This is the second part of a two-part series. Read part 1.
As Democrats and progressives focus on taking back the Senate and presidency over the next two years, it will be of critical importance that they take power itself more seriously than ever before.
Having witnessed Mitch McConnell’s take-no-prisoners approach to President Obama’s legislative agenda and Supreme Court nominations – not to mention tireless efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act along with increasingly intensified voter suppression and gerrymandering by Republicans nationwide – it should finally be clear to Democrats that they are in a brawl for political power.
They cannot just focus on good legislation and solving social and economic problems. They must use all legitimate levers to achieve a dominant position in American politics.
To start, progressives might draw some lessons from discussions happening on the left in the UK. In an article about how the Labour Party should prepare for power, Christine Berry argues that Labour needs a “detailed strategic analysis of what needs to be done and who may stand in our way.” This is very much the kind of strategic thinking that proponents of direct action use to assess their strengths and weaknesses as well as that of their opponents.
In terms of what needs to be done, progressive Democrats have not for the most part thought about the kind of transformation that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has been working towards for the past couple of years. But they will need to ask the same sorts of questions if they wish to create an economy that works for everyone.
Progressive Democrats must also understand who their opponents are beyond the Republican Party in Congress. Any moves to roll back the 2017 tax cuts, to move towards a Medicare for All health insurance system, to promote public banking, to support unions, or to shut down fossil fuel extraction would be certain to elicit a vociferous response from corporate America. The immense funding to defeat modest climate change ballot initiatives in a few states this election cycle makes it clear that fossil fuel corporations will do everything they can to preserve their privileged place in the U.S. economy.
A strategic power analysis, then, will have to assess the political strengths and weaknesses of fossil fuel and other corporations and how to take advantage in order to minimize their collective political clout. There is scant evidence that Democratic politicians have thought about this seriously, although there growing recognition of the importance of pro-labor legislation.
Fortunately, activists have. The Keystone XL and Dakota Access water protectors have taken on the fossil fuel interests at great risk and have managed to show just how ruthless these corporations can be, much as civil rights protestors unmasked the violence of Jim Crow in the 1960s. These activities have been buttressed by lawsuits against the oil giants that quite clearly knew decades ago that their main products would accelerate global warming. Divestment campaigns are also in full swing and have achieved some notable wins both in the U.S. and Europe.
In Congress, there is little evidence that the mainstream of the Democratic Party fully understands the kind of fight they are in and the extent of the changes that are needed. Members of Congress and Senate are strongly inclined toward pragmatic and incremental approaches because that is how those bodies have almost always operated. The injection of younger progressives who have a more critical view of capitalism gives one hope that a broader discussion of the assumptions undergirding the American economy might be starting in Democratic circles. But there is a long ways to go and much resistance to be overcome.
Putting it all together: The Green New Deal
The Green New Deal does not yet exist as legislation, but there have been multiple formulations of it. Perhaps the most well-known is the version published by Data for Progress. The basic outline is daunting: The U.S. economy must be transformed in the space of a few decades so that CO2 emissions are, first, drastically reduced, and then all but eliminated.
To make it happen, energy will have to be produced using only renewable sources, primarily wind and solar; buildings will have to be retrofitted to increase heating and cooling efficiency; all transportation will have to be electrified; and food will have to be produced using methods that keep and increase the amount of carbon in the soil.
There is very little that would be untouched by the transformations implied in the Green New Deal. It will affect urban, suburban, and rural communities, industry and farming, homes, offices, and factories. The expansiveness of the project is, perhaps counterintuitively, its great strength. As Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez explained in a Bernie Sanders-sponsored town hall early in December, the Green New Deal will be the equivalent of the New Deal of the 1930s, the Civil Rights era, and the Moonshot of the 1960s – all at the same time.
It is a giant infrastructure plan that will include everyone: farmers, former industrial workers, laborers, engineers, software developers, care workers and so on. Crucially, it will provide jobs for people in rural, urban and former industrial areas for at least a couple of generations. Because it includes nearly everyone, there is the potential to build strong popular support.
But that support must be built. A Green New Deal will require a massive “green mobilization.” People will have to understand that they have a tangible stake in its success, meaning the benefits to their lives and communities must be clear in order to gain their active support. In her comments at the town hall meeting, Ocasio-Cortez emphasized the importance of a “just transition,” the idea that no one should be victimized and those who have suffered from environmental injustice must be made whole as part of the process.
