Why a Green New Deal is a Great Idea
It links public responsibility, ecological sanity, and economic justice at a moment of manifest political irresponsibility
We are now entering the fourth week of Donald Trump’s most recent historic achievement in the ongoing horror show that is his presidency: the federal government has for all intents and purposes ceased to function.
Damon Linker summarized it well in a recent column:
In a little under three weeks, the shutdown has already led the Food and Drug Administration to curtail food inspections, trash and toilets to overflow at national parks, Transportation Security Administration employees at airport checkpoints to call in sick and quit their jobs, car accidents involving fatalities to go uninvestigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, crop reports to be delayed by the Department of Agriculture, and museums and monuments in Washington to be shuttered. With every passing day, more balls will be dropped and more work will be neglected. It’s the proverbial snowball rolling down a hill, gathering size and speed as it goes. By the time it reaches bottom, it may be the leading edge of an avalanche of dysfunction.
It is impossible to understand this situation without understanding the malevolent narcissism of Trump and his obsession with building a Big Wall to keep out Foreigners and to give his fans — fanatics — a Big Win. But it is impossible to understand Trump and his obsession without understanding the moral cesspool from which Trumpism emerged to completely dominate the Republican Party, a cesspool long inhabited by Iowa Republican Congressman and White Supremacist in Chief Steve King. King publicly wondered last week, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” Chris Cilizza then asked, “How in the world is Steve King still in Congress?” But indeed King has served in Congress since 2003, and he has hardly been alone, nor has he been quiet. The real question is this: how in the world is Steve King’s namesake Stephen Miller in the White House, feeding words to King’s soulmate, Donald Trump? The New York Times put it well: “Before Trump, Steve King Set the Agenda for the Wall and Anti-Immigrant Politics.”
Trump’s cruel and racist ideas about immigrants and borders have a fine pedigree within the Republican Party; and while there have been other tendencies, Trump has soundly defeated them.
So too Trump’s cynical contempt for government and for governance. Let’s face it. It’s been at least 50 years — fifty years, a half-century! — since any powerful Republican had anything good to say about “Washington,” by which they mean “Big Government,” by which they mean almost everything that the federal government does, however haltingly and inadequately, to provide for public welfare. The post-Goldwater Republican Party has seamlessly melded free market fundamentalism with good old-fashioned neo-Confederate hatred of “federal tyranny,” to produce an all-purpose hostility to viewing public policy as public remedy for public problems.
Last week, while a newly-bearded Ted Cruz, aka “Lyin’ Ted,” was accompanying Trump on his border wall photo op, Marco Rubio, aka “Little Marco,” made it clear that while he too fully supported Trump’s wall, he did not (yet) favor a declaration of “national emergency” because he feared the precedent it would set: “. . . we have to be careful about endorsing broad uses of executive power. I’m not prepared to endorse that right now . . . If today, the national emergency is border security … tomorrow the national emergency might be climate change.”
These words require parsing.
Rubio likens an absurd, impossible and imaginary wall intended to “solve” a “problem” that does not exist, to a Democratic effort to address climate change, a problem that most certainly exists.
Indeed, his precise point is that he opposes the means of declaring a “national emergency” because while this time it might be invoked to support something he believes is good — a Great Wall of Trump — in the future it might be invoked to support something he clearly believes is bad — dramatic policy changes designed to save the planet from catastrophe. Rubio indeed implies that while he is “not prepared to endorse” Trump’s autocratic action “just now,” he might well be so prepared tomorrow. But he is unequivocal about climate change: this is clearly something that does not demand urgent and bold attention.
Such is Republican “reasonableness” in the Age of Trump.
And this is why the idea of a Green New Deal, given much recent attention due to the savvy public statements of the sharp and charismatic Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is so important: because it offers a bold vision of public policy designed to address a real problem of catastrophic proportions. For as the widely-cited (but not cited enough!) recent report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change demonstrates, without dramatic, deliberate, and concerted efforts on a global scale, the predicted rate of global warming will soon generate disaster. As Umair Irfan puts it in Vox: “From rising sea levels to more devastating droughts to more damaging storms, the report makes brutally clear that warming will make the world worse for us in the forms of famine, disease, economic tolls, and refugee crises.”
If the wall is a delusional and cruel idea, a Green New Deal is an eminently sane and compelling idea, intended to promote human well-being and social justice at a time when both are in jeopardy.
For anyone unconvinced, I strongly recommend the terrific Vox piece published last week by David Roberts, “The Green New Deal, Explained.”
Roberts carefully explains the genealogy of the “Green New Deal” idea; the different forces, some liberal and some more radical, behind it; and the different policies that the idea — still in process of being worked out, and contested — could include. He writes with appreciation about how the idea was promoted by both Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein in 2016, and has recently been catapulted into public discourse by the statements of Ocasio-Cortez and others; the activism of the group “Brand New Congress”; and the successful sit-ins of Nancy Pelosi organized by the youth-led Sunrise Movement, which Ocasio-Cortez supported but did not join, walking a very savvy fine line separating her current role of Congressperson from her former role as activist, preserving space to effectively negotiate with Pelosi about the formation of a House Select Committee on a Green New Deal. Roberts also discusses the current limits of this advocacy — the new Select Committee on Climate Change, recently established by Pelosi, is not framed by a commitment to a Green New Deal, and lacks many of the powers sought by Ocasio-Cortez and the 40 members of Congress who signed on to her proposal.
