Symposium | The Green New Deal

Building the GND Movement

By Maurice Mitchell

Tagged Green New Deal

Across the globe, scientists are speaking with one voice: We either dramatically reconstruct our economic life on a non-carbon basis, and we do so now, they say, or very soon we will face an acceleration in global warming that will destabilize every ecological system on the earth, and with it, the human societies that we have built atop them.

This challenge is greater than any that human societies have ever confronted. It is also eminently answerable.

The Green New Deal starts from the premise that addressing climate change at the pace that science demands is within our means. But to succeed, we must accompany that economic transformation with an urgent social transformation—the society-wide assumption of responsibility for the basic well-being of all people. That transformation is necessary on two levels. There are many carbon-intensive jobs that cannot continue in a decarbonized economy, but that is not the fault of the workers in those jobs. They need a “just transition.” But beyond that, at a political level, there is simply no path to majority support for an economic transformation on the scale required unless the vast majority of Americans believe that their lives will be better under a Green New Deal, not worse. As Yanis Varoufakis and David Adler have written, “austerity means extinction.” In other words, what Fox News will denounce as the Green New Deal’s most “socialist” aspects—a jobs guarantee, comprehensive investment in care and care work, prioritization of frontline communities—are not luxuries. They’re politically indispensable.

The advocates of the Green New Deal chose their historical metaphor deliberately. It is, in part, a call for a full-scale social mobilization of the sort that was necessary to overcome the Great Depression and defeat fascism. But it is also a statement of a political task: The economic transformation needed to stabilize planetary systems will not be achieved through a single piece of legislation. Instead, a Green New Deal must become the commonsense framework for a whole governing program, stretching over a decade or more, just as the original New Deal was the commonsense framework for every part of social and economic reform for 30 years or more.

We have to think about how to win enormous majorities to support a Green New Deal, because we know with certainty the scale of opposition we will face. In the last decade, lobbyists from every carbon-intensive sector of the economy have confronted even the mildest efforts to decarbonize with blunt force opposition. Proponents of a Green New Deal, which will match historic levels of public investment with rigorous regulations, must expect these industries, and the politicians, think tanks, and media outlets that serve them, to multiply their efforts. They will pray on people’s fear of change and loss and on their distrust of government. The will also subtly co-opt themes from the left, such as racially inclusive hiring, for high-wage jobs in extractive industries. And we can expect them to lie without shame. They benefit from a political system that affords them a breathtaking number of ways to thwart constructive political action, and the popular cynicism that results from the failures of governing that they have worked to ensure.

So what political strategy can we use to defeat this opposition and deliver on the promise of the Green New Deal?

We believe that supporters of a GND have one overarching political task over the course of the next year: to make enacting policy that significantly and immediately advances Green New Deal objectives the inescapable imperative for local, state, and national government come 2021. It is not enough that Democratic officials pursue just any action on climate change. If, for example, they follow the script set by France’s Emmanuel Macron of appearing to tax working-class people to lower carbon emissions, the United States might well see its own yellow vests movement spring up, and the window for meaningful action will close. But if a Green New Deal quickly delivers real benefits to working people, it can drive a wedge through Donald Trump’s coalition, in a mirror image of what Trump’s emphasis on immigration, trade, and “forever wars” did to the Democratic coalition in 2016. With this realignment initiated, pro-GND forces can win even bigger majorities in 2022, setting the stage for the kind of transformative legislation that shifts wealth and power and forges the durable majority coalition necessary to see the energy transition through.

Three strategic pillars would bolster the overall goal: shifting the narrative, winning key elections, and building the power and relationships to achieve policy victories at the state and federal levels.

Narrative Shift

The vision of the Green New Deal is for an exercise in public power on a scale unmatched by anything since the mobilization to defeat the Axis powers during World War II.

Since at least the 1970s, corporate America has fought to convince voters that efforts of this scale are either impossible or inimical to our core values and popular well-being. Their worldview has four crucial components. The first is a story about the economy: The free market always delivers the best outcomes. The second is about government: It’s wasteful and inefficient, and mostly just impedes the proper workings of the free market. It is confiscating your tax dollars and using them for illegitimate purposes. Third, there is a story about what we owe to each other. “Rugged individualism” implies that we cannot be obligated to owe anything to one another, except to our families. Fourth and last, there is a story about hierarchies of human worth, especially racial hierarchies, which stitches the other pieces together. It says that the free market always delivers the best outcomes. And so if people of color and immigrants are not succeeding, it’s due to their inability and not structural impediments.

