The Green New Deal Part II: The Noise


I focused my last post on the practicality of the Green New Deal (GND) and what I see as its shortcomings to being a more effective resolution. I have received some feedback suggesting I was being too critical and focusing more on aspects that would be part of eventual legislation or initiatives to realize the GND’s goals instead of what it symbolizes.

I'm just a Resolution on Capitol Hill.

Fair points and I somewhat agree. However, as I noted, I believe the GND would be stronger and less subject to potential attacks from political opponents if these gaps and deficiencies were properly addressed. Indeed, we already see the GND being reduced to a talking point, a wedge, a litmus test, and a cudgel without receiving so much as a single hearing on the House or Senate floor (yet).

But my prior post was about technical issues. For example, supplanting 87 percent of America’s energy generation with renewable sources in ten years might be possible but incorporating the changes to electricity infrastructure to deliver it all might not follow that same trajectory due to financial and legal reasons that cannot simply be swept away. However, that does not mean we should not have a bold call to action and the guts to do our damnedest to achieve it.

And here is where I run into the first of the non-technical challenges I see with the GND. Its leadership seems muddied. I understand Representative Ocasio-Cortez is the de facto face of the GND and is incredibly vocal about it. But by announcing the resolution alongside Senator Markey, the GND becomes an issue among both the House and Senate. That is to say, the GND now must navigate 535 voting members on Capitol Hill, all of who might have something to say about it. To make the headway it wants in the amount of time it envisages, the GND needs to be a movement with a clear figurehead. Kennedy was the face and voice of the space program. Johnson had the Great Society. FDR had the original New Deal. Obama had the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. (For what it's worth, I see the GND more aligned with the Great Society than the New Deal.) Without a singular person leading the charge – one with sufficient savvy and the actual power to advance an agenda – the GND is almost stuck in neutral because its champions, while having some platform, lack the type of platform necessary to galvanize and mobilize the kind of effort the GND is supposed to be.

Which side are you on? It may not be that easy. (Photo credit: Counterpunch (l.), EarthJustice (r).

Even the actual leader of the House of Representatives, herself a member of the party putting such vocal strain on the issue, does not use her bully pulpit to advance the GND. The House of Representatives resurrected its Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which is where the GND’s strongest – and most junior – supporters sit. The panel was placed under the Energy and Commerce Committee, though it has no subpoena power and cannot advance any bills to the House floor. While it can investigate and produce reports and will likely have no shortage of professionals ready to meet with them and offer their input, neither its seasoned leader, Representative Kathy Castor, nor its eager junior members will be able to do much vis-à-vis prominent leadership that actually moves the resolution forward. In other words, Pelosi put baby in the corner.

Which brings me to another red flag. The best place for a great vision to go to die is a resolution on Capitol Hill. There is a great book called “The New New Deal” by Michael Grunwald. In it he digs deep into the journey to create and deliver the 2009 Stimulus Package. The book is choc full of research regarding the most gruesome horse-trading and political hurly burly an emergency bill could experience. But through it all, then-President Obama was able to keep people focused on the main message using the backdrop of he office of the country’s leader and “organize the puppies.” The GND obviously has no support from the current White House. If anything its current team occupying the White House is doing all it can to coalesce a strictly “anti” message. GND supporters need something equally focused and strong. Right now, they are fighting every little battle and dissipating any kind of focused approach.

Another weakness of the GND is that it is not a bill in desperate need of signing – at least not to politicians. To those of us aware of the pressing climate threat, the GND ought to be the locomotive pulling the rest of the train behind it. Get on board or get out of the way. Unfortunately, the GND is not even a bill but simply a resolution, and there is an important distinction between the two. Though that tends not to matter. Even if it received a vote on the House floor, it stands zero chance of getting an honest vote in the Senate, let alone passing it.