Roberts makes clear that “the activists who have kickstarted this unlikely movement are well aware that they are the underdogs in this fight”; that while they seek to impact the legislative process, their medium-term goal is to influence and indeed transform public discourse, bringing the Green New Deal idea to the center of political discussion and promoting it as a way to mobilize a new political majority. He also notes that: “There is immense potential energy in the GND, a concentration of social attention and intensity. But converting that heat to power — to real results on the ground — will involve a great deal of political and policy engineering, almost all of which lies ahead.”
A number of recent pieces shed light on the political promise of a Green New Deal while at the same time acknowledging the profound obstacles in the way of such a vision. Jim Pugh, in In These Times, writes that “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Push for a Green New Deal Is Not Just Good Policy—It’s Political Genius.” In TheIntercept, Naomi Klein reflects on “The Game Changing Promise of a Green New Deal.” And in New York Magazine, Eric Levitz seriously poses the question: “Is a Green New Deal Possible Without a Revolution?”
The power of the idea derives from three things: (1) by explicitly invoking the New Deal, it frames current challenges as analogous to the challenges of the 1930s, and declares a commitment to a bold politics of remedy centered on a strong public sector response; (2) it represents the only serious way of addressing the looming ecological and social crisis posed by global warming; and (3) it links “environmental policy” with policies that promote sustainable economic development and greater distributive justice. The economic justice aspects of the idea are central to its potential political appeal at a time of serious inequality in which populist appeals have great public resonance.
And so it is unsurprising that some of the recent attention — and controversy — accorded to the idea is linked to Ocasio-Cortez’s candor about the need for dramatic increases in tax progressivity to pay for it. Of course such claims will be met with opposition from conservatives. But they are strong and reasonable claims with potential to shift public discourse and expand the base of the democratic left. As widely respected CNBC commentator John Harwood notes in his recent piece, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has kick-started the Democratic tax debate with her 70 percent marginal rate idea.” While many have presented her proposal as radical, Harwood, like many others, points out that: “In fact, Ocasio-Cortez didn’t propose taking 70 percent of anyone’s income. She suggested applying the rate only to earnings beyond $10 million, meaning those affected would pay a much lower share of their income overall … The top tax rate stood above 90 percent throughout the 1950s … The top rate remained 70 percent as late as 1981, the first year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The most affluent one percent paid a far lower average rate of 30.5 percent, however, according to a Tax Policy Center analysis. By 1989, when Reagan left office, the top rate had been slashed to 28 percent … ”
It goes without saying that a Green New Deal will face intense opposition from the fossil fuel industry, and from a Republican Party opposed to any serious policies to deal with climate change or economic inequality, and seeking wherever possible to change the subject to “Mexican rapists,” “Muslim terrorists,” and border walls. It will also face opposition from within the Democratic Party itself. Dramatic policy changes never come easy, something, as Levitz notes, that political leaders strongly promoting the idea well understand:
“The last time we had a really major existential threat to this country was around World War II, and so we’ve been here before and we have a blueprint of doing this before” Ocasio-Cortez told supporters in October. “What we did was that we chose to mobilize our entire economy and industrialized our entire economy and we put hundreds of thousands if not millions of people to work”— a mobilization that the Congresswoman-elect sees as “a potential path towards a more equitable economy with increased employment and widespread financial security for all.”
As Levitz points out, this is a powerful vision, commensurate with the problems we face. But he also notes that “when viewed through a strictly political lens, the analogy breaks down.” For the New Deal order that responded to the last “existential crisis” required not simply the substantial mass mobilizations of the 1930s, but an Axis threat prompting the greater mass mobilizations of a Second World War in the 1940s. And it was enacted in large part because the Democratic Party held the presidency for six consecutive terms (the four terms won by FDR starting in 1932, and the two terms won by Truman, who served until January, 1953).
In short, the obstacles to a Green New Deal are immense. This is well understood by many of its most committed activists on the left. And while some on the left might sincerely wish to “Make Sure the ‘Green New Deal’ Doesn’t Become Green Capitalism,” it is hard to imagine a scenario whereby a socialist or democratic socialist party can become dominant, much less achieve government power, in the near future. The most vital policy debates about a Green New Deal are thus likely to take place within the Democratic Party — as political leaders such as Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders, and activist leaders such as Sean McElwee, seem to acknowledge. And this means that they are likely to involve dilution, incorporation, and compromise. Such a dialectic between social movements and political parties has always been the source of major change in American politics, as Daniel Schlozman makes clear in his award-winning 2015 book When Movements Anchor Parties: Electoral Alignments in American History.
And this is why the success of Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow Justice Democrats in pushing the topic of a Green New Deal to the center of public discourse is so important: because it presents the possibility of focusing public debate, and political contention, in a way that links public responsibility, ecological sanity, and economic justice at a moment of manifest political irresponsibility, insanity, and injustice.
At such a moment there is much to despair. But there is also cause for the kind of hopefulness and creativity celebrated in the Duke Ellington aphorism that has often headed this column: “I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.”
And in that spirit, I close with two jazz recordings.
The first, “Blue in Green,” is a ballad featured on Miles Davis’s album Kind of Blue, widely considered to be among the most important, and best-selling, recordings in jazz history:
The second, “On Green Dolphin Street,” is a more upbeat tune also made famous by Miles Davis:
In the coming weeks, months, and years, may we have more green, and more blues, in our politics. And may a pallid orange be removed from the scene as quickly as possible.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. A Senior Editor at, and regular contributor to, Public Seminar. His new book, #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, is published by Public Seminar Books/OR Books. You can purchase it here. Follow Jeff on Facebook.