Symposium | The Green New Deal

A New American Dream For All

By Tom Perriello

Tagged Green New Deal

Politicians operate in the realm of the possible. But movements redefine our sense of what is possible. America’s great transformations have arrived when these two operating frameworks collide. In 2021, a new Democratic administration, if one comes to pass, will face the fierce moral urgency of how to enact bold reforms across a range of crisis-level threats. And perhaps counterintuitively, the most pragmatic path to political survival for Democrats is to address these many problems at once: through early passage of a sweeping set of reforms. Why? Because of how the political landscape has shifted seismically since 2009.

Climate change is an extinction-level threat. No longer theoretical, its damage has escalated steadily over recent decades, now bursting before our eyes in the form of forest fires, floods, and droughts. This period has also seen a disastrous decline of Americans’ economic security. In my lifetime, the real median income has dropped by 40 percent, driven both by stagnation of wages and spikes in vital living costs related to housing, health care, and higher education. Nearly 40 percent of Americans say they could not afford an unexpected $400 expense, and one-third of GoFundMe campaigns in 2018 were related to health-care costs. Economic security indicators are even more depressing when measured through the lens of gender and racial disparities.

The list does not stop there. The erosion of the American dream is not simply a metaphor. Many of our sewers, electrical grids, roads, and modes of public transit are crumbling. We see attacks on immigrant communities, reproductive freedoms, and due process. Our democracy and institutions, already weakened before Donald Trump became President, now face an unrelenting assault.

With political scars still fresh from the passage of the Affordable Care Act, many Democrats often view this landscape with dread. The prospect of comprehensively addressing even one of these problems, let alone all of them, may seem daunting. The counterintuitive argument I will outline here is that the correct lessons to learn from the last time Democrats had governing authority is quite the opposite. This time around, it is imperative that the new President fight for a comprehensive omnibus or legislative package that advances our country’s most pressing priorities which means addressing the generational decline of the middle class, inequality, infrastructure, inclusion, antitrust, and a Green New Deal-style climate bill as an American Dream for All Act.

What We Can Learn from the Past

New administrations typically choose either to go big on one legacy legislative achievement or sequence a set of incremental victories across issue priorities. Each option has presented trade-offs, but these have become essentially untenable under new political realities. Prioritizing a single issue risks deflating broad swaths of the Democratic coalition that otherwise have delivered victory. This also creates a perverse political incentive for the Democratic senator weakest on the issue to dictate the pace and scope of the final bill, thus even creating likely animosity from the issue groups that “won” the right to go first. Alternatively, the series of incrementalist votes is likely to produce revolt from today’s progressive base and allies in Congress—a dynamic that did not exist in a meaningful sense in 2009. This approach also empowers those most wobbly to delay and dilute, thus mucking up the gears of a steady series of bite-sized victories.

There is a better way.

In 2009, President-elect Obama demanded a bill on his desk ready for signature on the day of his Inauguration that would prevent the U.S. economy from falling into a depression. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act prevented an economic catastrophe by being timely and decisive, and it included historic investments key to many within the Obama coalition, from saving teachers and schools to launching broadband and social safety programs and even a prototype Green New Deal. Thanks in no small part to the 2009 stimulus package, renewable energy prices have reached record lows. Today, solar and wind energy are cheaper than oil and coal and employ more Americans than the fossil fuel industry.

With historical distance, the biggest criticism of the stimulus act has not been its boldness, but rather the political calculation of some in the Senate to cut it in half, sacrificing the most transformative and publicly understandable investments. That risk-aversion is why Democrats today cannot point to a national smart grid creating jobs in the hardest-hit communities, high-speed rail transforming the competitive advantage of smaller towns, or more bridges and tunnels. With stronger anti-dumping provisions against China, we would see far more clean energy businesses.

Overall, though, the stimulus was a success and proved central to President Obama’s reelection, even if its effects arrived too late and were communicated too poorly to save the 2010 midterms. Democrats also paid a price for our failure to see economic recovery and health-care reform as inextricably linked. When we House Democrats (I was a member of the House from Virginia at the time) fought for the Affordable Care Act, critics asked why we were not focused on the weak economy, despite having already passed the stimulus. And we saw each major piece of legislation—health care, Wall Street reform, stimulus, and cap and trade—become weaker and much less popular during a protracted legislative process. To me, it provided a stark lesson in what happens when Democrats and progressives fail to link crises in an omnibus fashion. If not tackled together, they will most certainly be cited as reasons not to prioritize the others.

