That’s where nonviolent direct action campaigning comes in. Study groups and training workshops are now spontaneously forming around the country that explore this type of campaigning to overcome roadblocks erected by those in power invested in preserving the status quo. Both new and veteran activists are studying the lessons from successful campaigns stretching back a century—especially the those that apply to this political moment of polarization and rising turbulence and violence.
The 1965 uprising in Selma, Alabama, holds one such lesson. It shows what is possible when grassroots action confronts a political class that doesn’t want to budge. When President Lyndon Johnson, arguably the most powerful individual in the world, ordered the civil rights movement to stop its next action, he encountered a still greater power—the mobilized will of the people. Johnson was forced to act for racial justice. That is what democracy looks like.
In mobilizing today, we are fortunate to have the civil rights and other movements’ experience to draw on. We also seem to be regaining the human capacity to create bold visions that inspire us and turn our values of fairness and a healthy future for planet into practical programs to fight for. We may decide that dystopias are not nearly as interesting.
Michael Grunwald reports in Politico that the Green New Deal concept nevertheless commands attention among Democratic office holders. After all, a December poll showed even a majority of grassroots Republicans like the idea. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found 81 percent of all registered voters support the Green New Deal. Among Democrats, 92 percent, and among Republicans, 64 percent…
The Green New Deal is not an ideal name if you want to attract bipartisan support,” says Rich Powell, executive director of the group Clear Path, which pushes conservative solutions to climate change. “There’s a lot of distrust of these home-run giga-packages. It’s been a lot more effective to try to hit some singles and doubles.”
The fault lines, in other words, resemble the fault lines of 2009. That debate produced a bill that was substantively groundbreaking for clean energy but politically debilitating for Democrats.
Obama’s top priority when he took office after the 2008 financial crisis was to resuscitate an economy that was losing nearly 800,000 jobs per month. The kind of fiscal stimulus that props up the economy in the short term requires a boost in government spending, so Obama figured he might as well use it to boost his long-term domestic policy agenda as well. Clean energy was high on that agenda, both to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and lessen America’s dependence on foreign oil.
The stimulus that Obama worked out with a Democratic-controlled Congress would end up increasing U.S. clean energy spending more than twentyfold, producing the world’s largest wind farm, a half dozen of the world’s largest solar arrays, America’s first refineries for advanced biofuels, new projects to capture carbon, and order-of-magnitude increases in programs to help cities, towns and individual homeowners improve their energy efficiency. It also created ARPA-E, a cutting-edge energy research agency modeled on the Pentagon incubator that created the internet. And there were manufacturing incentives to build all that green stuff in the United States.
But the stimulus was an unprecedented exercise in deficit spending, as big in inflation-adjusted dollars as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s entire New Deal, and from the start it had two related political problems. Republicans savaged it in unison as a “porkulus” boondoggle, while Democrats mostly quibbled about it as either too small or too big, excessively or insufficiently focused on long-term priorities, with too much money for this or not enough money for that. The result was a cacophony of he-said-she-said coverage in which both sides sounded negative. The public’s reaction to the idea of economic recovery legislation, which had started out positive, turned sour within weeks. “We tried to put out facts, but the Republicans hijacked the narrative so quickly,” recalled Sanjay Wagle, a clean energy adviser in Obama’s Department of Energy.
The Democrats passed the stimulus in the House without a single Republican vote, but in the Senate they needed support from three Republicans to get the 60 votes necessary to overcome then-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s filibuster. This was the second problem, because Obama had to address every concern of those three Republicans, as well as several wavering Democrats, if he wanted the stimulus to pass. For example, Obama’s draft included $10 billion for a nationwide effort to upgrade the energy efficiency of public schools, but GOP Senator Susan Collins of Maine didn’t want it. So the legislation ended up with nothing for green schools.
The stimulus still took a pioneering swing at the clean-energy issue, and if the green part had been its own law, it would have been the most sweeping climate bill any president had ever passed. But Democrats didn’t do much to call attention to it at the time, and even New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who coined the phrase “Green New Deal” in 2007, recently wrote that “the idea just never took off” until now.
Today, Democrats are gaming out the politics of a less surreptitious Green New Deal that would proudly go by that name, and wouldn’t necessarily be bundled into anything else—although they’re mostly imagining this happening in a post-2020 world in which they’ve reclaimed the White House and Senate. For starters, McElwee hopes a Democratic Senate would avoid ambition-constraining compromises by passing a Green New Deal with only 50 votes through a filibuster-proof reconciliation bill, just as Republicans passed their $2 trillion tax cut. And just as Obama often talked about “green jobs” during the stimulus debate, McElwee envisions Democratic politicians using a Green New Deal as a politically attractive source of jobs they can steer to their states, bringing home solar projects and weatherization programs the way they currently boast about military contracts and farm subsidies.
