By Marion Filler
America’s widening political divide can’t be blamed on conservative Republicans, according to CNN commentator Van Jones, a liberal Democrat.
“The consistent message is that America would be okay except you have these awful people in the other party,” he told an online audience Thursday at the Drew Forum.
Jones is not willing to accept that premise. The larger problem, he said, is not the awful people, but the awesome people on both sides who are frustrated and wasting their potential.
“How can the awesome people shut out the noise and start solving real problems? That’s what my life is all about,” said Jones, 52, who discussed his political philosophy with trademark frankness.
His endeavors have earned criticism from the left and right, encouraging him to believe he must be doing something right.
The Tennessee native has worn many hats in his career — activist, Yale Law School graduate, environmentalist, commentator, journalist, best-selling author, Emmy-winning producer, devout Christian, advisor to President Obama, critic of Hillary Clinton, and collaborator with the Trump administration, to name a few.
His goal throughout: Make change happen by understanding how the other guy thinks. Find common ground, and work together to get things done.
“The key is not to convert…but to understand,” Jones said. That includes acknowledging the unease that some white Americans feel about shifting demographics that eventually will make them a minority group, he said.
The live-streamed talk, delayed by technical glitches that moderator Patrick McGuinn attributed to a network overloaded by a large audience, included questions submitted by viewers.
Asked what circumstances influenced his views on diversity, equity and inclusion, Jones replied: “I’ve been black my whole life.”
He noted he was born in 1968, the year Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated.
“They tried to kill hope in America,” Jones said.
He credited his father, a military veteran and school principal, with raising the family out of poverty. This was possible, he said, thanks to liberal social programs, and conservative values of hard work, thrift, and sobriety, to take advantage of those programs.
“The ladder out of poverty is a combination of both,” he said.
Jones said he likes CNN co-host Rick Santorum, and has no difficulty maintaining civil discourse with the former GOP senator from Pennsylvania despite their frequently opposing viewpoints.
He cited examples of his collaborations with Santorum and other Republicans, including members of the Trump administration, to reduce the prison population.
“I’ll work with anybody to keep kids out of prison and I don’t care who likes it or who doesn’t,” Jones said.
Likewise, he expressed empathy for whites who push back against Black Lives Matter, even though “the Racial Justice left will be mad at me. But I’m going to say it anyway.”
Jones went on to decry the snobbery he perceives among Blue State liberals who look down on conservatives, particularly those from southern Red States. Some liberals “want to conquer and convert them to the NPR religion and force-feed them kale so they can rise up to our level. They can feel the contempt.”
Yet he has not lost hope that our society, still essentially segregated, may be repaired.
“We live in different places, but we have similar problems,” Jones observed. He has seen poverty, bad schools, bad jobs, addiction, and overwhelmed criminal justice systems in Appalachia, in “the hood,” on reservations, and on the border.
“Common problems should lead to common purpose,” he said.
Responding to criticism for reaching out to conservatives, Jones noted that 75 million people voted for President Trump. They cannot be ignored, he said, or relegated to hate groups who are only too eager for new members. He plans to keep reaching out to them, for the greater good of everyone.
“Nobody goes to a party without an invitation,” Jones said.