The next administration will need to remember these hard lessons—or it will watch its agenda crash against the rocks of the Washington legislative process. Our agenda must include items that can immediately and materially change conditions for constituents before the midterm cycle. It must also excite all parts of the Democratic coalition in order to reach the finish line. And it should contain provisions so irresistible that it alters the electoral calculus for wavering or moderating senators.

Luckily, the framework of the Green New Deal provides an answer.

The Win-Win of a Middle-Class Marshall Plan Built Around the Green New Deal

In many ways, these lessons can be seen in the audacious pragmatism of ascendant youth-led movements around gun reform, racial justice, student debt, or climate change. They start with demands for solutions that have a chance of actually solving the problems, and then build power to make those solutions not just possible but inevitable. The Sunrise Movement and other allies of the Green New Deal have already won two significant debates—how bold should the climate solutions that we are prepared to offer be, and how we can pair these solutions with equally bold efforts to address the crises of economic insecurity and inequality.

At its core, the Green New Deal is a response to the successes and shortfalls of the Obama years. It is built around a strong coalition of the labor, racial justice, and environmental movements, ensuring that no one fights over prioritization and that these issues are tackled together. Any universal economic project that doesn’t include racial justice at its core and excludes black and brown communities like the New Deal did is unacceptable. Likewise, green investment and infrastructure without labor agreements becomes a corporate giveaway and produces low-quality jobs.

The emphasis on industrial policy, localized energy production, and job-building infrastructure projects also ensures immediate benefit and allows representatives to direct relief straight to their constituents.

Nevertheless, some established political, labor, and even environmental leaders have moved quickly to dismiss this expansive Green New Deal as naively aspirational, if not outright harmful. They recommend narrowing the agenda to 100 percent clean energy. This relies on an outdated political logic not unlike the one that failed to pass cap-and-trade. It prioritizes breadth of support over intensity. It also underestimates how quickly Fox News and the rest of the right-wing agitprop apparatus can erode that breadth, as well as how coalition partners engage one another as coequal partners in addressing one another’s priorities. The difference between these two approaches is profound. It is the difference between designing a climate policy with mere “fixes” to address concerns of either labor, inequality, or racial and gender justice advocates, versus a plan that integrates the priorities across these movements into a plan to fully rebuild America.

The New American Dream for All

Congress should be prepared to have a legislative package on the President’s desk the day of her or his inauguration with a ten-year vision to rebuild America and a two-year time horizon of immediate impacts on jobs and affordability. The American Dream for All Act would bind the jobs of the future and economic and legal equity to a 100 percent clean economy. It can include issues such as housing, drug prices, wage increases, child care, and college affordability. This framing will flip the political calculation of even the most moderate senator. It discourages attempts to water down the agenda one bill at a time. Instead, electoral self-interest will lead legislators to vote for a package that improves every home in their state or district, with effects felt before the 2022 midterms.

In many ways, this integrated vision animated the Green New Deal from the start, but the narrative that it is primarily a climate plan with other issues tacked on has solidified.

A core tenet of the American dream has been to afford a home. Media coverage of the Green New Deal and bold climate solutions often lazily focuses on the price tag as the definition of size and ambition, but a central tenet of an American Dream for All Act is climate financing that would reimagine infrastructure investments to include every home in America. Beyond efficiency, if we advance funded every homeowner to replace their water heater (with a heat pump water heater), furnace (again with a heat pump and thermal storage as well), shingles (with solar), vehicles (with electric vehicles), and a modern circuit breaker to make it all play nicely with a modernized bi-directional grid, we tie infrastructure financing to the household. In addition, we then make sure that the electricity is supplied from clean energy sources and we would unleash massive job creation and economic stimulus, save homeowners money and build their equity, and do so largely by acting as guarantor rather than an ATM.

In other words, the goal is to use the scale of the climate crisis to reimagine how we tackle the structural problems we face more broadly. The 116th Congress has produced an example of what happens when we attempt to address twenty-first century economic issues in a vacuum separate from the climate crisis—the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA) trade deal. The USMCA has been pilloried by nearly every major environmental group for failing to mention, much less address, climate change. Worse yet, it actually boosts the fossil fuel industry by providing zero tariff status for oil and natural gas crossing national borders. It perpetuates NAFTA’s ugly track record of helping corporations dump their toxic pollution in communities in Mexico and avoids U.S. clean air and water protections. And it permits oil and gas corporations to challenge climate and environmental protections. Trade deals are long lived. It is unlikely that a new administration will be able to renegotiate this once again in its first term. The USMCA reflects the thinking that comes from treating one issue, say trade, in isolation from others that, we are told, can be dealt with in later legislation, such as climate change.