But Stephen O’Hanlon, spokesman for the youth-oriented Sunrise Movement that has pressured Democratic leaders to make climate action a top priority, says the experience of the stimulus offers some bracing political lessons to Green New Deal supporters: that they won’t be able to take Democrats for granted no matter how many jobs the policy produces, and that Republicans might be a lost cause entirely.
Rifts are already emerging within the Democratic coalition. For example, some labor unions resent liberal opposition to pipelines and “clean coal” projects that create jobs for their members. Meanwhile, some energy wonks have raised objections to Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed mandate for 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030, arguing that zero-carbon nuclear energy should count, too, and that even some natural gas can be less damaging for the climate than dirtier coal. There’s also the question of how to pay for a Green New Deal; Ocasio-Cortez has suggested raising marginal tax rates for the rich to 70 percent, while more moderate Democrats want to look for areas to reduce spending, and some liberals would be happy to put the entire initiative on the national credit card.
The way to win, O’Hanlon said, will be to draw another lesson from the stimulus: Legislation won’t make the case for itself. Supporters need to make the case for it. A recent Yale University poll found that 81 percent of Americans support the idea of a Green New Deal, including 64 percent of Republicans—but then again, the idea of an economic recovery bill was also popular before Fox News and GOP leaders began trashing it. Obama had only a month to sell the stimulus, and O’Hanlon says Green New Deal backers are already preparing to pre-empt the coming backlash by holding rallies around the country highlighting rising seas, intensifying storms and other byproducts of the climate crisis. Castor said her committee also intends to hold hearings around the country, to emphasize how climate change is creating wildfires in California as well as floods in Miami. The goal is to convince the public that an extreme emergency justifies extreme actions.
“We saw how the conservative media and the Republican Party painted a strong economic recovery plan as something that was just about wasting tons of money,” O’Hanlon says. “This time, we’re trying to get ahead of that.”
The Green New Deal’s popularity will depend at least in part on its content. But here, too, the stimulus offers a dose of cold water. The content of the stimulus seemed tailor-made for popularity: tax cuts and spending goodies for almost all Americans, the biggest infrastructure investments since the interstate highways, and an all-of-the-above energy strategy supporting a variety of green experiments so that the winners and losers would be chosen by the free market, not by Washington. Some of the experiments—notably clean coal plants, subsidies for biofuels and a loan for a new nuclear plant—did not work well. But some worked extraordinarily well, helping formerly expensive technologies work their way down the cost curve. U.S. wind capacity has more than tripled since 2008, while solar capacity is up more than sixfold. LEDs were 1 percent of the lighting market in 2008; now they’re more than half the market. There were almost no plug-in electric vehicles in 2008; now there are more than 1 million on U.S. roads.
Still, the only news most Americans heard about the green stimulus was the failure of Solyndra, the notorious California solar company that defaulted on a $535 million Energy Department loan. The Obama administration never claimed that every high-risk investment would pay out, and a slew of investigations never uncovered anything untoward about the Solyndra deal, but Republicans instantly turned Solyndra into a symbol of government incompetence and corruption. Overall, the loan programs had a failure rate of only 2 percent, turning a profit for taxpayers and boosting innovative firms like Tesla, but Obama aides who tried to highlight green successes ran into a narrative wall of Solyndra-Solyndra-Solyndra.
“A big part of politics is storytelling, and we didn’t tell our story very well,” says Cathy Zoi, a former assistant energy secretary under Obama. “Our investments really catalyzed market transformation, but that message didn’t get out.”
There’s a tendency among experts to assume that their preferred climate policy approach would also be the optimal political approach. For instance, many economists argue that assessing a tax or some other market-based price on carbon would be much more popular than subsidizing green technologies, even though a “cap-and-trade” bill failed in the Democratic Congress in 2009, and a fairly modest carbon tax in France has inspired riots. Really, it’s hard to predict what will be popular. Polls suggest broad support for more deployment of wind, solar and electric-vehicle charging infrastructure, as well as mandates and incentives to improve energy efficiency. But Republican attacks portrayed stimulus programs to weatherize low-income homes in order to increase their energy efficiency as welfare handouts, and Trump has gone after Obama’s fuel-efficiency mandates as anti-business, so it may be folly to expect consensus on anything.
There’s plenty of time to work out Green New Deal details. Data for Progress is looking into everything from restoring agricultural wetlands to subsidizing electricity storage to removing lead paint from low-income communities. Castor says her committee will try to inject the climate issue into just about everything Congress does, not only energy, transportation and infrastructure bills, but military spending, tax legislation, and even disaster aid.