But pass it must if it is going to have any last effect. To that end the GND suffers from another non-technical flaw: it tries to be everything to everybody. But that is what it needs to do if it has any chance of advancing and passing. Unfortunately the climate argument is not enough to get everyone on board so the GND tries to marry environmental and economic concerns. For example:

Whereas the House of Representatives recognizes that a new national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal era is a historic opportunity—

(1) to create millions of good, high-wage jobs in the United States;

(2) to provide unprecedented levels of prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States; and (3) to counteract systemic injustices:

Putting aside how much this sounds like making America great again, the GND moves into health care, livable wages, access to healthy food, and affordable housing. The GND also tries to set US industrial policy, which we do not really have since we are not a centralized system like, say, China. Not that these are not worthy endeavors. Indeed, all of them should and must be addressed proactively. But stuffing them into a climate resolution makes this easy to attack as a “leftist wishlist.”

I also see the GND suffering from the belief that a previous plan will work again even in the face of different conditions. Simply put, these are not “new deal times.” The original New Deal and the Stimulus Package were crafted and passed during times of economic free fall that was bankrupting families and businesses by the hour. While the climate is in peril and we are losing precious time to fix it, it is not putting people’s livelihoods at risk in the same visceral and tangible way. In fact the GND has been unveiled at a time of near-full employment, with rising-but-manageable inflation, and economic expansion. And while the benefits are uneven and economic inequality persists, it is hard to sell a New Deal anything at this particular time.

Lastly, I see the GND being hamstrung by its champions’ perpetual anger. Anger is justified at times but when it is your default position, it does not take long to go from a movement to an annoyance. As I wrote previously, look at the Tea Party example. They rode a wave of (completely unfounded) righteous anger and indignation in the 2010 mid-term elections. Now look at the “movement.” The faces of the GND seem to be following that same playbook. Anger and vitriol are their currency, which only makes it easier to malign both the messenger and the message while keeping the conversation about the GND at the level of the “kids table.”

In fact, we have seen wave after wave of tantrum-throwing legislators storm Capitol Hill ever since Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House in 1994 and tried to push the Contract With America. If Americans are clamoring for any kind of movement, it is less of the same and more of its opposite. To my knowledge, no movement or leader has ever failed for being too positive. I suspect the GND would see a lot more support and progress if it significantly altered its approach here.

So What?

I do not believe in criticizing something if I am not prepared to offer something constructive in its place. Therefore I suggest the efforts of the new junior members of Congress be repackaged in the following way:

1. Listen to the people. Understand what was at the heart of the historic 2018 mid-term results. Much to my dismay, it was not climate change but rather economic issues. I know the GND has crammed economic justice alongside climate justice and there is some overlap, but be honest and understand that as urgent as this crisis is, merely shouting louder and tweeting snarkier messages is not going to bring voters around to your position. Start where they are and move forward.

2. Break the GND into its various components and graft it on to the larger Democratic agenda. The anger, purity tests, and assumption that the newly elected know how to steer the ship better than the seasoned pros is largely what got the GND demoted to begin with. Find a freshman representative to take point on an individual issue within the GND and pair them with a senior representative who has some fire for that issue. Let the veteran mentor and guide that particular piece through its necessary paces. I understand this is anathema to what ambitious, young go-getters believe but they will see much more progress with this approach than with empty threats to burn the place down if the elders do not get out of the way. To once again pull a bit from Hamilton, campaigning is easy, legislating is harder.

3. While the GND’s goals are being advanced in the House, find a prominent spokesperson outside Capitol Hill who can be an additional face for the movement. Move this issue beyond the beltway. If necessary, let it be someone who is running for president, but only if necessary. If a candidate tries to co-opt the movement as theirs now, it will sink their credibility and the movement’s.

These are just three ideas that I believe will put the GND on more solid footing. There are likely dozens more. I hope people find them, implement them and strengthen the GND. It is vital for numerous reasons and is exactly the kind of big undertaking that is in our national DNA. We can achieve every single goal it lists. We have to. We really have no choice. The alternative is unthinkable and irresponsible, and that simply is not what we do.

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© 2020 by Mark Konold