Policy change is not reliably driven by electoral outcomes or public opinion. It is instead a product of intense insider activity to overcome profound status quo biases in the political system—biases that are not easily moved by external political pressure or material resources. A review of the political histories of the most significant policy changes over the past 70 years (a universe of 790 legislative enactments) finds that only 2.9 percent of the time were public protests and demonstrations credited as a contributing factor in significant policy change. Only 9.4 percent of the time was constituent pressure found to be a factor in the same. And only 11.1 percent of the time was supportive public opinion found to have been a factor in the course of enacting new laws.
Political scientist Matt Grossmann, the author of that study, concludes: [N]o matter the issue concern, institutionalized entrepreneurs coalescing and compromising within government institutions are the key components of policymaking. I find no issue areas where policy outcomes are primarily a product of public opinion, media coverage, or research trends. Insular policymaking via cooperation among political officials and interest groups is not merely a type of political conflict; it is the typical form of policymaking across the issue spectrum.
“Insular policymaking via cooperation among political officials and interest groups” is what you need. Alas, it’s something that you don’t seem very interested in.
MARCH 31, 2019 AN OPEN LETTER TO GREEN NEW DEALERS from the Niskanen Center I write this as a friend who wants your movement to succeed. Your cause is just and, due to decades worth of political inaction (some of which, I’m sorry to say, I have to personally account for),
The hour is late. As the U.N.’s sixth Global Environmental Outlook declared this month, “urgent action at an unprecedented scale” is necessary to address climate change and the degradation of critically important ecosystems. The 2019 Global Risks Report, published by the World Economic Forum (an international, nonprofit institute serving as a forum for top business, political, and academic elites from around the world), concludes that climate-related risks now account for three of the top five global risks by likelihood, and four of the top five by impact. While there is a wide distribution of possible outcomes from climate change, we are already incurring serious risks from existing greenhouse gas concentrations, and the most likely outcomes by 2100 (imperfectly and conservatively accounted for by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, otherwise known as the IPCC) are frightening. The worst-case scenarios — many of which are as likely to occur as the best-case scenarios — suggest that catastrophic tipping points might be crossed before we realize it, with the real possibility of severe and irreversible ecological, economic, and human damage if we fail to act.
You are right: It is long past time to mince words about the risks at our doorstep. Our cavalier attitude towards the well-being of future generations is ethically scandalous. We are playing a reckless game of dice with the future of the human race. Your movement, while sometimes given to overstatement regarding the certainty that apocalypse is now (or soon-to-be) upon us, sees past the hand-waving (hand-waving that is rebutted well, incidentally, by the website Skeptical Science and my colleague Joseph Majkut) and the shrugging ambivalence of many others. You are passionately animated by a full appreciation of what’s at stake, and few are.
I worry, however, that despite all of the new energy you’ve unleashed on the political scene, you are setting your cause back, not moving it forward. Nothing about the seriousness of the threat we are facing changes the fact that politics is “the art of the possible,” not exhortation for the impossible. Given that serious action on climate will have to come out of the institutions we have — not those we might wish for — the strategies and tactics you are pursuing through the Green New Deal amount to political malpractice. Moreover, the policy initiatives you’re promoting are rightly difficult for political actors to swallow. As veteran Democratic operative Stuart Eizenstat warned this month, “Speaking from experience, by demanding the moon, their proposals will crash on the launching pad and lead to nowhere good.”
What makes your Green New Deal innovative is that it ties climate action to a host of extremely ambitious progressive initiatives that have little or nothing to do with climate change. The Green New Deal resolution (introduced in the House by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York’s 14th district and in the Senate by Ed Markey of Massachusetts) is literally 10-parts “New Deal” to 1-part “climate.” Beyond the climate-related goals it asks Congress to adopt, the resolution also calls for:
- “guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States,
- “strengthening and protecting the right of all workers to organize, unionize, and collectively bargain free of coercion, intimidation, and harassment,
- “strengthening and enforcing labor, workplace health and safety, antidiscrimination, and wage and hour standards across all employers, industries, and sectors,
- “ensuring a commercial environment where every businessperson is free from unfair competition and domination by domestic or international monopolies,
- “providing all people of the United States with high-quality health care,
- “providing all people of the United States with affordable, safe, and adequate housing,”
- “providing all people of the United States with economic security,
- “promot(ing) justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth (referred to in this resolution as ‘frontline and vulnerable communities’),
- “providing resources, training, and high-quality education, including higher education, to all people of the United States, with a focus on frontline and vulnerable communities,” all while
- “supporting family farming.”
Beyond that, the resolution tackles just about every non-climate-related concern on the environmental agenda, calling for new federal programs to:
- increase soil health,
- provide for a “sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food,
- “restoring and protecting threatened, endangered, and fragile ecosystems through locally appropriate and science-based projects that enhance biodiversity,
- “cleaning up existing hazardous waste and abandoned sites, ensuring economic development and sustainability on those sites,” and
- “providing all people of the United States with clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and access to nature.”
Republican demagoguery aside, it’s unclear what any of that would actually mean in terms of public policy. And that’s by design. Maybe “providing all people of the United States with high-quality health care” means a Bernie Sanders Medicare-for-All plan. But it could also mean fixes to the Affordable Care Act. Maybe “providing all people of the United States with economic security” means a $15 federal minimum wage and Universal Basic Income. Or perhaps it simply entails increases in existing welfare programs. The idea, I gather, is to establish where the Green New Deal is going and to politically commit Congress to the trip. The length of the journey (policy ambition) and detailed itinerary (policy design) is TBD based on the political give and take that is to come. This is a resolution after all, not a bill, and that’s typically what resolutions are designed to do.
These commitments, however, are so unqualified and open-ended that members don’t know what to make of them. That has provided Republicans with an opening to characterize the Green New Deal in the most lurid terms, which has naturally made Democrats deeply uncomfortable. When asked about the Green New Deal on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, for instance, Sen. Dick Durbin (IL) said “I’ve read it and I’ve reread it and I asked Ed Markey, what in the heck is this?” Speaker Nancy Pelosi has referred to it dismissively as “‘The Green Dream,’ or whatever they call it. Nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”
There was an FAQ that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s office emailed to reporters the day her resolution was introduced. That document, however, did not fill in many details. Moreover, it has been mired in controversy and subsequently disavowed by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and the resolution’s co-sponsors, and nothing has been offered in its place. Hence, I can’t be sure to what extent even that vague FAQ currently reflects, or ever completely reflected, Green New Dealism.
A useful policy agenda for the Green New Deal was published by Data for Progress, a progressive think tank with ties to Rep. Ocasio-Cortez. But that document is less a translation of the resolution than an exhortation for what some progressives hope might follow from it. Another new progressive think tank with close ties to Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, New Consensus, has published a less granular summary of the thinking behind the Green New Deal, along with a reading list for those who want to dig deeper into the ideas animating it. While both Data for Progress and New Consensus tell us what the progressive community is aiming for with the resolution, they don’t necessarily tell us anything about how congressional supporters will interpret these vague Green New Deal goals and objectives.
Rule number one in politics is not to let your opponents define you or your ideas. The vague but suggestive Green New Deal resolution, however, was an open invitation for Republicans to do exactly that. The FAQ and background material coming out of the progressive community gave everyone to your right plenty of ammunition to define you as radicals bent on a sweeping, revolutionary enterprise. “I think the idea is you never let your message get too far out ahead of the substance, and we have definitely created a vacuum and left space for people to fill with what they think the Green New Deal is based on their assumptions and past experiences,” conceded Rhiana Gunn-Wright of New Consensus. “It’s certainly a danger, but it’s a danger worth taking by ensuring we get frontline voices in.”
That last line is really the key to understanding the politics animating, and the policies constituting, the Green New Deal. Allow me to try my hand at making the very best case for your strategy as I understand it.
The Green New Deal Theory of Policy Change
The biggest difficulty associated with tackling climate change is that reducing greenhouse gas emissions imposes very real, very transparent, and very immediate costs with the prospect of benefits that will only become apparent someday down the road. Whatever we might think about the long-term benefits of climate action, in the short-term, it appears to be all cost no matter how much we try to convince voters that there are green jobs, a stronger economy, a healthier planet, or cleaner air and water at the end of the rainbow. Your strategy to overcome that problem is to bury the costs of climate action in a cornucopia of benefits for left-leaning interest groups and to make climate change a central part of the larger progressive program for societal transformation.
This makes some sense. If you can’t build a coalition to advance climate action with Republicans, the business community, and the center-right (as noted by political scientist Theda Skocpol, this was the most important lesson learned from the failed Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade initiative in 2009–10), then, per Brad DeLong, you’ll have to build it from the left. Given that climate change has never been a very salient issue outside of the environmental community, the policy payoffs to the social justice crowd are the necessary prerequisites for coalition building. Going all-in with this strategy (climate action as the means by which all of the left’s political dreams will come true) has the added advantage of harnessing one of the few assets at your disposal to break the reluctance of governing elites (in both parties) to address climate change with the requisite ambition: progressive grassroots power. Given how unlikely it is that the political establishment will ever rise to the challenge and do what’s required to stave off climate change (they sure haven’t done so yet, and they’ve been staring at the problem for more than 30 years), a radical disruption of American politics must somehow be brought about. Grassroots action is thus your only option. No matter how long the odds, business-as-usual politics is not going to cut it. We have to throw the long ball.