But some climate hawks are already nervous that the bold environmental goals could become cannon fodder in a war over even bolder economic proposals like “a job guarantee program to assure a living wage job for everyone.” Ocasio-Cortez’s website casually mentions in Section 6.B.iv of her plan that the Green New Deal “should include universal health care and any other measure the committee deems appropriate for economic security.”
Alex Trembath, deputy director of the Breakthrough Institute, worries that the vague and gauzy climate goals of a Green New Deal will get lost in a partisan and ideological war over capitalism and the economy. “I worry that the energy and climate stuff hasn’t been fleshed out, but it’s full speed ahead on a jobs guarantee,” he said. “I mean, the politics of this is already really hard. I’d be cautious about attaching free college to it, because that’s going to make it harder.”
But on the left, reducing emissions is seen as just one plank in a much broader progressive agenda. Data for Progress research director Greg Carlock says the Green New Deal isn’t just an environmental initiative that would happen to create jobs; it’s an economic justice initiative that would root out inequality by taking on the powerful interests who harm the earth as well as the poor.
“These problems are inherently tied together, and the solutions should be, too,” Carlock says.
In some ways, current attitudes toward the Green New Deal seem to reflect lingering attitudes toward Obama and his stimulus.
The Obama stimulus succeeded in its main goal of averting a depression and ending a brutal recession; the U.S. economy, after contracting at an 8 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter of 2008, was growing again by the summer of 2009. But some progressive activists who support a Green New Deal emphasize what Obama and the stimulus didn’t do, like dramatically boost wages, or reverse growing inequality. Similarly, while Obama and the stimulus did launch a clean-energy transition that simply didn’t exist before 2009, some elements of the left focus on the vast gap between the emissions reductions that have happened and the reductions that still need to happen to avoid the worst effects of global warming.
“The facts are, Obama accomplished more on climate than any president ever, and also he failed to go as far as was necessary to give our generation a livable future,” says O’Hanlon, the 23-year-old spokesman for the Sunrise Movement.
Of course, most Republicans don’t think much of Obama or his stimulus—and it’s hard to imagine that they’ll embrace something more ambitious pushed by more liberal politicians. But among Democratic activists, the debates over the Green New Deal tend to mirror long-running debates over the value of pragmatism and incrementalism versus idealism and radicalism. Establishment Democrats emphasize that unemployment fell from a high of 10 percent to less than 5 percent on Obama’s watch, while the cost of solar power, wind power and battery storage have all plunged more than 70 percent since 2009. Rebels like Ocasio-Cortez are more likely to emphasize that most pretax gains in the Obama era went to top earners, and that the vast majority of the U.S. economy still relies on fossil fuels.
It can be hard to tell on Twitter, where Ocasio-Cortez is a rock star and glass-half-empty Bernie Sanders fans create noise disproportionate to their numbers, but most Democrats consider Obama to have been a good president, and that includes most Democrats in Congress. Congresswoman Castor pointed out to me that her website still has a button linking to the Recovery Act, where her constituents can see how the stimulus sent money to the Tampa area for home weatherization, solar panels on the county courthouse and modernization of the electric grid. “I was just asking my staff: ‘Do you think it’s time to take that down?’” she told me in a recent interview. “But then I said, ‘Nah, let’s keep it up there.’ People should know how much it did.”
Castor hopes her climate committee will do even more to move the economy in greener directions. She even thinks some Republicans might cross the aisle to help, as climate science grows more overwhelming and the mainstream media feels less responsibility to air dissenting viewpoints. But she’s confident that Democrats will come together to support action, even if they squabble over the details.
“Look, cutting our emissions in half by 2030 is going to be a tall order for a Congress that can’t even fund the government,” Castor says. “But climate is an issue that unites Democrats.”
Ocasio-Cortez took a lot of flak for disloyalty when she stopped by the Sunrise Movement’s protest in Nancy Pelosi’s office; establishment Democrats complained that she should use her newfound celebrity to shame Republicans who don’t even admit there’s a problem, not a new speaker who’s been an ally on climate issues. But Ocasio-Cortez has already forced Pelosi and other Democratic leaders to move the climate issue to the top of their agenda, an impressive achievement for a new backbencher. The first thing Democrats did when Obama took office was the stimulus; if Democrats take power in 2021, thanks to Ocasio-Cortez and the movement she’s inspiring, the first thing they do might be a Green New Deal.
“The big question for Democrats right now is: What’s going to be the top priority?” McElwee said. “Well, the most popular young progressive has staked an enormous amount of political capital to say: It’s going to be climate.”