Due to the civil rights movement and the social justice work that followed, explicit racism was replaced by dog whistles and implicit bias. But with Trump, it’s once again out in the open. By fueling the “politics of resentment,” the corporate class and its allies have worked hard to convince Americans who genuinely stand to benefit from an active and redistributive government that such a government exists only to take from them and give to people who don’t deserve it. The politics of resentment is a politics of the zero-sum, and it breeds an ethic of scarcity.

This means that the advocates of the Green New Deal must break through with a successful story of abundance and solidarity to counter the opposition’s narrative. The first step is to convince Americans that action on the scale of the problem is necessary. Building off of decades of work by climate justice activists, in just the past few years we have made considerable headway. One gets a glimpse of what that looks like in the public support and attention for the activists and organizers with the Standing Rock Water Defenders fighting to block the Dakota Access Pipeline; in the scale and substance of 6 million people joining in global strikes and protests last September, calling for climate justice and building upon decades of groundwork laid by frontline grassroots organizations. As climate emergencies quicken, as climate change strains all sorts of infrastructure, as property values decrease and government borrowing costs increase in vulnerable areas, there is every reason to expect that this will continue to shift.

However, the movement still needs to mobilize many millions more. It is especially important to mobilize young people, who carry the moral authority that comes from being forced by those in power to survive in a period of ecological collapse. It must begin to make the lives of elite climate deniers—the financiers, the fossil fuel executives, the big agricultural corporations, and so on—deeply uncomfortable. It will need to involve civil disobedience that some will see as unnecessarily disruptive but that will in fact force some hard and necessary questions onto the public stage. The truth will need to be told about what the most powerful actors in our society are and are not doing to tackle climate change. But the disruption must also help to paint an inspiring picture of all the good things we as a society can have, and all the better ways of living together that we can look forward to.

For those of us organizing under the umbrella of the Green New Deal network, the movement will require an immense and sustained commitment to political education of young activists, but it will also mean taking to the streets and working doggedly in communities—urban, suburban, and rural; red, blue, and purple. We will need to tie up and shut down pipeline projects because, as with prison cells, if you build them, you have to fill them. We need to show up at the private equity meetings and shine a very bright light on the bloodless way they are destroying the future of the young. We need to learn from the decades-long organizing of groups from Love Canal to Cancer Alley, who fought to show the gruesome human cost of corporate malfeasance, or to leaders in frontline communities—like Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy and the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition—who fight environmental racism every day. We need to organize thousands of middle school, high school, and college teach-ins on the same day. We need to scale up our visibility to an unparalleled, but not unimaginable, degree.

Every great movement for social change wins the hearts and minds of the people by asking what we owe to ourselves and our children and their children yet to come, and then demanding that our leaders act in accordance with the answers.

Electoral Power

One significant risk we face is not that elected officials at all levels will simply fail to take up climate legislation in 2021, but that their instincts about what legislative approach helps Democrats get reelected will cut in the opposite direction of what is needed. For example, they might try for narrow, technical legislation that somehow avoids the ire of coal state obstructionists like Joe Manchin. Such a strategy could easily fail, and even if it does pass, it will fail to catalyze the popular shifts necessary to prevent the legislation from being reversed under the next Republican administration.

Polling majorities for a Green New Deal are indispensable, but if we cannot translate popular support into electoral outcomes, a Green New Deal cannot succeed. Our electoral strategy is addressed both to the shoe-leather work of winning elections on the ground, and to shaping the narrative of what elections are about.

One of the two major political parties in the country has succeeded in turning climate denialism into a staple of an all-consuming culture war. Under conditions of winner-take-all politics, Republicans have convinced 40 to 45 percent of the country that anything supported by Democrats is a threat to America. Democrats could win the 2020 elections, but if they win them narrowly and do nothing to change these conditions ahead of the 2022 midterms, then nothing that they pass will survive.

The first New Deal reshaped American politics for a generation by building mass constituencies that would defend New Deal policies. Industrial union members threw off the deference that had defined their lives and learned that they could defeat the mighty industrialists. Senior citizens instantly understood Social Security as protection against the scourge of poverty in old age. Farmers began to get decent prices for their goods thanks to New Deal farm policy. Black participation in New Deal era programs and benefits was often undermined or blocked, but leaders in the black community also fought successfully in many instances for inclusion. African Americans understood all too well that they lived in a deeply racist country: Still, they saw the New Deal as in their interest, and millions of black folks left the Party of Lincoln for the Party of Franklin Roosevelt.

This is what realignment means, and it’s why the New Deal lasted. We’re used to a midterm election weakening the party that holds the White House. But thanks to the enormous popularity of the measures FDR took to combat unemployment and foreclosures, the midterm election of 1934 dramatically strengthened Roosevelt and the congressional Democrats. Indeed, much of what we think of as the New Deal took place in a burst of legislative activity in 1935.