For this to work, you need as many activists as you can get, and they need to be politically weaponized to the greatest extent possible. The scale and scope of the progressive blueprints for the Green New Deal, and the suggestive if vaguely worded Green New Deal resolution, are perfectly designed to do exactly that.
Boiled down, then, your strategy is to create a permanent progressive electoral majority fueled by citizen activism to overwhelm the opposition and stymie any future efforts at repeal. Let’s call this “the Grover Norquist total victory theory of policy change,” because that’s exactly what it is. And I doubt it will work any better for you than it has for him.
While there’s a lot wrong with your strategy (which I’ll get to in a moment), one of the most important things that I don’t think you fully appreciate is that the politics of cost imposition is primarily, as noted by political scientist Kent Weaver, the politics of blame avoidance. Members of Congress don’t like imposing pain on their constituents without having some way of breaking what political scientist Douglas Arnold calls the “traceability chain” — the ability of negatively affected constituents to detect costs, trace them to their source, and punish those responsible. The most effective way to do that is bipartisanship. By putting both parties on the record in favor of cost imposition, you make it harder to run against one. Another useful way to break the traceability chain is to play down costs and render them (via clever policy design) opaque and difficult to detect.
Your strategy flirts with disaster by avoiding both approaches. It is nakedly partisan and, to fuel the grassroots movement you’re trying to build, implicitly casts costs as a feature, not a bug, of the ambitious and visionary national mobilization you’re aiming to achieve. You’re betting that the progressive electoral majority that will theoretically come out of this will protect your congressional supporters from any public blowback over costs.
Can this possibly work? No. Let’s run through the problems and then turn to what might do the trick.
Climate Change is Not “Everything Policy”
While there may be a political logic to bundling all of these causes together, there isn’t much policy logic to it, and that introduces a host of problems for you.
Your public story for why all of these undertakings need to be tackled as one is because they are all related to one another. I first heard that argument back in 2016 regarding a ballot initiative that would have imposed a carbon tax in the state of Washington. Many progressives actually opposed what would have been the most aggressive climate policy ever adopted in the United States because “viewing climate change as an environmental body of work is way too limited,” explained Becky Kelley, president of the Washington Environmental Council and a leader of the progressive opposition. “It’s not really an environmental issue, it’s a broad, societal and economic issue … Climate policy is not environmental policy. It is everything policy.”
Your “it’s all related” argument, however, is rather thin. No matter how you feel, for instance, about declining union power in the United States, climate change did not cause a decline in union power, and the climate-related initiatives within the Green New Deal will have little impact on union power one way or the other. Granted, climate change may modestly exacerbate some of the extraneous, non-climate-related problems addressed in the Green New Deal, but if that’s true, then reducing greenhouse gas emissions will remedy those harms directly, with no additional policy lifts necessary.
Worse, your “it’s all related” argument validates and amplifies misplaced conservative objections to rapid decarbonization. For instance, you argue that a federal jobs guarantee and the like are critical because decarbonization will require immediate and massive transformation of the economy, necessitating federal action to ensure that radically transformed labor markets protect the well-being of millions of displaced workers. Conservative critics of climate action often make that same point in the course of arguing that the cost of decarbonization is staggeringly high.
The labor market dislocations associated with decarbonization, however, are modest at best. According to a macroeconomic modeling exercise discussed in the highly regarded Risky Business report, an 80 percent reduction of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (an admittedly less ambitious target than that forwarded by the Green New Deal, but nonetheless a target that puts the United States on a path to doing its share to prevent global warming from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels) would likely produce a net increase of hundreds of thousands of jobs right off the bat, with a million or more new jobs created less than two decades hence. These are relatively small numbers in the context of the overall economy, but still, additional federal job-creation measures are unnecessary to accommodate rapid decarbonization.
Similarly, all of your rhetoric about the need for “national mobilization” to put the economy on the equivalent of a wartime footing wildly overstates the level of ambition required to tackle climate change. The same Risky Business report calculates that the aforementioned 80 percent reduction of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 would require additional capital investments averaging ~$220 billion per year from 2020–2030, $410 billion per year from 2030–2040, and $360 billion per year from 2040–2050. That’s an increase of annual, economy-wide investment of between 0.4 and 2 percent of U.S. GDP through 2050. A similar study by Energy and Environmental Economics, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that those reductions would probably cost 0.8 percent of GDP in 2050, with a 50 percent probability the actual number would range from a positive gain of 0.2 percent of GDP to a loss of 1.8 percent of GDP.
To put that in perspective, defense spending associated with World War II amounted to 15.9 percent of U.S. GDP in 1942, 32.2 percent of GDP in 1943, 36 percent of GDP in 1944, and 37.2 percent of GDP in 1945. Rapid decarbonization is a major economic undertaking for sure, but it’s nothing remotely close to the economic challenges posed by World War II.
Whether you intend to or not, you are confirming — and raising to a whole new level — unwarranted fear that the cost of addressing climate change is staggeringly high. And no matter how you cut it, high costs do not a useful selling point make.
Attack of the Killer Watermelons
The Green New Deal resolution quite literally gives a nod to every single last policy demand forwarded by the Democratic Socialists of America. I fear that your “DSA-in-a-box” strategy, however, suggests to the public that conservatives were right all along in charging that climate hawks are political watermelons: green on the outside, red on the inside.
Moreover, you are inadvertently confirming conservative suspicions that you are stoking fears about climate change as a convenient excuse to achieve your real objective: dismantling capitalism as we know it and putting society on a wartime footing under the direction of avowed socialists. While that’s an unfair characterization of the motivations of most of the climate activists I know, “solution aversion” and the suspicion that environmentalists are fundamentally hostile to contemporary American society are two key factors fueling conservative opposition to climate action. The design of the Green New Deal, the hastily withdrawn FAQ that accompanied it, and the rhetoric of its most energetic supporters give that argument plausibility. Although conservative objections to the Green New Deal resolution are often overwrought, dishonest, and demagogic, the charge that it is the very definition of radicalism is pretty much on the mark.
While it is certainly true that conservatives would forward the charge of “socialism” and “radicalism” at any meaningful action to address climate change, that doesn’t mean it is wise to play into their hands and give them live ammunition for the assault. Unless you are right that the American public longs for “a massive transformation of our society” along the lines suggested by the DSA (which I highly doubt), your strategy entails significant near-term electoral risk. If Democrats lose in 2020 in part because of blowback against the Green New Deal, the larger cause of climate action will be set back for a long time.
Are you really so sure that the gleeful Republican response to the Green New Deal can be waved aside so easily? I understand that easing conservative fears about climate action is not high on your agenda given that your strategy for victory is to simply roll over them. But there are plenty of moderate and center-left voters out there who can easily be moved by these arguments, especially if they are not persuaded climate change is a full-blown crisis. And in fact, your own strategy for rallying progressives suggests that you have still not succeeded in driving home the stakes, even to them. After all, if you have to bribe progressive allies to support climate action by bundling it with measures that have nothing whatsoever to do with climate policy, it suggests that progressives don’t really believe their own rhetoric about the urgency of the climate crisis. What else am I to conclude when you tell me that incorporating a federal jobs guarantee, Medicare-for-All, free college, and so forth into the Green New Deal will add support for the initiative?
Republican political strategists certainly seem to think that you’ve thrown them a political lifeline at a time when they need it most, and there are early signs that charges of Democratic radicalism are gaining traction. A recent public opinion survey from Navigator underscores what common sense would suggest — a political campaign that focuses on climate change without scaring the bejesus out of the public with calls for a national mobilization and a garrison-state economy is an easier sell than what you’re marketing at present.
Magical Thinking Regarding Partisan Power
What, exactly, is your scenario for legislative victory? Passage of the Green New Deal implicitly assumes unified Democratic control of government, but that’s not very different from assuming the proverbial can opener. Need I remind you that Democrats have only had unified control of the federal government during two congressional sessions since the election of Ronald Reagan and the full arrival of the conservative movement on the national scene; a grand total of four years out of the last 39? I’ll have more to say on that later.
Even if the Democrats accomplish that feat in 2020 (which might be something of a heavy lift), it is impossible to imagine Republicans in the Senate eschewing the filibuster in a fight over the Green New Deal. Where are your 60 votes in the Senate going to come from? I can assure you that they won’t be coming from Republicans. Unless we assume a 60+ seat Democratic majority in the Senate (an almost impossible assumption given the Republican lock on rural America), the Green New Deal isn’t going anywhere.
But let’s posit that the Democrats sweep in 2020 and eliminate the filibuster rule in the Senate. Even under that scenario, your task would prove nearly impossible. Democratic congressional majorities will have been built upon Democratic victories in purple and red districts and states (and not a few fossil fuel states and districts as well), and those Democrats are unlikely to support a legislative package that essentially requires them to abandon appeals to the moderate and conservative voters who got them there. In what world does Sen. Joe Manchin, Sen. John Tester, Sen. Doug Jones, Sen. Sherrod Brown, Sen. Bob Casey, or Sen. Michael Bennet support something like this? Or victorious Democrats in 2020 entering the Senate from, say, Iowa, Georgia, Colorado, Arizona, or North Carolina? At least 10–12Democratic defections in the Senate doomed the 2009 Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, and that happened when Democrats held 58 seats in the Senate with two Independents who caucused with the party. And that was in response to an infinitely less ambitious climate proposal than the one you’re peddling today.