The American Dream for All Act must be far more ambitious. By no means would it be easy to chart such a course. This process, if undertaken over the next year, would need to take into consideration everything from coalition politics to parliamentary procedure, but the starting point should remain the substance—what are the deepest issues we must tackle, and how are they interrelated. Antitrust enforcement, immigration reform, the racial wealth gap, obesity, child care—it is not hard to see how reforming the fundamentals of our economy requires addressing a range of issues together rather than as a sequence of bills.

Because the process is as relevant as the final product, I will not attempt to draft the contours of such an omnibus bill in this article, but rather I will pose a set of questions. What solutions address our most urgent needs as a country? Where can these solutions be more effective and efficient by being pursued together? What procedural limitations exist to such an approach, and can they be removed? What set of coalition partners, if bought into this approach, represent enough power to ensure passage?

One example of an urgent issue that must be addressed with a climate lens is the affordable housing crisis. It disproportionately affects the largest part of our Democratic coalition, African Americans, due to a long history of racism and segregation manifested in redlining, restrictive covenants, and blockbusting. This problem is set to explode over the next decade due to climate gentrification, as the affluent can often afford to move away from natural disasters and remake the built landscape, while low-income people cannot. Like every other part of the climate crisis, this will vastly accelerate inequality. We can see this process already occurring in communities such as Norfolk, Virginia and Little Haiti in Miami, where low-income residents are being pushed out of the higher ground that they have occupied for decades.

A serious federal investment in affordable housing would further integrate our communities, increase energy efficiency, and increase access to public transportation. An influx of hundreds of thousands of jobs and federal dollars directly into districts and benefits for a vocal constituency would be strong incentives for many Democratic legislators. The science speaks to the necessity of updating and building homes as well. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, 138 million housing units cause up to 15 percent of our carbon emissions. In addition, 24 million homes in the United States contain lead paint, negatively affecting educational and health outcomes for millions of children, most of whom are poor and people of color. An American Dream for All Act that tackles our housing crisis with an environmental justice lens would transform life for American families for decades to come.

While the boldness and scale may vary depending on the President who takes office and the makeup of the next Congress, the framework and logic of this approach need not vary. The value of treating progressive priorities as interrelated in order to avoid fracturing makes sense regardless of whether, say, anti-monopoly policies make the cut. The political value of acting early and at scale, rather than slowly and diluted, is essential to 2022 midterm chances for Democrats under any scenario. These issues can and must be tackled alongside fundamental reforms of our democracy, efforts at least to reverse the erosion of civil and reproductive rights. Whether or not these can be combined as an omnibus or legislative package, the goal is to see them as integrated priorities that must be passed early enough to show impacts before the midterms, rather than used to divide and dilute the New American majority.

Finally, I should note that I don’t mean to imply that this one piece of legislation, no matter how ambitious, will constitute the beginning and the end of the battle. There will be a need for extensive legislative follow-up over the course of this decade, as well as extensive executive action when Congress fails to act.

Why Is a Bolder Approach Better Politics and Policy?

Upon first glance, a more ambitious program appears contrary to conventional wisdom. Yet this approach substantially improves the politics of passage and promotion with three key audiences—the American public, moderate Senate Democrats, and the broader progressive coalition.

A Better Sell to the American Public

Advocates have very clearly won the battle of public opinion when it comes to accepting the science behind climate change. Eight out of every ten Americans say that climate change is fueled by human activity, and half believe urgent action is needed within the next decade to avoid its worst affects. However, conservative and centrist critics have been effective in convincing Americans that addressing climate change is a zero-sum game. Most of them do not want solutions that they see as worsening their current financial burdens. This is true despite the fact that Americans across the 99 percent are feeling the immediate threats of stagnant incomes, rising bills for health care, prescription drugs, and living expenses, and struggling to get to work on overcrowded roads and crumbling bridges and subways. But the genius of the American Dream for All Act is that it has the potential to break this false choice between economic progress and addressing the climate crisis. My approach expands this line of thinking to ensure that voters feel the immediate effects of passing such legislation.

A Better Sell to Moderate Senate Democrats

Good ideas are abundant, but good laws are rare. This is why the omnibus approach provides a large carrot and a sharp stick for passage. The carrot is that politicians can show that their top priorities are the kitchen table issues of jobs, wages, lowering bills, and rebuilding America. The equally large, sharp stick for moderate Democrats is the thought of rejecting thousands of good jobs and commonsense fixes to the issues facing their constituents.

