Updated: Oct 28, 2020
By: Maria Giovanna Jumper
Van Jones, CNN political commentator and host of “Redemption Project” and “The Van Jones Show” on CNN, visited Adelphi on February 20, to hold a lecture and master class for students and faculty. He talked about the political climate moving toward Super Tuesday and for the rest of the 2020 presidential election. Throughout his lecture in the Performing Arts Center Concert Hall, Jones brought us back to the 2016 election and the polarization that has been our reality since. The event was sponsored by The William E. Simon Lecture in American Civilization and Values.
Looking back, Jones described the institutional and political rebellions taking place in both the Republican and Democratic parties, these rebellions being perpetrated by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders respectively. Each came with their own ideals that separated the traditional views of the party from their own and were met by disbelief in their own campaigns. An argument can be made, and is made by Van Jones, that both Trump and Sanders were underestimated when they began their campaigns for the 2016 election.
The reaction and outcome of these rebellions within each party were radically different. As Trump broke down the institutional underpinnings of the Republican Party, he also absorbed many of the people who felt distant from his beliefs and politics. Jones described Trump’s next three brilliant steps in securing his candidacy on the Republican ticket. He promised radical Christian groups ultra-conservative judges and gave them a list he would be taking from. He promoted an anti-immigrant outlook to extreme nativists. And, finally, he appealed to big businesspersons by promising tax cuts and other financial incentives to them, while also promoting certain entitlements and social benefits for workers.
On the contrary, Sanders did not win his rebellion in the Democratic Party, though he was able to receive around 47 percent of the Democratic primary vote, according to Jones. With Sanders out of the race it was up to Hillary Clinton to reclaim the institutional underpinnings of her party and reintegrate those who had joined Sanders in his rebellion. Jones pointed to her unsatisfactory attempt to do this as her ultimate downfall. He said that when Clinton drew out a circle of those who she was giving a new voice to—the Muslim, LGBTQ+, Black Lives Matter communities, etc.—she left out many people who traditionally identified as Democrats. Jones described this circle as too small and excluding the white-straight man who needed help because of a lack of employment or other issues. He also pointed to the arrogance of her campaign and the out-right declarations that Trump will never have the possibility of succeeding and to the billion-dollar campaign ads that he said were horrible.
While discussing all of these points on 2016, Van Jones was describing how we got to this point. How we are sitting here in 2020 wondering why Republicans are anti-immigrant bigots and why Democrats are communists. Jones said it was because of the divisive rhetoric used by both candidates that have caused such harsh and stark views of those in the opposite party.
Jones described his experiences helping coal miners in West Virginia who had been cheated out of health care benefits and pensions. He received backlash because these workers mostly voted for Trump and therefore did not deserve his help, according to members of his own party. Yet, Jones had a different view; he saw these coal miners as people who are doing a dangerous job where they risk their life and health daily to provide light for the rest of us. He still believed that these people deserved his help because they are American citizens, who despite their difference in political views, still need health care and pensions.
The issue of communication among the parties was one that first came up during this reporter’s interview with Jones in the master class held prior to the lecture. Fundamentally, we live in a Democracy where disagreement is necessary and causing a fuss or fight is your right, but that cannot only live with constant fighting and still remain a country.
As Jones sees it, “at its best the Republican Party is that of Lincoln; they value liberty, which is a noble thing. The Democratic Party is that of FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] and JFK [John F. Kennedy]; they value justice, which is a noble thing. We believe in liberty and justice for all.”
Jones said the party system works as long as we see the parties as able to work together and not against each other. Our society thrives off the ideas of liberty and justice, and without parties who hold each as a core belief we will not survive.
Jones took this argument to a more personal level. He spoke of his father who was highly educated and who held strong political beliefs, but ultimately thought that each party “sucked” on their own. He recalled his father going to the Tennessee School Board and fighting for increased funding in the schools and advocating for the impoverished children in these schools, which would be an approach aligned with the Democratic Party. He then spoke of his father going into the schools and telling the students to clean up their lives and realize that they need to pull themselves “up the latter and out of poverty,” which is an approach aligned with the Republican party.
Jones said the best way to solve this political divide is to go back to these fundamental core beliefs. Instead of calling people out we need to be “calling people back up.” Calling people names like bigot and communist isn’t going to solve our issues no matter how many times we do it or with how much emotion. But calling people back up to the ideals of liberty and justice that their parties believe in, may very well solve this problem.
Returning to 2020 election and leading to Super Tuesday and the other primaries, Jones left us all with an image of 2016 and trying to mend the divide.
Jones stated, “Our intolerance of their intolerance is creating a market for more intolerance.”
There will be a lot of chatter leading up to Super Tuesday—March 3—and all the candidates will be speaking out or appealing to voters as the days count down, but ultimately on Wednesday morning we will all wake up and still be in this predicament if we don’t work on these communication issues.
Jones left us all with the final sentiment that it will get worse before it gets better. No matter who wins in 2020, things will not automatically correct themselves. But we can take comfort in the fact that eventually it will get better, especially if we recognize how each of us can change this divide.