We don’t need to speculate about how difficult it will be for you to unite the Democratic caucus. Even this early in the game, despite all of the positive buzz on the left surrounding the Green New Deal, the Democrats in the Senate are loath to vote on the record for the Green New Deal resolution. This ought to tell you something. Moreover, a significant number of important Democrats and coalitional actors have recoiled from the resolution. The 101-member New Democrat Coalition — the largest Democratic caucus in the House — has already signaled their opposition. And perhaps most ominously for your cause, the AFL-CIO has blasted the Green New Deal resolution, calling it “not achievable or realistic.”
In sum, the Green New Deal resolution (much less any actual legislation) has a long way to go before it could even win a vote in the Democratic caucus, much less in the United States Congress.
In case you weren’t paying attention during the first two years of the Trump administration, it is incredibly difficult to pass legislation (especially ambitious legislation) without a significant degree of bipartisan support, even during those rare periods of unified government. If the legislative record since 1985 is any guide, research by political scientists James Curry and Francis Lee suggests that your chance of passing Green New Deal legislation without Republican support is probably no more than about 4 percent. That’s the percentage of the time in which the majority party has advanced high-priority legislation and gotten most of what it wanted over the objections of the majority of the opposing party in both chambers and without the endorsement of at least one elected party leader of the opposing party in either chamber (10 instances out of 254 legislative initiatives).
And if you somehow manage to do so because you eliminated the filibuster rule, you better hold on for dear life. Any Republican congressional majority in the future will be well-positioned to wipe the Green New Deal off the map.
Your Plan B: The Long War
Some of you concede that the Green New Deal is unlikely to pass in the 117th Congress even if Democrats take both branches of government in 2020. What then?
One story I’ve heard you tell privately assumes that your movement can trigger a couple of electoral earthquakes that would destroy the old regime and bring in the new. A progressive Democratic president, by this telling, would use their bully pulpit to highlight the climate emergency and hammer congressional opponents of the Green New Deal. This either forces Republicans to capitulate in order to save their seats or puts the issue at the top of the political agenda in 2022, electing a large number of new legislators committed to the Green New Deal in the 118th Congress (2023-2024). Meanwhile, progressive Democrats take a page from the Tea Party / Freedom Caucus and threaten moderate Democrats to go along or else. If legislative support is still insufficient for victory, a general election dominated by the Green New Deal will deliver the additional votes in the Senate necessary to get it through in the 119th Congress (2025-2026).
There are four serious problems with your story.
First, using the presidential bully pulpit to hammer the political opposition and heighten partisan conflict is a recipe for disaster. That’s because it makes the opposition party less likely to cooperate with the majority if they have a plausible route back to power as a consequence of the resulting conflict. Did Donald Trump’s hammering for a wall along the southern border cause the opposition party to collapse and throw in the towel? Or Barack Obama’s hammering for the Affordable Care Act or Waxman-Markey? Or George W. Bush’s hammering for social security privatization? Or Bill Clinton’s hammering for health care reform? As Vox’s Ezra Klein put it after reviewing Francis Lee’s work:
Even putting aside the deep ideological disagreements that divide the parties, when the president stakes his reputation on a political fight, in a zero-sum political system, an ambitious minority party almost has to oppose him. To join him would mean joining his reelection campaign, and putting their own jobs, not to mention their chances of regaining the White House, at risk.
Getting legislation through Congress is far better achieved by quiet persuasion done behind the scenes than by pounding the pulpit.
Second, your faith in the transformative power of presidential barnstorming to mobilize public opinion is greatly misplaced. There is very little evidence to suggest that presidential speech-making moves public opinion towards the president’s agenda. “The bully pulpit has proved ineffective not only for achieving majority support but also for increasing support from a smaller base,” concludes political scientist George Edwards, who wrote a book on this subject. “Even when support for the president is at a high level, it may not be enough.”
While a number of considerations explain the inability of presidents to move public opinion in their direction, the most important is that the public preference for more or less government always moves against that of the incumbent president. After examining the shifts in public opinion from the Eisenhower administration through the Obama administration, political scientist James Stimson concludes, “After a particular party is in power, and regardless of its standing, the public wants less of the kind of policies it is pursuing.”
Source: James Stimson, Tides of Consent: How Public Opinion Shapes American Politics, 2nd Edition(Cambridge University Press, 2015)
Do you really want to bet that, in this closely divided political environment, you’re about to break this pattern? Given the incredible ambition of the Green New Deal, the public blowback against an administration trying to move it is likely to be substantial.
In short, it seems to me that you have become enamored with what political scientist Brendan Nyhan calls “The Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency.” Shake it off.
Third, your faith in the ability of progressives to employ hardball tactics to compel moderate Democrats to support the Green New Deal is likewise misplaced. While it is certainly true that a president who is popular in their party can rally reluctant fellow partisans (if they try hard enough) to their cause (see “Donald Trump”), the cost of that strategy is paid when browbeaten legislators have to face general elections. Moderates are reluctant to embrace extreme policies like the Green New Deal for a reason; in competitive states or districts, those policies prove politically toxic, particularly given the pattern of movement in public opinion identified by Stimson.
And as far as the ability of progressives to use threats to force fellow Democrats to give in to their political demands (an ambition floated by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez that excites a lot of your crowd), you would seem to have learned the wrong lessons from the Freedom Caucus. After a careful study of Freedom Caucus’s ability to compel Republicans to give in to their demands, political scientist Matthew Green concludes, “The Caucus failed to move the GOP in a more conservative direction. It proved unable to enact substantial conservative legislation in the 114th Congress, and the GOP nominated an unorthodox former Democrat for the presidency who appeared to have few strong ideological preferences.”
You should be running away from this model of political engagement, not running towards it. While there is good reason to doubt that you could execute your vision of a progressive Tea Party / Freedom Caucus even if you wanted to, if you continue along this path, your ability to move your agenda within the Democratic caucus will likely suffer as a consequence. Moreover, you risk turning the Democratic Party into a leftist clone of the Republican Party, where an activist base angrily demands the politically impossible from its legislators. We know what follows from that; a constant spiral of increasingly extreme uprisings and purges driven by frustration and anger over perceived betrayals of the cause by party leadership.
Your movement’s unwillingness to reach out to prospective allies — and in fact, your clear interest in picking high-profile fights with the same — already suggests more than a whiff of political madness. In what upside-down universe, for instance, is Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (the most aggressive and outspoken proponent of ambitious climate action in the United States Senate) your political enemy and an appropriate object of attack by Sunrise Movement activists à la Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was likewise excoriated in obnoxious fashion for preferring to move an aggressive climate resolution that had a chance of passing the Senate rather than a super-aggressive one that didn’t? Why launch a high-profile assault on former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg (really, get a load of this), a climate hawk whose work via Bloomberg Philanthropies has done more to decarbonize the U.S. economy than all of your activists put together? Nor are mainstream environmental organizations and former Vice President Al Gore worthy of crosshairs on their backs.
Fourth and finally, political windows of opportunity open only unpredictably and rarely, and they tend to close quickly. Your strategy assumes the contrary; that they can be forced open through raw political force and kept open by the same. If a window of opportunity for ambitious climate action opens in 2021, then climate activists will have to be prepared to take advantage of it in short order before it closes again. More on this later, but your blueprint for “rolling political thunder” over the course of several election cycles falls short on that reality alone.
Romantic Attachment to Grassroots Activism
I suspect that the reason you’re unduly optimistic about your chances of passing the Green New Deal is your belief that ideological tides have decisively turned in your direction and that the old political rules no longer apply. You may be proven correct, but like political scientist Matt Grossmann, I doubt it. I suspect that the present surge in progressive sentiment has less to do with a long-term swing to the progressive left than with the utterly predictable public response — per Stimson — to the most hard-right and politically noxious presidency in modern times.
I’ve lived this movie before. Back when I was at the Cato Institute and a card-carrying radical of “the Freedom Movement,” my fellow libertarians and conservatives were likewise certain that that surge to the right that produced the Gingrich Congress in 1994 was the beginning of the end of the welfare state. Sixteen years later, we thought that the Tea Party’s shock troops and the 2010 midterm landslide augured the beginning of “a libertarian moment” that would bring an end to the Great Society and maybe even the New Deal. In 2008, liberals thought their day in the sun had finally arrived with the election of Barack Obama, only to have their hats handed to them in the 2010 midterms, in part because of their passage of the quite-moderate Affordable Care Act.
In these cases, I — like you — read too much into swings in public opinion because it is easy to confuse thermostatic public response to incumbent administrations with secular changes of underlying ideological sentiment. Ideological crusaders easily fall for the notion that they’re reliving Paris, 1848. And for some, they’re always in Paris and it’s always June of 1848. Consequently, they push their political champions to deliver more than is politically possible and overplay their hand.
