A political vision for the Green New Deal

Feb. 15, 2019, 1:00 a.m.

Over the last two years, few political ideas have captured the imagination of progressives — and attracted the ridicule of conservatives — as intensely as the Green New Deal. Touted most prominently by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Green New Deal began as an ambitious yet abstract commitment to tackling climate change through an unprecedented economic transformation focused on empowering the communities who will face the effects of climate change most severely. Even before the Green New Deal had any official language attached to it, the leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination all threw their support behind the concept, making it somewhat of a progressive litmus test.

Last week, Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) gave definition to the Green New Deal with a non-binding resolution. The resolution lays out the urgency of addressing climate change and highlights the intersection between environmental issues, economic stagnation and inequity, American national security interests and social justice. Hearkening back to the goals of the Depression-era New Deal, the Green New Deal aims to bring about greater economic opportunities for all Americans. It calls for the government to bolster resilience against climate-related disasters, initiate clean manufacturing and green infrastructure projects, build a sustainable agricultural sector, invest in public transportation and take the lead on global climate action. The resolution also emphasizes “frontline and vulnerable communities” who face the most immediate impacts of climate change, and are most likely to be excluded from political decision-making. The end of the resolution pivots to a broader progressive vision statement that calls for collective bargaining rights, universal healthcare, affordable housing, economic security and access to clean air, clean water, healthy and affordable food and nature.

In the past decade, Congress has failed to pass even the most modest market-based climate mitigation policies. Ed Markey, one of the original cosponsors of the cap-and-trade legislation that died in the Senate in 2009, is now one of the co-authors of the Green New Deal resolution, indicating that some veteran Democrats are ready to leapfrog incremental changes and tackle climate change with the intensity that the crisis demands. My goal is not to persuade Green New Deal opponents that such an ambitious program is necessary; the climate science can speak for itself. Rather, I want to consider how to make the Green New Deal as politically viable as possible.

In 2017, 80 percent of Republicans strongly disapproved of Obamacare, while only 60 percent disapproved of the Affordable Care Act. Obamacare is just a nickname for the Affordable Care Act. Similarly, Republicans will manufacture disdain for any program to which the label “Green New Deal” is ascribed, irrespective of popular openness to the ideas contained within the broad vision statement. Although some of its most ambitious goals are markedly progressive, politicians and voters on both sides of the aisle ought to agree that infrastructure, clean energy, public transportation and good jobs are worthwhile goals. Nevertheless, a Republican party hell-bent on taking down the Green New Deal will attach unnecessary stigma to the resolution and the concrete policies that will ultimately stem from it. Short of a wholesale reconfiguration of the American media, I have no solution to conservative caricatures of the Green New Deal. But, some of the following strategies and narratives may help to discredit Republican attacks and reconcile moderate Democrats’ skepticism of the Green New Deal with progressives’ determination to embrace it:

  1. Draw on the precedent of the original New Deal. President Roosevelt mitigated an economic disaster with investment in public works, agricultural assistance, rural electrification, increased access to homeownership and other forms of aid. Similarly, the Green New Deal is a response to impending environmental disaster and the ongoing issue of economic stagnation among the poorest Americans. Moments of crisis demand bold change, and innovative programs can spark positive societal transformations outlasting the initial emergencies that brought them into existence. For example, the New Deal co-opted socialist and communist movements, intervening in the economic crisis and thereby “saving capitalism from itself.” Our democratic system is strongest when it embraces the demand for social and economic transformation, as embodied by the Green New Deal.
  2. Build a broad coalition. The Green New Deal resolution will give birth to many pieces of legislation, which will lay out specific mechanisms for achieving smaller components of the initial vision statement. Some of these policies, like investment in infrastructure, ought to appeal to Republicans. These legislators should have the political courage to embrace individual policies on the merits, rather than categorically reject anything that falls under the Green New Deal umbrella. Likewise, progressives should welcome their partnership, rather than disavow collaboration with anyone who does not support the Green New Deal in its entirety.
  3. Know when to back away from the language of climate change. The Green New Deal would meaningfully address many other issues, including those that are important to the white working class considered to be Donald Trump’s base. With a focus on American jobs, public health, labor unions and national security, Democrats should be able to articulate the ambitions of the Green New Deal in terms that even a climate denier could find appealing.  
  4. Avoid Democratic infighting. Some form of climate action is a shared goal among most Democrats, and the push-and-pull between the progressive and moderate wings of the party will ultimately result in something substantive — even if it does not fulfill every component of Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s resolution. Much of the commentary around the Green New Deal has tried to pit Ocasio-Cortez and her progressive peers against Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who belittled the Green New Deal as the “green dream, or whatever they call it.” Ocasio-Cortez accepted these comments gracefully, publicly rejected the notion that “green dream” is a dismissive term and did not indulge the narrative of intra-party tension.

For now, the Green New Deal is mostly a 14-page green dream, but it’s our best hope of tempering a climate nightmare. With a multifaceted, inclusive political strategy that strives to build popular support across diverse constituencies, the Green New Deal is a green dream that can come true.


Contact Courtney Cooperman at ccoop20 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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