Democrats have to approach governing in 2021 in a way that sets up 2022 to look like 1934, when the New Deal propelled Democrats to bigger majorities in both houses of Congress, and not like 2010, when they bled seats in the House and the Senate. In order to do this, Democrats must pursue aggressive Green New Deal measures that put people to work and address climate-related infrastructure failures in a way that people can easily recognize as stemming from the GND. They must also pursue structural reforms to our democracy that weaken the pull of billionaires and major corporations on elections and elected officials.

This realignment requires both engaging nonvoters who lean Democratic and driving a wedge through Trump’s base. Polarization in American politics is as much geographic as it is racial. The places in America that have prospered economically over the last 30 years (of course, that prosperity has not been shared) have become Democratic bastions. The places that have not prospered—the Rust Belt, and especially rural parts of the country—have become overwhelmingly Republican. A Green New Deal truly does have a lot to offer rural Americans: In particular, real investment in transforming agriculture, power generation, and distribution, all of which would create huge numbers of jobs in places that need them, while also increasing the resilience of regional infrastructure and ecosystems.

Indeed, polling in Senate battleground states suggests that a message about a Green New Deal-style transformation resonates with voters. Fox News may have made some progress thus far in discrediting the phrase “Green New Deal,” but its component parts remain popular. Voters really do want a massive investment in clean energy. They support government spending on infrastructure, and they think those jobs should pay a living wage. They are not fooled about who actually controls the government, and they think that the government ought to be helping working people instead.

The presidential primary has already been a key site of intervention, and GND advocates succeeded in making GND the default position of many Democratic candidates, with moderate candidates having to account for their departures from it rather than supporters having to defend their ambitions to voters. Over the course of 2020, GND advocates will be active in U.S. Senate campaigns to defeat Republican obstructionists and push reluctant Democrats, including in some instances through primaries. We will also be active in state legislative elections, working to elect majorities who will push ambitious legislation at the state level, as a number of states have already begun to do.

Organizing Power

Thanks to the presence of an open climate denier in the White House, the 2020 elections provide an unparalleled opportunity for narrative and electoral interventions that will bring us closer to a Green New Deal. But for the Green New Deal to become the dominant framework of American politics for the next decade, we will have to convert the excitement and high participation of mass mobilizations, civil disobedience, climate emergency relief work, and electoral activism into more durable forms of organization on the ground.

To that end, the Green New Deal network will support local and state-based organizations across the country to integrate the Green New Deal into their organizing. Concretely, and most immediately, we aim to accelerate efforts to pass Green New Deal-inspired legislation at the local and state level. Coalitions like Illinois Clean Jobs and New York Renews have shown what’s possible, and local fights develop the legislative advocacy skills and muscle needed for the federal fights to come. Organized groups of working-class Americans, committed to the economic and social transformation promised by a Green New Deal, are indispensable to sustaining a struggle with some of the most powerful forces in the world. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

Even in a tough state—a fossil fuel heavy state—there is progress to be made. Consider New Jersey, land of refineries. On solar, progressives have made the Garden State one of the nation’s leaders in residential installation. On transportation, the Clean Cars bill that was just passed and was signed by Governor Murphy is a terrific, concrete step toward the zero emission, electric car future that can’t arrive too soon. Shutting down oil refineries will not be possible without at least some confidence among working people that there will be jobs and cars in the future, so building the demand for solar and electrification is a smart move by organizers operating in difficult circumstances.

No doubt there are a thousand more good ideas that environmental, community, and labor leaders could pursue, but the key to all this is, as ever, power.

Conclusion: Governing Power

Narrative shift, effective electoral interventions, and power-building on the ground are the prerequisites for governing power: the power to place the Green New Deal on the agenda of a popular majority, to see that agenda enacted, and to defend our policy victories against inevitable attacks such that we are in a stronger position to win the next round of gains. Each step is essential. After a bruising fight to push the Affordable Care Act through Congress, the Obama Administration pivoted away from health care and failed to vigorously defend or sell the new law to the American people. That, combined with some early missteps during implementation, helped to spur the rise of the Tea Party and a Republican majority that then undercut the ACA at every turn. In 2021, our overarching priority must be to ensure that policy gains influenced by the Green New Deal have immediate, tangible effects. That is the only way we can make 2022 our 1934.

Anyone that says a Green New Deal can’t or won’t work is missing the point. The Green New Deal is a vehicle for progressive ambition to transform our economy and environment to achieve sustainability, equity, justice, freedom, and happiness. It’s a reimagining of what the government does and who it does it for. It’s a demand—and road map—for the country of our dreams.

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Maurice Mitchell is the national director of the Working Families Party.

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