The reason that mass political uprisings for utopian visions of society are fantasies is that there’s a mountain of evidence that the public has no ideology to speak of and no interest whatsoever in having one. We’ve also known since the groundbreaking work of political scientist Philip Converse that the public has firm, independent, or meaningful opinions about hardly any matters related to public policy. Yet you talk as if climate change will serve as a catalyst for an ideologically charged, DSA-inspired mass electoral uprising.
Organizing interest groups that can mobilize supporters is far more practical than planning for mass electoral uprisings. And happily for you, interest groups can be deployed to good effect even if they represent minority policy preferences (e.g., the political power of the NRA). Unfortunately, you’re a long way from having that yet. Being able to mobilize a hundred or so kids for protests in congressional offices is not the same as being able to mobilize millions of voters to pressure politicians to embrace the Green New Deal. As Vox’s David Roberts has pointed out, it’s extremely difficult in practice to organize a meaningful political grassroots movement around climate action, and doubly difficult to imagine that such a movement can overcome Republican intransigence. And overcoming Republican intransigence is the only way that ambitious climate policy is ever going to come to fruition.
Even so, as political scientist Benjamin Bishin argues, you’re not wrong to want to build a vigorous, muscular grassroots movement. You are wrong, however, to think that grassroots activists can force legislators to bend to your will. Grassroots activists can be very effective in stopping legislative initiatives they don’t like, but they’re far less capable of forcing bills on legislators who are, generally, pretty good at evaluating the political risks of the policies they’re asked to vote for.
Policy change is not reliably driven by electoral outcomes or public opinion. It is instead a product of intense insider activity to overcome profound status quo biases in the political system—biases that are not easily moved by external political pressure or material resources. A review of the political histories of the most significant policy changes over the past 70 years (a universe of 790 legislative enactments) finds that only 2.9 percent of the time were public protests and demonstrations credited as a contributing factor in significant policy change. Only 9.4 percent of the time was constituent pressure found to be a factor in the same. And only 11.1 percent of the time was supportive public opinion found to have been a factor in the course of enacting new laws.
Political scientist Matt Grossmann, the author of that study, concludes:
[N]o matter the issue concern, institutionalized entrepreneurs coalescing and compromising within government institutions are the key components of policymaking. I find no issue areas where policy outcomes are primarily a product of public opinion, media coverage, or research trends. Insular policymaking via cooperation among political officials and interest groups is not merely a type of political conflict; it is the typical form of policymaking across the issue spectrum.
“Insular policymaking via cooperation among political officials and interest groups” is what you need. Alas, it’s something that you don’t seem very interested in.
The Richer We Are, the Harder You Fall
Perhaps the most critical problem with your strategy, however, is your fundamental misunderstanding of the American political landscape at the proverbial 50,000-foot level. Fantasies of total progressive victory (at least on the economic front) are difficult to imagine in wealthy societies, because the wealthier a society is, the more adverse it is to redistribution at the margin. Given that your DSA-in-a-box strategy is a redistributionist’s dream, it is almost certainly doomed from the get-go. To put it in a manner that might resonate with you, getting excited about transient public opinion survey data and electoral outcomes is akin to confusing weather for climate.
Political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal argue that it works like this. We know empirically that, as we get richer, the demand for redistribution declines. That’s because the number of people who worry about losing what they’ve got to the tax man increases relative to the number of people who are excited about what they might gain from redistribution. Moreover, as wealth increases, the number of people who can self-insure against social risks increases as well, reducing demand for government-provided social insurance.
The Republican Party has historically been the party of the “haves,” which goes a long way towards explaining why the GOP’s electoral advantage has grown since the economic boom of the 1960s. America’s relatively wealthier population has become more hostile to high taxes and redistribution over time, and the Republican Party has strengthened as a result.
From this perspective, the two parties nonetheless remain competitive because the GOP “spends” a significant chunk of its electoral advantage by straying far from its popular mandate when it comes to actual governing. Part of this is by choice (e.g., catering to their plutocratic donor base), and part of this is because the Republican Party is institutionally weak. The GOP cannot discipline its more extreme members, cannot protect moderate members from primary insurgents, and cannot stand up to its more militant coalition members with minority political preferences (e.g., the NRA, the Christian evangelical movement, the anti-immigration lobby). Accordingly, they dissipate electoral advantages by policy overreach.
Conversely, the Democratic Party has remained competitive by taking a smaller “governance premium” (that is, by taking fewer electoral risks for policy gains) and exercising better discipline over their coalition members. The close competition between the two parties is thus a residue of the different strategy each party employs, with the Republican Party being more inclined to go for broke to serve their coalition members and the Democratic Party being less willing to do the same.
The Green New Deal, however, would represent a reversal of the only thing that has been keeping the Democratic Party competitive in American politics: taking a smaller policy premium in government. By this light, the 2010 midterm election is best interpreted as what happens when the Democratic Party tries to take a significant policy premium; first with the Affordable Care Act and then with the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill.
If anything, the Democratic Party is probably in a slightly worse position now to move the Green New Deal than it was before the election of Donald Trump. That’s because it has lost lower-income whites and replaced them with college-educated professionals. If they lose those college-educated professionals over taxes and redistribution without winning back lower-income whites (who political scientist Larry Bartels argues are increasingly anchoring in the GOP due to cultural issues, although McCarty et al. suspect that income-based drivers are more dominant), the Democrats would be in major political trouble.
If by some miracle the Green New Deal were to pass, it would be unlikely to stick due to the near certainty of ferocious political blowback. It does you no good if you pass the Green New Deal, moderate Democrats all take a beating in the next election, and Republicans come in and reverse it … along with a lot of other liberal policies as well.
Get Over the Overton Window
I suspect that my evocation of Otto von Bismarck’s contention that “politics is the art of the possible” is leaving you cold. How many times have I heard you assert that it’s entirely within your power to change what is possible? That ideas can move the world? If we dare to argue “outside the lines” of the neoliberal consensus, you maintain, we can shift the so-called Overton window (the range of ideas popularly entertained in political discourse) and broaden the permissible topics of conversation in American politics. Do that, you say, and we can do what today seems impossible.
There are two problems with your argument. First, it misunderstands how public opinion is formed. Second, even were it true, it has nothing to do with policy change, which is what we’re talking about here.
I suspect you are unaware of the fact that the “Overton window” hypothesis did not come from academics who study the nature and origins of public opinion and is not, to this day, embraced by the academic community that researches and publishes on that topic. Instead, the concept of the Overton Window came into this world only a bit more than a decade ago as a fundraising tool for a Michigan-focused libertarian think tank called the Mackinac Center. It was then launched into popular culture by a rather unhinged novel in 2010 by former Fox News personality Glenn Beck. Before I go any further, a disclosure: While the Overton window hypothesis was cooked up by deceased Mackinac executive Joe Overton, his colleague Joseph Lehman helped write it up and gave it public birth. Lehman is an old colleague of mine whom I got to know when we both worked at the Cato Institute (Lehman was Vice President of Communications there for a brief period of time), and he served as a member of the Niskanen Center advisory board from December 2014 through August 2017.
What the prophets of the Overton window fail to fully appreciate is that radical ideas only gain purchase if they are subsequently adopted by a significant number of political elites (influential journalists, politicians, public officials, academics, experts, and politically pregnant cultural agents). That is, ideas only have power if they prove compelling to influential, educated people who directly or indirectly traffic in ideas for a living. If you are skeptical about that proposition and need chapter and verse, see political scientist John Zaller’s pathbreaking scholarship on public opinion, a review of how that scholarship has fared over the years (very well; it is now orthodoxy in the academic community), and my layman’s summary of Zaller’s work and what lessons it might hold for policy advocates (spoiler alert: don’t do what you’re doing).
Ideas outside the boundaries of normal political discourse are outside of the Overton window for a reason: they have failed a market test. The problem is not (necessarily) that they have been abandoned by true believers or given too little voice. The problem is that they have been judged unconvincing by the elites who, in turn, are instrumental in shaping public opinion.
It is certainly true that ideas can wax and wane in popularity, moving into and out of the so-called Overton window. The important point, however, is that this movement occurs only because something happens to make those ideas more or less attractive to political elites.
Accordingly, the fundamental problem I have with your Overton window argument is that it assumes more agency on your part than is warranted. You are akin to the director of a sales department that is marketing a product your prospective customers have rejected for decades. While it’s always possible that you have had lousy salesmen over that entire time, it’s more likely that there’s something wrong with your product or that consumer tastes simply do not align with what you’re selling. Those who shout “Overton window!” whenever confronted with the observation that politics is the art of the possible are almost always arguing, to stay with my analogy, that the problem is not the product; it’s a lack of salesmen and not enough door-knocking. That’s usually self-delusion.
Even if you do manage to move the Overton window, what then? Your rhetoric reminds me of the famous transition from Seinfeld. “We’ll energetically forward our radical ideas, move the Overton window, yada-yada-yada, and get the Green New Deal.” But just how does increased general support for the Green New Deal equal policy change? There is a mountain of academic evidence demonstrating that changes in mass opinion have little relationship to changes in public policy. If you’re skeptical about that, you will find that case very briefly summarized on pages 2–6 of the Niskanen Center conspectus. If you want a progressive source to tell you the same — even though I’m skeptical about the author’s explanation for why that is — see Princeton political scientist Martin Gilens.