In the case of coal miners, for example, pensions for all workers must be fully-funded to allow older workers to retire comfortably, while jobs for younger workers in retrofitting buildings, installing wind turbines and solar panels, and road and bridge construction, among others, must be guaranteed and actually put in place so the transition between jobs is relatively easy and is clearly understood by those affected. This is the sort of approach that must take place everywhere jobs are being phased out and new jobs established. In addition, those new workplaces must be open to union organizing.
In addition to jobs, universal health care must be a part of the transition and should be implemented at an early stage. Beyond its overwhelming cost and poor performance, the current health insurance system limits the ability of workers who have insurance through their jobs to work someplace else or start their own businesses. With guaranteed health insurance, workers and entrepreneurs will have more flexibility and be more supportive of other changes in the economy.
The most politically difficult part of the Green New Deal will be at the start. That is why it is important to frontload the government-funded programs for infrastructure and healthcare. With jobs and healthcare clearly on offer, a “green mobilization” could build momentum rapidly.
It will not be enough, however, to just talk about government job programs, infrastructure and related matters. Activists will have to organize all over the country to enlist supporters and – at times – disrupt business as usual to advance the campaign. Just a few weeks after the elections, Ocasio-Cortez joined the Sunrise Movement’s mini-occupation of Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office. The point was not to reproach Pelosi, but to make it clear to the incoming Democratic House leadership that climate change must be a key priority on the Democratic agenda come January.
Ocasio-Cortez’s appearance at the protest gave the activists and their supporters a jolt of energy and enthusiasm, while signalling that the incoming class of progressives was not going to play politics as usual. This joining of astute activist pressure from below with progressive representation in Congress is a powerful strategic lever for the supporters of the Green New Deal and other progressive issues, a lever that has already started changing public discourse.
As suggested above, there will be overwhelming resistance by the forces that like things just as they are. They will argue that the Green New Deal is unrealistic and costs too much. These arguments, it must be recognized, rest on common assumptions about how our economy operates and our place in it. There are good policy answers to such claims – mostly that it is a question of priorities. But to win the deeper argument, progressive activists and politicians will have to tell an appealing new story about the American people and the American economy.
In Out of the Wreckage, George Monbiot talks about the power of stories for how people make sense of society and their place in it. He emphasizes that political stories, which express world views, can only be replaced by other stories. The Green New Deal is such a story – a project to transform the American economy and overturn neoliberal orthodoxy.
The neoliberal story claims that “free markets” are good, governments are the problem, and people are on their own. It’s a deeply entrenched story that had not been challenged seriously until the Great Recession and its aftermath as it has become increasingly clear to many Americans that markets don’t necessarily provide the economic opportunities they and their families have always expected.
The weakening of this story became manifest during the 2016 primary campaigns when Donald Trump defeated his mainstream, tax-cutting, small government Republican rivals by criticizing just about all that they stood for and promising that he would protect middle class Americans and bring back lost jobs. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders emphasized and continues to emphasize that Americans have the right to affordable healthcare, education, and other essentials of a normal life.
Thus, the old story – the old pro-market orthodoxy – has been significantly weakened over the past decade. Trump and the Republican Congress have only undermined it further with the massive tax cuts for the rich and their attempts to take away the Affordable Care Act. The stage is set for a new story that talks about a great challenge, much like the Great Depression, that calls Americans to come together to remake the economy, put everyone back to work, and solve the environmental crisis.
Fortunately, much polling confirms that there is strong support for progressive economic policies and core features of the Green New Deal. Progressives and liberal Democrats have a winning story and they are starting to tell it.
The New Green Deal, then, is an emerging set of policy prescriptions, an immense political project, and a grand story about American renewal: a quest to rebuild and heal the country after decades of decline and division and the resultant loss of purpose. It will also be a battle against corporate interests and their political allies in Congress, who, because of the unpopularity of their politics, are resorting to ever more authoritarian measures to retain power and forstall change.
But because of their unpopularity and loss of legitimacy, these reactionary forces are more vulnerable than even before – right when progressive movements are reaching a critical mass. The chances for transformative change and real solutions that address the climate crisis are still uncertain. But those chances are much better than they have been in a long time.