voted, and young people got interested. The question is: is he—. You know, he has a choice here, and so far the choice is a bit obvious: stay within the old rules, and, okay, now support me; or follow-up from that campaign and, for example, you know, ask, like, we need 10 million people in front of Congress to say we want real health-care reform, we want a public option. And he’d have 10 million people if he asked for it. You can’t ask for 10 million people to show up. This is the problem of putting it on the left, on the organization. No one has the platform to mobilize millions of people other than him. He could do it. He could say, "Come to Washington and support real reform." But instead he’s negotiating all inside the Beltway.
JEALOUS: This is a very, I think, decisive moment, I think you’re absolutely right, for the future of the country. I think we put too much, I think, on him. The reality is that we have our roles to play; the reality is that, you know, the left in this country could do much more than it’s doing right now. I, you know, in some ways wish that he would stand up and attempt to be sort of the great protest leader as president, but I also wonder what he would give up in the process. And that’s a calculus that’s hard to see from the outside. What’s important for people like me to do it is to be as critical of ourselves, to be as bodacious in our own sort of dreams for ourselves, as we are in our fantasies about what he should be able to do based on his rhetorical skill, his power of president, and the campaign that we saw. And the reality is is that that campaign actually—one of the reasons it succeeded is it was much broader than any of our bases, and it was, I think, even much broader than the people who really support the public option, for instance. And this is a new type of presidency; it’s a new type of possibility. I think [Robert] Reich was, you know, right to suggest that there should be millions of people outside the White House.
JAY: Well, he wasn’t jesting; he just knew nobody would do it ’cause he said so.
JEALOUS: Right. Right.
JAY: But he’d said, you know, if there isn’t a movement,—
JEALOUS: Right. No, that’s exactly right. That’s exactly right.
JAY: —then you can’t move the situation.
JEALOUS: But there are actually ways. I mean, as an organization that has brought hundreds of thousands of people by ourselves to Washington many times, there’s a way to get 10 million people outside there in Washington. It takes the sort of coordination on the left, especially amongst funders—that’s part of why we’re here at the Tides Conference—that we still haven’t seen, you know, that we still haven’t seen. But I actually believe that we could mobilize, you know, 10 million people by ourselves on this issue if—you know, by ourselves as the left if we came together as the left and, really, the center of this country, if we came together and said that we, you know, want to make it a priority. I think one of the things that’s hurting us is that we’re quick to expect that we’ll be defeated, and we’ve got to shift that.
JAY: Well, we’ll be there when you bring the 10 million people. Thanks for joining us.
JEALOUS: Alright. Appreciate you [inaudible].
JAY: Thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.
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