Finally, you run the risk of discrediting both yourself and your ideas — and in a larger sense, the entire cause of ambitious climate action — by doggedly pushing the Overton Window with radical-fringe arguments that leave political elites and public intellectuals cold. Political elites often conclude that people living on the other side of the Overton window are kooks not worth paying attention to. The price that radicals often pay is intellectual exile and political irrelevance. You don’t want to join them there.
Knowledge of the Overton window is not a secret weapon that allows you to dismiss political reality. Nor is it a roadmap for reliably overturning the same. It’s political catnip for radicals. Don’t fall for it.
“Half-Baked” Overstates the Cooking
I fear that, by spending so much time upfront taking issue with your strategies and tactics — the problems of which are so profound and interrelated that it takes a lot of time to unpack — I may leave you with the impression that my complaints about the climate policy initiatives forwarded in the Green New Deal are secondary. That is not the case. Despite the fact that I agree completely with your ambition, your sense of urgency, and your desire to fully decarbonize the economy on a rapid pace, you need to rethink how you propose to get from here to there. Because right now, your roadmap for climate action is a hot mess. And I’d warrant that if you gave every well-wishing climate economist and energy policy expert a dose of sodium pentothal, they’d tell you the same thing. Let me count the most obvious problems.
First, regarding your call for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for the entire energy sector by 2030: If there is any published analysis suggesting that this can be done, please forward it to me, because I can’t find any. For an excellent discussion about why this is flatly impossible, see an analysis published this month by J.P. Morgan. Even one of the most knowledgeable and optimistic mavens of the clean energy economy in the world — Michael Liebreich, founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance — calls this “an absurd overreach.”
Second, you betray your elevation of non-climate-related goals over climate-related goals by appearing to require that renewable fuels constitute 100 percent of all electricity generation 10 years hence, ruling out nuclear power and technologies that capture greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel production (called “carbon capture and storage”). Granted, the Green New Deal resolution is ambiguous on this matter, but that ambiguity appears purposeful and thus presents a real problem. These technologies are as climate-friendly as wind and solar power, and they make decarbonization much easier to achieve. If climate change is truly a global emergency (and it is) we need to do everything we can to stop it. Embrace of nuclear power and carbon capture and storage should be made clearly and explicitly.
Third, you leave off the table a host of policy tools that climate hawks routinely reach for when game-planning cost-effective decarbonization. The resolution is silent, for instance, about the critical need for carbon pricing (something that, in case you missed it, is strongly embraced by the very same IPCC reports you routinely cite to justify ambitious climate action). It is likewise silent about the facilitation of denser urban construction, which has a huge impact on greenhouse gas emissions. The resolution has nothing to say about the need to return to the Paris Agreement. It is silent about the need to increase our financial contributions to the developing world to assist in decarbonization abroad.
“How to explain this curious lack of ambition?” asks Jonathan Chait. “Simple: All these things divide progressive activists.” Accordingly, “the plan avoids taking stances that are absolutely vital to reduce carbon emissions.” This is what naturally follows from a strategy of uni-party coalition building. Every party actor becomes a veto player. One advantage of working across both parties is that fewer groups get to be veto players and thus extract a high price for their cooperation. And the more groups that can extract a high price, the more likely that the whole thing collapses from the weight of all these demands.
I know what you’re thinking. “So what if we’re not going about decarbonization as ‘efficiently’ as theoretically possible? We are facing a planetary emergency and don’t have the luxury of worrying about cost-effectiveness. Besides, cost-effectiveness has been used as a shield against ambition in the past.” But this is precisely why policy design with an eye towards efficiency is critically important. We don’t have the resources to waste by misallocating them to costly technologies — or allowing low-cost mitigation opportunities to pass — because doing so meets the political needs of a coalition with other (less important) priorities in mind.
Fourth, the capital costs of your climate-related initiatives would — per Liebriech’s counting — be in the ballpark of $1 trillion per year, or a bit shy of 10 percent of national savings; about 5 percent of all economic activity in the United States. As previously noted, that’s far, far more than we’d have to spend to accomplish those same goals on a mid-century timetable. And that’s before we take into consideration the cost of universal housing guarantees, universal job guarantees, universal education guarantees, universal income guarantees, federal paid family and vacation leave, and so forth. There’s no way of intelligently guessing what that might all cost, so I’m not going to bother.
Fifth, your means of paying for all of this is to simply print currency and to heck with inflation and the national debt. This financial recklessness comes out of your interpretation of “modern monetary theory,” a school of thought that I suspect you may not understand as well as you think you do. It has been fiercely criticized by just about every mainstream economist who has offered an opinion (e.g., Paul Krugman, Larry Summers, Ken Rogoff, and Scott Sumner), and even by the leftists at Jacobin magazine. Ironically, your reply to this criticism is that neoliberal economists have been wrong before about a lot of things, so we shouldn’t defer to them to now. Has it occurred to you, however, that this is the exact same argument that climate deniers use in the scientific arena (scientists have been wrong before about a lot of things in the past, so they shouldn’t be deferred to now)? I suggest that if you want to take seriously the consensus of experts (and you should), you don’t do so only when it’s politically convenient. Otherwise, you show yourselves to be no different than your opponents.
Sixth, it might surprise you to learn that I agree that, per economist Dani Rodrik, there’s a strong theoretical case for using industrial policy to facilitate the development of zero-carbon technologies (a defining characteristic of the Green New Deal), especially when undertaken explicitly. My hair stands up, however, when I learn that you propose to do this via “democratic and participatory processes that are inclusive of and led by frontline and vulnerable communities and workers to plan, implement, and administer the Green New Deal mobilization at the local level.” How would that work exactly? We don’t have any examples of industrial policy done through democratic and participatory mechanisms. They’re typically done by technocratic elites serving in agencies with a high degree of bureaucratic insulation. In the United States, for instance, the best example is DARPA. Forgive me if I’m skeptical about complex, technical planning exercises by front-line activists undertaken in this fashion.
I’ve seen all of this before. When zealots of whatever stripe enter the realm of public policy, they almost invariably gravitate towards the weakest arguments, the dodgiest data, the most problematic theories, and the most dubious but convenient set of assumptions. That’s because the ends are so morally compelling (to them) that their interest in engaging in due diligence regarding arguments they desperately want to believe naturally flies out the window. If you don’t have a skeptical mind when you encounter arguments that you want to believe, you’re going find yourself believing a whole lot of politically convenient nonsense.
You’re Wasting Valuable Time
It is absolutely critical that we have a well-vetted, politically attractive, ready-for-prime-time legislative package ready for the 117th Congress if a window of opportunity opens after the 2020 election. Putting together ambitious legislation like this, however, takes years. A center of political gravity needs to be created around one of the many possible ways forward so that climate activists are united. Influential stakeholders outside of the NGO community need to be fully bought-in. Complex policy matters need to be carefully thought through, requiring an iterative process of engagement with hundreds of various political and policy experts given the dispersal of knowledge. Politically critical trade-offs need to be experimented with and tested. Preliminary iterations of the package need to be debated in public in order to modify proposals in response to feedback. Politicians need to be made comfortable with the package, and for the typical, risk-averse politician, comfort takes time to build when so much political capital is on the line.
The intense political and policy negotiations, compromises, and analyses required to do all of this occur primarily in the context of drafting actual legislation. That is why successful legislative initiatives are usually iterative products of legislation introduced in previous Congresses. If we’re going to pass ambitious climate legislation in the 117th Congress, a preliminary iteration of whatever we’re going to put forward had best be introduced in a serious fashion (not via a messaging bill, where most of these issues are ducked) in the 116th Congress.
Unfortunately, I see few signs of that happening. Instead, I see a replay of the failed efforts to pass health care reform in previous Congresses. In 1977–1978, for instance, a clear window of political opportunity was open for health care reform, but liberal health care advocates were split on what reform ought to look like. Before they could resolve matters, the window of political opportunity unexpectedly closed with the 1978 midterm elections, and, to their chagrin, it did not open again for more than a decade. In 1993, the window of opportunity for health care reform finally opened again, but health care advocates had failed to do the necessary work in the intervening 15 years. The Clinton administration tried to put together a health care reform package on the fly, but was unable to successfully do so before the window of opportunity closed once again with the 1994 midterm elections. It took another 14 years for the window of opportunity to open again with the election of Barack Obama, but this time, the experience of passing and then implementing “Romney-Care” in Massachusetts provided the well-vetted political and policy template for federal action that had eluded health care advocates in the past. The result was the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010. Conservative health care advocates, for their part, schemed immediately to undo the ACA, but they did little to come up with a well-vetted, politically viable alternative to the ACA during their eight years in the wilderness over the course of the Obama administration. When the window of opportunity unexpectedly opened for them in 2017, they had nothing viable to put on the political table, and the Republican attempt to put something together on the fly predictably failed before their window of opportunity closed with the midterm elections of 2018.
