The most polarizing issue today in the United States is the seemingly impenetrable divide between different groups. Whether framed as the political conflict between liberals and conservatives, the economic one between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the nation, or the social tension between whites and people of color, these conflicts threaten to tear our country apart.
Addressing and proposing ways to heal these conflicts is the topic of Van Jones’ new book Beyond the Messy Truth. Jones is a well-respected CNN political contributor whose credentials include a law degree from Yale, service as a special adviser to the Obama White House, founder of the social justice accelerator the Dream Corps, leader of numerous social and environmental justice enterprises, and recipient of honors from such diverse organizations as the World Economic Forum, Fast Company, and Time magazine. Equally important are the lessons he learned growing up in a poor African American family in the rural South, such as the need to work especially hard to succeed against all odds and the Christian ethic of compassion and respect for all human beings including his white neighbors.
While Van Jones is a dedicated progressive, he has an unusual ability to bridge many of our most painful divides by taking a stand for the whole. Jones writes, “I believe that this country needs both liberals and conservatives. And we need both traditions at their best and highest expressions, especially now. We might have different ideas about how to approach a crisis, but of this I am sure: We need the best ideas from all sides to get to the best solution.” In other words he is a natural systems thinker.
This ability to stand for the whole jumps out in many ways:
- The back cover of the book includes testimonials from both well-known liberals such as Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders, and conservatives such as former Presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee.
- His first chapter titled “America Betrayed – By Both Parties” describes how both Democratic and Republican elites ignored the needs of their core constituents for many years and led to President Trump’s election.
- His “Open Letter to Liberals” both celebrates their commitment justice for all people and pushes them to go beyond their own biases and limitations. He challenges their abandonment of the white working class, disparagement of many of the beliefs held by practicing Christians, and contempt for conservative voters in red states.
- His “Open Letter to Conservatives” honors the importance of their values while also confronting them on failing to live up to their ideals. He praises their deep respect for both the foundational liberties and checks and balances built into our Constitution. He appreciates conservatives’ emphasis on incremental change, fiscal responsibility, and non-governmental approaches to problem-solving. At the same time, he challenges their support of a tyrannical leader in the name of getting things done, willingness to substitute “fake news” for free speech, disregard for the separation of Church and state, and support for white conservative men at the expense of other Americans
- His extensive list of “Bridge-Building Resources” includes numerous books, films, podcasts, and feeds to help all of us better understand both red-state and blue-state Americans.
The synthesis that Jones proposes manifests in three areas. First, he recommends targeted solutions to our most pressing national problems: the need for bi-partisan criminal justice reform which he has championed in partnership with his respected adversary Newt Gingrich, the opioid epidemic which has hit rural and poor white communities especially hard, and the need to alleviate rising unemployment by creating new 21st century jobs in high tech and clean energy.
Second, he summarizes important questions that both sides need to be asking in relation to any problem:
- Questions typically asked by conservatives such as: “How much does this cost and who’s going to pay for it? Should the government even be providing such and such a thing? Why can’t a parent or community group or a religious organization or the free market take care of this?”
- Those commonly asked by liberals such as: “Can America be a great nation if we only do stuff that corporations can make money off? What about big groups that might run over little groups? What about strong groups that might take advantage of weak groups?”
Finally he reminds us of our deepest commitments as a nation by citing our pledge of allegiance to liberty and justice for all, and our nation’s motto e pluribus unum (out of the many, one). He also evokes the powerful metaphor of a bird which can only fly with two wings to further implore us to use both.
Our country desperately needs leadership that stands for all sides out of a deep conviction that everyone matters. Van Jones is one such individual, and we highly recommend his book.