Anthony Kapel “Van” Jones is a CNN political contributor and the host of The Messy Truth, which aims to spark conversation between people with different political views. He is the author of two New York Times best-sellers, The Green Collar Economy (2008) and Rebuild the Dream (2012). His newest release, The Messy Truth, came out this year.
Harvard Political Review: What inspired you to write your new novel, The Messy Truth, and what message are you hoping to get across to readers?
Van Jones: The book is really tough love for both parties. The last third of it is trying to point out practical, logical solutions that we can have in the country right now, with nobody stopping being a Republican and nobody stopping being a Democrat. I think we’ve gotten to the point where we think that the only way we can govern the country is if we have 100 percent Republicans or 100 percent Democrats in power. There is a real battleground, but there is also a real common ground between these parties: criminal justice reform, the opioid crisis, better education, and job training for our young people. People don’t know how to talk to each other anymore. We have resources in the book to have people watch each other’s documentaries, read each other’s books—left to right—so we can at least start having a conversation again.
HPR: You mentioned that progressives might have “drawn the circle too small” in terms of who’s in and who’s out of it. Can you outline a few of the approaches that you have to begin to push that circle outward again?
VJ: I think that working class white guys in the Rust Belt can rightfully feel that the party is not as welcoming as it once was. On the one hand, it might be a form of privilege to expect that the party is going to be welcoming. But on the other hand, why would someone vote for a party that they don’t fit into? You have to be fair on both sides. I think you can have a progressive movement that is passionate about all of the traditionally excluded constituencies and passionate about some of these newly marginalized white constituencies, in Appalachia and in the industrial heartland, who still don’t really have a champion.
The Republican Party has convinced lower-income white people to vote for it. The Democratic Party has convinced lower-income people of color to vote for it, but if you’re lower-income in America you’re still screwed regardless of where you live. We need to have some kind of a movement that, whether you’re a red state or a blue state, the people who don’t have very much can start sticking together. That doesn’t mean go form some other party—Republicans stay in the Republican Party but vote for better Republicans. If you’re a Democrat stay in the Democratic Party but vote for better Democrats.
HPR: A big part of that problem is learning to engage in difficult conversations. We see that, for example, with the Colin Kaepernick debate—how can people effectively navigate that discussion?
VJ: Why the hell are we talking about it in the first damn place? Why is this the most important conversation in the world? We pick ignorant shit to talk about, and then we end up fighting. Can we fight from nine to noon, and then from noon to three talk about something reasonable, get something done? And then we can fight again from three to dinnertime, and then we can go home. To me, that would make more sense. Of course, rich, entitled celebrities have the freedom to speak because there’s no richer or more entitled celebrity than Donald Trump, who had been complaining about America for 20 years. Of course, these football players can complain about America if they want to—Donald Trump complains about America, and he’s the richest celebrity in the world.
This whole thing, we’re never going to agree on it. We only talk about stuff we’ll never agree on: healthcare, immigration, Colin Kaepernick. We never talk about stuff we already agree on. You have to fight on the stuff you don’t agree on; that’s a democracy. But you can’t only fight and still have a country. The Kaepernick thing has been beat to death. If he kneels or if he doesn’t kneel, we still have a thousand problems.
The conservatives have missed a huge opportunity, because a smarter conservative would have said, “Hold on a second, we have all these rich black guys from neighborhoods and they’re saying that their neighborhoods are unsafe and have no opportunity. Those neighborhoods are probably governed by Democrats. I’m not going to call you out. I’m going to call you in and say you’re right, your community has been left out and screwed over by Democrats. I’m a conservative, but I’m going to help you. I’m going to help you get jobs, I’m going to help you get work ready, and I’m going to help you reform the criminal justice system.” That would have been a smart move, but they found the cheap, easy way of dividing people. We should talk about stuff we actually might agree on.
HPR: Some people have compared this, though, to the Civil Rights movement or more specifically to the case of Rosa Parks, where the white response was similar. Based on your response, how might this case be different from historical forms of successful black activism?
VJ: President Trump doesn’t understand that these are the most popular black protests in the history of the country. When the Freedom Riders were doing what they were doing, it was 80 percent of white people saying “enough is enough with that crap, cut it out.” Now you have 60 percent of white people saying it. Twice as many white people are approving of what you’re seeing right now than approved the whole Civil Rights movement. Trump has [many] people on his side, but, 20 years from now, Colin Kaepernick is going to be seen in the same light as Muhammad Ali. Trump [will] likely be seen in the same light as Richard Nixon.
On the downside, the connection between the Freedom Rides and transportation rights and between sit-ins and open accommodations was direct and obvious. The connection between kneeling during the Star-Spangled Banner and police brutality is less obvious. It leaves more room for misunderstanding. But you have to be willfully misunderstanding these guys, if you’re the President of the United States. Why are we talking about soldiers? No football player has ever said anything bad about a soldier I think in the history of the country. Why are you saying they’re disrespecting soldiers? Why are you saying they’re disrespecting the flag when it was a veteran who said not to sit for the anthem, but to stand up and take a knee. You take a knee when someone is injured on the field, so take a knee because you’re saying democracy has been injured. It was a respectful gesture that is calling for America to be better. It is a patriotic gesture, even according to Colin’s supporters. But these side-controversies prevent us from making black lives better and white lives better and Latino lives better in the country, and it doesn’t have to be that way. We can fight about this for another year if we want to, and still get something done.
Image Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore
This interview has been edited and condensed.