This carrot looks even more palatable when the alternative of opposing it becomes multiple pointy sticks. When a legislator is presented with a single issue, say immigration, it is possible for him or her to triangulate and ignore a single constituency. However, very few elected Democrats would risk alienating a coalition that includes every constituency within their base.

The Senate dynamics also capture the value of doing this before the first 100 days. Red- and purple-state Democrats can face reelection in 2022 with constituents already making more money, paying less for prescription drugs, college, and cable bills, and seeing a jobs boom around clean energy and infrastructure. Moving fast also gives the opposition less time to organize. Few, if any, pieces of Democratic legislation have become more popular during the time Democrats debate and shape it in Congress. In 2009, health-care reform, climate legislation, and Wall Street reform all polled above 70 percent before Congress took its time on regular order (i.e., the business-as-usual legislative processes). Those of us in the House were told that allies would provide air cover once the bill passed, but by the time it did, we were focused on removing the rubble remaining from the right’s assaults. Every Democrat running is promising to do something bold on climate change, affordable health care, housing, college, and the minimum wage. None of these priorities should require protracted deliberation or come as a surprise to voters.

A Better Sell to the Progressive Coalition

Today’s progressive coalition is both dramatically stronger and more fractured than the Obama coalition that produced victories a dozen years ago. In many ways, 2008 was a Messiah election, whereas the 2018 midterms and current election are movement elections, propelled in opposition to Trump and Trumpism. Regardless of the nominee, the progressive base has far more power in the Democratic Party and far stronger allies in the House and Senate. The base can credibly threaten pushback on compromise and primaries where needed. And each part of the coalition is considerably more conscious of the need for allyship, particularly on issues of race and gender.

In fact, it is this awareness, resulting in the centering of equality in the Green New Deal, that has made the Sunrise Movement and allies so much more effective than traditional green groups that think they can win by narrowing the focus to 100 percent clean energy, and the Beltway-out strategy that failed with Waxman-Markey, the clean energy bill of 2009 that narrowly passed the House but was never considered by the Senate. This activist coalition is far more likely to revolt over efforts to push for incremental solutions or prioritize a single issue at the expense of others. This new political reality flips the logic that going slow helps moderate Democrats, showing that it actually threatens to invite social media targeting, primaries, or simply a deflated base that refuses to show up in non-presidential years for Democrats who were part of the problem.

Conclusion

The question is: Should Democrats deliver early on kitchen table issues and infrastructure, or demand massive policy responses to climate change, democracy reimagined, and radical inequality? The answer to this choice is yes.

The way we view Obama’s stimulus with distance reveals another key lesson for this moment. While the media at the time focused on divisions over the price tag, the deeper debate was over fundamentally warring diagnoses of the crisis. The more fiscally conservative faction focused on jolting the economy back to 2006, because they saw the Bush economy as healthy. The economic progressives pushed for a bold reimagining of America’s comparative advantage because they saw the crisis as the culmination of decades of declining opportunity, accountability, and economic security. We see the same contours today in debates about the Green New Deal. Pundits focus on the price tag and process fouls instead of engaging on the substantive debate underneath: Are Americans desperate for tweaks on the margins or for something strong enough to reverse the declines and pave a path back to inclusive prosperity? It is about whether our solutions start with what truly solves the problem or whether they are relegated to what we’ve been told is within the realm of the possible.

In this new era of American politics, bolder reform has become the better politics. Piecing together an agenda through regular legislative order is destined to shatter the progressive coalition, deflate the base, and still get labeled by Fox as socialist and by outdated editorial boards as fiscally dangerous. The alternative—replacing a laundry list of progressive legislation with a bold, integrated plan to rebuild the American Dream for All—turns weaknesses into strengths. It reinforces the links rather than trade-offs between a living wage and lowering the cost of prescription drugs and child care, between green infrastructure and climate financing to help every homeowner build equity and cut costs, between inviting immigrant neighbors out of the shadows and reversing the racial wealth gap, between a national smart grid and antitrust enforcement that revives entire parts of our country and cities left behind.

The risk of going bold is real, but the risk of going slow and soft is essentially guaranteed. And if risk is inherent, why not take it on a credible bet to rejuvenate the American Dream, to finally make America’s aspiration to equality and inclusion real, and to save the planet? And if you’re going to place that bet, why not do so early enough to show the benefits before the midterms? In the Venn diagram of lessons learned by moderates and progressives from this century’s volatile politics, there is a promising spot in the center—a bold, early plan to rebuild an American Dream for All.

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Tom Perriello is a former Congressman, served as a senior diplomat in the Obama Administration, and has spent more than two decades as an advocate for democracy and justice. He currently serves as Executive Director of Open Society United States.

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