As the health care reform experience well demonstrates, the political stars rarely align for major policy change, and when they do, they do not align for long. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of political scientist John Kingdon’s Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (2nd Edition), where the story I’m telling you is forwarded with full analytic and empirical force. Read it twice. Time spent chasing the Green New Deal magic pony is time taken away from the serious vetting that is necessary to put a plausible legislative program together. And it also increases the pressure on such a program by raising expectations among advocates of what can actually be done, meaning a serious program could very well die under accusations of ideological betrayal.
I know what you’re thinking. “You do you. I’ll do me. And we’ll see what works.” But you’re demanding a one-way street. Politicians who are interested in other paths are being protested by New Green Deal activists, slandered in the media, and threatened with primary challenges. Democratic congressional leaders have been pressured (thankfully, unsuccessfully) to force legislative work strictly down a Green New Deal path. Presidential candidates are required to bend the knee to the Green New Deal in return for progressive support. You’re trying in every way you can to eliminate political oxygen for prospective allies who are interested in exploring different paths.
Moreover, by rallying progressives to maximalist demands completely unmoored from political reality, you are making it difficult to imagine a broad-based alliance for climate action coming to fruition before the 2020 election. If progressives fail to work productively with moderates in the course of drafting prospective legislation (in this Congress!), I can guarantee you that any opportunity for climate action will be missed in the 117th Congress, and who knows when the next window of political opportunity might present itself.
You say, “Well, we can always negotiate back if we hit a political wall.” But it sure doesn’t seem to me that your activists are a “walk it back” kind of crowd. When you unleash magical political thinking and mix it with ideological fervor and policy maximalism, you don’t create a promising environment for compromise. The Tea Party and Freedom Caucus experience should warn you off the conceit that party establishments can turn militant extremism on and off at will.
In any case, it takes time to negotiate compromises; sometimes, years. It can’t be done on the fly in the teeth of a legislative defeat. It would seem to me that, with the AFL-CIO and the New Democrat Coalition now arrayed against you, it might be a good time to recognize a political wall for what it is and hit the reset button (at least, behind the scenes) so that something might productively come out of the next Congress.
These are high stakes you’re playing. You’re absolutely right that we are about out of time if we want to meaningfully address the oncoming climate emergency. We don’t have another decade to lose waiting for future windows of opportunity to open.
If Not the Green New Deal, What?
Your ends — ambitious legislative action that fully addresses the climate crisis upon us — should remain the same. But those ends are by necessity constrained by what can realistically be achieved. Your means, however, will have to change to broaden your coalition and increase your political strength.
I won’t bother trying to talk you out of the non-climate-related DSA agenda that you’ve grafted onto the Green New Deal. But move it on your own time. Let legislators vote for climate action without also having to vote with you on absolutely everything else. The climate is too important to be held hostage to political commitments to ambitious initiatives on economic and social justice, no matter how worthy those commitments might be.
A good starting point for climate legislation with an eye towards what might be passable in the 117thCongress was laid out recently by the editorial board of The Washington Post. Their plan rightly centers around carbon pricing, but it also addresses (via regulation) those emissions that are not particularly sensitive to market price signals.
Your fear that implicit or explicit carbon taxes cannot achieve the emission reductions you seek is flat wrong. While carbon pricing is no easy lift, it is mistaken to think that carbon pricing is a political pipe dream. Tax revenues can be rebated to consumers in order to make them whole (a policy design which is being forwarded by Citizens’ Climate Lobby and the Climate Leadership Council), and if oil and coal states can get away with imposing steep severance taxes on fossil fuel production (which are, effectively, carbon taxes), then carbon pricing (which is already imposed on 25 percent of the American public and 30 percent of U.S. GDP) at the national level is a conceivable proposition. Even the Wall Street Journal editorial page is increasingly leaning towards a carbon tax, which is a pretty good leading indicator of where the right might be if this becomes a live issue. If you’re afraid of “Yellow Vest” protests in response to higher gasoline prices, then build off of the 2018 Market Choice Act, introduced in the last Congress by then-Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo, which would have substantially reduced greenhouse gas emissions while keeping prices from going up at the pump. That bill would have maintained regulations for the transportation market to achieve the emissions reductions we desire from that sector of the economy.
If carbon pricing is good enough for Sen. Bernie Sanders, it ought to be good enough for you.
Your objective should be to draft a plan that can get near-unanimous support in the Senate Democratic caucus. Above all, don’t draw lines in the sand regarding how carbon tax revenue is used. While we all have preferences, carbon tax revenue will unleash the biggest fiscal windfall on the United States Treasury in modern history. Decisions about what to do with that money will be hotly political and key to building support for the plan. That’s because the political support for spending money on this or that will likely be more decisive than political support for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and some of that money (maybe a lot) will be needed to compensate fossil fuel states and districts that will be economic losers in any transition to a carbon-free economy.
As discussed earlier, the united (or near-united) support of the Senate Democratic caucus alone won’t likely be enough to get a bill passed. But there’s nothing that you will get from Sen. Tester, Sen. Manchin, and other moderate Democrats that you won’t get — maybe even cheaper — from non-fossil-fuel-district, moderate Republicans as well. As political scientist David Karol argues, one can imagine Republicans embracing some degree of meaningful climate action. Carbon taxes, for instance, already have the provisional support of the corporate community, most of the oil majors, and plenty of academics and public intellectuals on the right.
And any plan that can pass the Senate (the heavy lift) will almost certainly pass the House as long as it remains under Democratic control.
In the course of putting together a climate package, however, dictating granular matters of policy design is a bad idea. Seeing what can gain the necessary political support and allowing that to define the legislative package is your game, all the while working to get the greatest emissions reductions that political reality will allow.
“As Bill McKibben is fond of saying, physics does not bend before political expediency. But neither is it possible to wish away politics and culture,” observes Vox’s David Roberts. “The work of changing politics and culture is now, as it always has been, a halting, frustrating, incremental slog. But there’s no way around it. The only way out is through.”
How to Get Your Freak On
Your role in moving climate legislation is absolutely critical: to forcefully remind Democrats that modest, incremental half-measures are insufficient. I’m a great proponent of moderation, but in the climate arena, Andrew Sullivan is correct: moderation dictates radical action. While political reality may well prevent us from doing all that we should (politics usually works that way), we can take solace in the fact that even half-measures will reduce climate risks and damages by equal measure. And given what’s likely in store for the planet, that’s not nothing.
I’ve spent a great deal of time here criticizing the path you’re on, but the most important thing you’ve done right is to elevate climate change to the top of the progressive agenda while making a strong moral case for action. The left has never cared enough about climate change to make it a political priority, and you’re the main reason for the Democratic Party’s renewed interest in ambitious climate action. You’ve also helped force the beginning of a Republican rethink about the political merits of climate denial, incentivized Republican legislators to offer their own ideas about climate policy, and encouraged more policy ambition on their part than might otherwise have been the case (although their devastating loss of the House due to defections by college-educated moderates in the suburbs, along with the work of organizations like mine to move Republicans into a better place on climate, likely had an impact as well).
Calls for radical action are not self-executing. Effective radicalism requires political realism. You need allies to enact your agenda. I want what you want (at least, on the climate front). But I want to win, and while I don’t have all the answers about how best to do that, history gives us a pretty good sense of what not to do if our cause is going to prevail when a window of political opportunity next opens.
Imagine for a second that the scientific community has just told the world in no uncertain terms there is a meteor headed to Earth that will almost certainly wipe out most, if not all, life on the planet.
One of the major political parties in the US is skeptical. They cast aspersions on the scientists, call the whole thing a hoax, repeat meteor-denying propaganda even as the enormous space rock becomes more visible in the sky, and, rather than working to try to stop the meteor from hitting Earth or making preparations to mitigate its impact, they actually implement policies that hasten its arrival and increase its eventual destruction.
The other party attracts the support of anti-meteor activists, groups, and philanthropists. When pressed, its members affirm their belief in the existence of the meteor. They defend the beleaguered, increasingly panicked scientists from attacks. They criticize the other party’s denial of the meteor’s obvious existence.
But for all their talk, they don’t really seem like they believe what they’re saying. They roll their eyes at anti-meteor campaigners when no one’s looking. They continue to take money from industries profiting in the short-term from the meteor’s arrival. They hardly talk about the meteor unless pressed, and they balk at implementing the kinds of radical policies needed to deal with the meteor. And they frequently team up with the other party to push through policies harmful to anti-meteor efforts.
Sure, only one of these parties continues to deny outright that the meteor isn’t coming. But when it comes down to the actual, material outcomes, the difference isn’t that great.
This hypothetical state of affairs is essentially the situation in the United States when it comes to the rapidly approaching climate crisis. The Democratic Party is ostensibly the anti–climate denial party. And yet, despite a massive report released only a few months ago warning that the world has an alarmingly short amount of time to make the radical changes needed to stave off permanent environmental destruction, the Democrats tread water on the issue.
Before the midterms, the Democrats weren’t even planning to do anything about the matter. They had to be dragged kicking and screaming by activists and an insurgent socialist politician to make it a priority.
Sure, House speaker Nancy Pelosi will refer to climate change as “the existential threat of our time.” But even once activists pushed her to put it on the post-midterm agenda, Pelosi declined to establish a select committee with the kind of broad powers activists want, such as the authority to issue subpoenas (something the previous House select climate committee could do, when the crisis was less urgent) or even, flabbergastingly, to draft legislation.
