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Democrats’ Fear of the Green New Deal Is Tearing the Party Apart

Why are party leaders so scared of a policy that’s demonstrably popular?

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks outside the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C.

About two years ago, before the Sunrise Movement became a household name, the activist group staged a sit-in at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. They were joined by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in one of her first days on the Hill, who proposed her colleagues in Congress develop a plan for an economy-wide mobilization to take on the climate crisis: the Green New Deal. Since that time, that framework—for massive public investment and rapid decarbonization—has been the standard against which climate policy is judged.

Democratic presidential candidates, save for Joe Biden, competed with one another in the primary over who could have the most ambitious, expensive plan for curbing emissions. Center-left governments in Spain and South Korea ran successfully on Green New Deals, and even the U.K.’s Conservative government now plans to pursue something called “Green Industrial Revolution.” The European Union’s Green Deal is a centerpiece of its bloc-wide recovery plan, at least in name.

Not all of these initiatives are worth getting excited about. But it’s striking that ruling, hardly left-wing governments around the world see political cachet in the rhetoric of a Green New Deal, while Democratic leaders have been frustratingly, maddeningly reluctant to embrace any big ideas at all.

Sunrise and Ocasio-Cortez aren’t empty-handed after two years of agitation. Ninety-nine percent of co-sponsors to the Green New Deal resolution, which Ocasio-Cortez introduced with Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey last year, won their races, with Markey campaigning on the GND in a tough primary against centrist Joe Kennedy III. New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland, a Green New Deal enthusiast, is being vetted to run the Department of Interior. And the Congressional Progressive Caucus seems to be getting its house in order.

At a Thursday rally outside the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington with Sunrise and several other progressive groups, the Squad welcomed Jamaal Bowman, Mondaire Jones, and Cori Bush into its ranks. They also called on Biden, perhaps their least favorite of the viable 2020 primary candidates, to run on the most ambitious climate policy a Democrat ever has. Yesterday’s rally urged him to keep that promise. “This is a movement of people. We’re not going anywhere,” Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib told the crowd. “We’re going to make sure that the Biden administration sticks to our timeline.… This movement is about people and transformation, meaningful action around the climate crisis.” Someone lacking context might have mistaken the rallygoers for representatives of a social democratic party, of the kind common abroad (and even running whole countries). Alas, they’re a faction of a Democratic Party whose leadership seems to prefer it didn’t exist.  

When political parties underperform in elections, there’s normally at least a discussion about a change in leadership. While they were expected to pick up seats, Democrats lost at least eight, failing to beat a single Republican incumbent, let alone take back the Senate. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer were reelected to their posts. Meanwhile, moderate Democrats—from Abigail Spanberger to Conor Lamb to Jim Clyburn—have lashed out at their more progressive colleagues, blaming proposals like defunding the police and the GND for supposedly costing the party seats. Sorting out which messaging strategies cost Democrats which seats is extraordinarily difficult, but it’s worth noting two things: The Green New Deal is popular, even in red states, and Republican attack ads in competitive districts focused on a wide range of issues, frequently citing Democrats’ loyalty to the supposedly radical leftist Pelosi. One ad even skewered South Carolina Democrat Joe Cunningham for taking oil and gas cash.

As for the party’s new leader, Biden has alarmed climate advocates by appointing Congressman Cedric Richmond—a Democrat who is unusually close to the fossil fuel industry—to head the Office of Public Engagement. Worst still is the news that Bruce Reed, a member of Biden’s campaign team and his former chief of staff, is reportedly in talks to head up the Office of Management and Budget. A longtime deficit hawk, Reed could turn the OMB into a graveyard for any progressive policy, much less the sort of sweeping changes the climate crisis demands.

There are often gaps between what’s needed to solve societal problems and the policies that lawmakers propose. That’s been especially stark on climate, where long-standing talk of a modest carbon tax was at odds with the “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”—in the words of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—that are required to avert catastrophe. There are frustrating but logical reasons for this. Fossil fuel corporations—historically, some of the most powerful companies on earth—have a vested interest in making sure as little as possible is done to lower emissions since that will infringe on their profits. They effectively now own one of America’s two political parties and have gargantuan lobbying arms they can wield to torpedo legislation.

Democrats’ wariness about a Green New Deal is less easily explained. While a few of them certainly take big checks from oil and gas magnates, political spending by fossil fuel interests has become increasingly partisan. (Nearly 90 percent of the industry’s contributions go to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.) Republicans will attack anything that poses a credible threat of bringing down emissions as a Stalinist Green New Deal. Most mainstream Democrats, meanwhile, aren’t willing to defend its many obvious benefits for dealing with a deep recession: the millions of jobs it would create in struggling towns and cities, the air and water it would clean up, the investment that would flood just about every county in the nation. Instead, prominent Democrats, including Georgia Senate candidate Jon Ossoff, are spending more energy distancing themselves from the Green New Deal than explaining how they want to put people back to work and deal with the climate crisis.

The national party’s animating force in the Trump era has been to oppose the president. Now that he’s been defeated, what comes next? It’s not easy to surmise what the party stands for now. Slogans like “Believe science” and a grab bag of policy stances brewed up by consultants to win over white suburbanites don’t add up to an esprit de corps. Come 2022, it may not add up to enough votes to keep the House. One might think that a party anxious about its electoral future would look back to how, ages ago, it started winning durable congressional majorities by passing ambitious policy that changed most American lives for the better: the New Deal.

Still, the Green New Deal—a twenty-first-century reimagining of its namesake—gets treated like a barrier to returning to the supposed good old days, when Bruce Reed was advising a first-term President Obama to make a turn toward austerity. Partially as a result of that, in the 2010 midterms, Republicans picked up 63 seats to win back the House. It was the most seats Republicans had gained since FDR flirted with austerity in 1937, which helped trigger a recession and subsequently gave a boost to the GOP the next year.

What explains the Democrats’ leeriness of the Green New Deal? Some do represent moderate districts where ambitious progressive policies aren’t as easily sold. But centrists have long benefited from the status quo—the top three House Democrats are all at least 80 years old—and perhaps want to keep their jobs or advance to plum committee chairmanships or White House gigs. (If you’ve spent your political career preaching financial discipline and keep getting promoted, why let widespread election losses change your mind?) Others, perhaps, want to stay in corporations’ good graces to eventually cash in on their Hill connections with a plum gig at a lobbying firm or consultancy.

Living in a bubble of politicians, consultants, and hacks makes it hard to see the human costs of all those deals with and concessions to the right, from Nafta to climate policy to the war on drugs. It’s what makes hearing from the former nurses, school principals, and bartenders in Congress feel so refreshing.

“When we don’t act,” Congresswoman-elect Bush told the crowd at the rally outside the DNC, “people who look like me die. Some people say you have to play this game. I’m done with the games. When we play the games, people die.”