The politician tasked with heading this committee has some of her wealth invested in the fossil-fuel industry, and balked at the idea of barring politicians who have taken fossil-fuel donations from sitting on it, arguing it would violate the First Amendment. After New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez floated the idea of a 70 percent marginal tax rate on the rich to pay for climate policies (which, considering the scale of what must be done, is a moderate position), the House’s number two Democrat, Steny Hoyer, literally laughed at the idea before saying he didn’t support it. The Democratic chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee recently said that while the US “should take a look at” going carbon-free or carbon-neutral by 2030, it “may not be technologically or politically feasible.”
Does this sound like a party that genuinely believes in the “existential threat” of climate change?
Few in the party have taken a firm stance on the Green New Deal, even though at this point it’s an amorphous concept with next to no specifics attached to it. When they have endorsed the Green New Deal — as most of the big names angling to be president have by now — it was only after being pressed by the media, and they tended to carefully qualify their language: they back the “idea,” “concept,” and “goals” of a Green New Deal, to single out a few. Kirsten Gillibrand also gets points for releasing a letter she sent to Sen. John Barrasso, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, broadly outlining the steps needed to prevent future ecological collapse.
But other than that, none have actually said which policies they view as essential to this program — for instance, higher taxes on the rich and a massive federal jobs bill for green energy infrastructure, at the very least — nor released any sort of serious plan to deal with the climate crisis. Harris’s spokesperson simply said the California senator was “eager” to see potential legislation, apparently in lieu of suggesting policies of her own. Of the four presidential contenders who have released their agendas (including Gillibrand), only one — former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro — included climate policies, and even that was limited to rejoining the Paris agreement and supporting the “GND,” whatever that might entail. It’s a nice start, but that’s all it is.
Granted, it is still early. But if these presidential contenders really believe the science, wouldn’t they have urgently drafted their own version of a potential Green New Deal program before running, given the scale of the crisis science is warning us about? Wouldn’t they have made such policies key to their agenda? And wouldn’t they have at the very least, when asked about supporting a Green New Deal, not hedged their language?
If a presidential candidate acted this way about an impending meteor strike, we wouldn’t take them seriously. Why should we when it’s the climate that threatens extinction?
Elizabeth Warren is instructive in this respect. She is considered one of the most progressive candidates in the race in 2020, but Warren has never really shown any leadership on the issue, as numerous environmental activists attest to. The leading piece of legislation she authored (“I’ve got a plan to fight back,” she said at the time) only came in September of last year, and it’s a bill that — drum roll — would force public companies to disclose climate risks, so that “investors would have the information they need . . . [to] make smart decisions with their money.” If that sounds like what might generously be described as a quarter-measure that relies on market solutions to a problem actively being driven by the market, that’s because it is.
For all their supposed acknowledgement of the science, Democrats don’t really seem to believe climate change is an existential risk. As Warren made clear when rolling out her bill, she thinks climate change is “an economic disaster waiting to happen” that “will have an enormous effect on the value of company assets.”
Warren is far from unique. “It is here, and it is costing companies money,” one of her cosponsors said about climate change. “Climate change is a pressing economic issue,” said Harris, another cosponsor. It’ll “continue to have increasing and significant impacts on our country’s infrastructure and economy,” said Booker, yet another cosponsor.
Of course, left unchecked, environmental collapse is going to do a lot worse than just shrink GDP and hurt companies’ pocketbooks. The fact that prominent Democrats can’t articulate its threat in anything but such Reaganite terms says much about the party’s current state. (By contrast, Jeff Merkley, also a cosponsor of the bill and one of the most progressive members of the Senate, at least led with a comment about climate change’s effects on US communities.)
In fact, the only popular, nationally recognized presidential aspirant who seems to recognize the scale of the threat before us isn’t even a Democrat. Bernie Sanders has been regularly citing climate change over the last two years as one of the greatest threats facing humanity, calling it at various times a “major planetary crisis” and “the single greatest threat facing our planet.” His 2016 platform boasted an ambitious and detailed program (compare it to Hillary Clinton’s skimpy one) that served as an actual vision for what a Green New Deal might look like.
Sanders has a long record of leadership on the issue, and year after year has been ranked among the top in Congress in this regard. While Democrats regularly fail to talk about the issue in their responses to Trump, Sanders does not, including calling it “the biggest crisis of all” in reply to Trump’s televised address on the border wall earlier this month. He hosted a town hall last year on climate change, challenging TV networks to cover the crisis. And he’s not only put forward policy proposals, such as a federal jobs guarantee, that would be essential to a future Green New Deal, but is already working on ambitious, Green New Deal–style legislation to be released this year.
And how has the Democratic Party responded? Various Democrats, in conjunction with the centrist group Third Way, have met to plot how to stop him and the movement he represents from gaining power, while the party’s loyalists try to tamp down enthusiasm for his run. This is a sorry state of affairs.
But while the Democratic Party remains resistant to actually dealing with the climate crisis, we’ve already seen that grassroots pressure can have some success.
Through protest and primary challengers, and more, the Democrats have been dragged ever so slightly leftward. This is all the more reason to challenge the party even more aggressively in the coming years. Justice Democrats are already reportedly planning more primary challenges come 2020, but they are one organization with limited resources and must be selective; ideally, their efforts would and should be reproduced all over the country.
It’s a disgrace that even Democrats who are considered progressive and reside in safe blue districts treat climate change as a boutique side issue, or even continue to take money from fossil-fuel companies. The idea that talking about climate change is a political drawback — the typical excuse Democrats give to explain their presence on the sidelines — is untenable anyway; Sanders does it all the time and manages to stay the country’s most popular politician. While politicians like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez have used their newfound prominence to push the issue with voters, the current Democratic Party doesn’t seem to think it even has the power to shift the national conversation, preferring instead to tinker on the margins of what they think voters find acceptable.
As activists move to pressure the party going into 2020, a strong, serious stance on climate akin to Ocasio-Cortez’s should be considered a baseline element for being considered a progressive or socialist candidate. For that matter, no presidential aspirant should be considered a serious contender until they’ve worked to demonstrate a commitment and intention to seriously tackle the crisis on at least the level that Bernie Sanders currently demonstrates.
The fact that presidential contenders are suddenly saying “yes to passing a Green New Deal” all of a sudden is encouraging, but it has to be taken further. Don’t ask them to vaguely endorse an idea that hasn’t been publicly defined yet; ask them which policies are critical to their vision of what a Green New Deal is. For instance, do they support much higher taxes on the rich, without which such a program is all but impossible? And if they do, are they simultaneously courting a donor base opposed to such a thing, suggesting less than genuine commitment to that policy?
It’s probably true that Elizabeth Warren is the second-most progressive candidate in the race after Sanders. If her supporters are dead set on her candidacy, they have a responsibility to make her take some massive strides on the climate issue. One piece of legislation that makes companies disclose climate risks doesn’t cut it, and neither does the issue’s seeming absence from her policy priorities. The same goes for every other Democrat. When the world’s scientists hand us a ticking clock, this should not be controversial.
The Democratic Party is currently a party of climate denial. Only it’s not the denial of a craven right, happy to create an uninhabitable planet if it lines the wealthy’s pockets for the moment. It’s the denial of well-meaning liberals who would never be caught dead calling climate change a hoax, but scoff at the radical steps needed to meet the emergency; the denial of those who would rather plug their ears and not have to think about the problem than to really face it head on; the denial of politicians terrified that simply uttering those two words will lose them votes.
The Democrats are afraid to treat climate change as the crisis it is. We must make them afraid not to.
If Exxon, et al. fossil fuel ‘majors’, when they first learned that their products would be a danger to global survival, had begun contributing significant surplus profits into a capital reserve fund continually, instead of paying out excessively high dividends and later just ‘buying back’ their own stock to enrich an already rich ‘C suite’ of millionaires, then a serious effort to husband sufficient capital reserve funds might have been sufficient to remediate climate damages with such ‘reserve’ merely augemented with late stage ‘carbon taxes’ as the true costs to society were exposed.
But since this was not undertaken and hedged when it was first understood within the ‘fossil fuel’ industry, the only funding sufficient to address this long hidden dumping of hidden and ignored ‘negative externality cost’ dumping scan today is not a mere ‘carbon tax’ today, but through “Wealth Reform” and ‘claw-back’ of the loot that the UHNWIs of the world have transferred up the one-way faux-profit pump of making profits through a ‘negative externality cost’ Ponzi scheme.
The settlement of this crime will be ‘more than taxing’ for the schemers.
People should come up with some alternative if they don’t like what’s currently on offer to deal with this emergency.
This is no time to revive the stale “debate” of socialism vs. capitalism. No one even knows what these terms really mean any more.
At this rate, there won’t be ‘isms’ left to fight over because there won’t be any organized human civilization left.
Directly taxing or raising prices on carbon is too much of a hard sell to succeed, and also costs precious time. What’s the “right” price to achieve the right results, and “who pays” will be endlessly debated without any resolution.
Instead we need a flat regulatory ban on emissions across the board. Impossible, you say? Well, a ban can be structured so any one can burn whatever fossil fuels they want, but then would be legally obligated to capture and sequester the CO2.
Innovation — spurred by government backed research & development and low cost financing – could bring down the cost of compliance rapidly.
So you suggest we revert to that very broken system and its incrementalism to change our course. On the other hand, conservatives level the “socialist” arrow at the entire effort. So the DSA approves of the GND. So what? From my vantage point, conservatives having drifted so far to the right and dragged the entire beltway axis with them, that actual democracy is no longer recognizable because it implies broad participation by all levels and sectors of the population without marginalizing anyone. This is such anathema that anything smacking of informed grassroots participation or agreement on broad collective principles MUST be socialist because it implies actual effective government for the benefit of all.
What you confirm about both Republicans and a large percentage of Democrats is that they continue to believe climate change can be adequately addressed without threatening business as usual. Anything truly threatening to BAU will not happen.
Second, you also confirm the prevailing wisdom that climate change has not only arisen from a sector of the economy that can be separated out from other structural/political issues, but that it can be addressed without considering the system which has given it birth.
Third, you also confirm prevailing wisdom that DC pundits, politicians and actors from within the mainstream media monopoly will remain the sole owners and purveyors of the sacred knowledge of “how things work” and will continue to define the terms of conversation about climate change and its remedies. The insider game prevails. Whom does that serve?
Fourth, you name a principle obstacle to any political agenda of this scale: a shared sense of responsibility and a shared sense of bearing the changes (and charges) implied. You are inadvertently naming a central principle of economic fundamentalism, to which you have also been a subscriber: me first. It could not be more clear. This is what is driving us into the abyss and this is what must be overcome if we are to avoid the fall.
One of the principle functions of the GOP and the chattering class has been to remind us of this principle and reinforce it at every opportunity. It is the catechism of libertarianism (or as they call it, “liberty”), the most selfish and unapoligetically self-centered political philosophy there ever was (talk about the Overton Window!!) and it has been skillfully used and promoted precisely to divide the electorate and undermine collective action and obstruct the very idea that there is any such thing as shared responsibility.
Fifth, another principle at the core of conservative opposition to climate action is the cost. While you go on about the cost and ask how in the world the GND could possibly reassure anyone of its benefits, let alone everyone, you never mention that many conservatives, if they’re not already denialists, believe addressing climate issues will cost less in the future, not more. Even Mitch McConnell may declare he believes climate is changing and that it’s anthropogenic, but that doesn’t at all mean he is in favor of doing anything about it.
Sixth, this paragraph is a real stunner: Policy change is not reliably driven by electoral outcomes or public opinion. It is instead a product of intense insider activity to overcome profound status quo biases in the political system—biases that are not easily moved by external political pressure or material resources. A review of the political histories of the most significant policy changes over the past 70 years (a universe of 790 legislative enactments) finds that only 2.9 percent of the time were public protests and demonstrations credited as a contributing factor in significant policy change. Only 9.4 percent of the time was constituent pressure found to be a factor in the same. And only 11.1 percent of the time was supportive public opinion found to have been a factor in the course of enacting new laws.
In other words, forget about imagining a “muscular” grassroots movement having any effect. It’s not popular opinion or demonstrations that make any difference in congress at all. It’s all about donors and their access, i.e. the corrupting influence of money on risk-averse people whose primary focus of attention is the next primary. We must all remember that our voices don’t really matter. All of which simply underscores how upside down everything in Washington truly is.
As if that weren’t enough to swallow, you then lean on the by now exhausted prop that the US is a wealthy nation and therefore the topic of redistribution is a third rail. By so many measures, the quality of life, top to bottom, in the US is declining compared to the rest of the western world. Working Americans have been under attack for 30 years. The social safety net, health care, pensions, savings, infrastructure, access to education and housing have been eroded or simply stolen. People living in 70% of the country cannot afford to buy a house. The people you refer to as wealthy are ONE generation. Meanwhile, the younger generation has had their future stolen from them and will not be the first generation not as well off as their parents because their lives have been reduced to servitude by rent-seeking institutions. You call that wealth. Compared to what?
Why is the demand for redistribution rising? By your own definition, it’s because the number of people getting richer, the number of people who can “self-insure” as you call it, is declining, not rising.
Ultimately, that you have even taken the time to write such a long and detailed response to the GND is evidence that it can’t be dismissed outright. Why? Because climate change is that urgent. And Business As Usual is that dangerous. However, what you offer is a reversion to the incrementalism that has gotten us to this place and no further. Moreover, yes, you cite scientific analyses of the way things are and the way things get done, but unfortunately, they all exist within the bubble of “the way things get done.” They are maddeningly self-reaffirming. Playing the insider game has gotten us nowhere.
Following all this sage advice practically guarantees that no fundamental change will occur–at least not in time to change the course of the Titanic.
CCL has been advocating for Carbon Fee & Dividend for at least 7 years. If it had been passed in 2012, the price on a ton of CO2 would now be $75. With each passing year, failing to enact this legislation puts us further behind on the price curve, delaying the massive stimulus the dividend represents as well as meaningful emission reductions. Enacting the original terms of the legislation now without a broad spectrum of accompanying measures would be mere lip service.
The GND may deserve much of the critique it’s getting, but it’s certainly serving to stimulate debate. Just don’t lose sight of the central message: Do Something Now!
https://phys.org/news/2019-03-experts-discuss-strengths-weaknesses-green.html Benson: The Green New Deal is sparking an important and necessary conversation around the urgency of climate change. It’s a catalyst for a plan that will put us on an accelerated path to decarbonization. That starts with putting a price on carbon to incentivize industry to reduce emissions and unleash market forces to drive the best approaches to scale. Beyond these market forces, the government should step up funding of research, maintain regulations that drive energy efficiency and lead modernization of the electricity grid.
While there may be a political logic to bundling all of these causes together, there isn’t much policy logic to it, and that introduces a host of problems for you.”
Least damage from climate change is speed of reduction of ghg emissions. Green New Deal does that.
There will be a great deal of disruption economically in that change. About 1 or 2 million people will shift in 10 years because of changes of fossil fuel decline for energy. Something as far reaching as the GND will deal with that. Fossil fuels are so deep in our lives and in so many ways destructive, that something like the GND or something similar is needed in its equal pervasiveness to make our society whole again from all the abuse of fossil fuels.
Moreover, the real “fly in the ointment” in the entirety of your argument is the timeline: in your take on what is possible or doable, 2050 or thereabouts seems to be the earliest date by which some real alterations to energy production/use can be implemented.
This reminds me of the basketball coach who tells his team “We’re only down by 8 points—–let’s get on the offensive, don’t let them score, and we’ll win this game”. . . .right before he notices the game clock says 6 seconds left.
Earth’s biological/ecological clock is quickly winding down———–we DON’T have until 2050. We barely have until 2028 to make truly revolutionary shift from the extraction and use of ALL fossil fuels.
So, so much for political expediency.
AOC knows this. You seem to not know it…or if you do know it, think it’s not proven science, therefore not real.
It is real.
The scientists are telling us we have very little time left to alter the playing field before the whole ecosystem goes into freefall…….the 6th Extinction.
As others have said, you told on yourself with this one. It’s pretty hard to take the paragraphs and paragraphs of your political “just so stories” seriously when your conclusion is something so insanely ridiculous. And has been disproved continuously for the last couple of decades. As opposed to the changes to the Democratic caucus currently happening as you were writing this warmed over, third-way, screed.
It’s so weird to see the part of the right who have been actively marginalized by their party try and give “advice” to part of the left who are in the process of growing their influence in their party.
But understandably, you have extreme ideological commitments which preclude any response to the catastrophe of future climate change other than “tax credits” or whatever. So you must forgive the vast majority of people under, say, 40 who don’t hold those same commitments if we don’t exactly jump at the chance to try and do what people have tried (and failed) to do for decades.
If you think this could happen in the 117th Congress, everything that preceded it is a joke. The “art of the possible” here is only what’s achievable within the Democratic coalition after eliminating the filibuster; everything else is fiction.
I wish I could believe this. But I think your political theory is outdated; under a Democratic president, with an initiative on an issue that their base is activated on, you will get absolutely nothing, no matter what, from any Republican, for any reason.
This is I think the core belief driving the ‘green lantern politics’ of the climate left. If you assume that all Republicans are forever beyond your reach, green lantern politics is all you have left. As poor of an option as it is – and I think the evidence of its ineffectiveness is pretty clear – it’s a better option than giving up.
The question is whether or not Republicans are forever lost to climate activists. I think the basic dynamics of Republican primary processes and hyperpartisanship suggest that they are. Let’s say that in 2021 we have a Democratic majority in both chambers and President Harris is trying to pass your moderate, sensible climate legislation. Which Republicans defect?
Also, the warning about becoming the Tea Party is…less threatening than you perhaps think it is. The Tea Party won. They imposed their ideological vision on the party, got unified control of the government, and passed the huge tax breaks for the megarich they wanted. Maybe they descended into hackish lying scumbag behavior to do it, but they did, and it worked. I hate the prospect, but if the choices you offer are between “become a zealous, angry, ideological partisan movement” and “hope Republicans decide work with you”, the former has a proven track record, the latter…doesn’t.