The Green New Deal: Separating Policy from Strategy

The Left would benefit from treating policy goals and political strategy differently—particularly when it comes to the Green New Deal.

Photo by  rawpixel .

Photo by rawpixel.

Any policy proposal inherently carries with it a political strategy. But in imagining the kind of world we need to get to, we should conceptually separate policy from strategy.

The term “political strategy” is a broad umbrella, including grassroots organizing, coalition-building, messaging, etc., but in this article, when I say “strategy,” I’m talking in particular about the strategic decisions baked into the details of the policy itself.

Take one burning example. What do you think of the Green New Deal resolution? Do you support it? You probably have an intuitive answer. If it’s a simple “yes,” you’re simultaneously answering a question about both policy and strategy.

The AOC-Markey GND resolution is a policy proposal: it lays out both climate-specific goals like renewable energy production mandates, investment in jobs and energy infrastructure, and plans to build more transit, along with non-climate-specific goals like a jobs guarantee and universal healthcare. But it also inherently carries a political strategy within it, by setting the terms of the debate. The inclusion of the policy goals less obviously tied to reducing carbon emissions has sparked debate on the Left, both within and outside the Democratic Party. At the heart of these debates lies the difference between policy and strategy.

Folks closer to the center-Left have decried the GND as going too far. They suggest that it’s a mistake to wrap a jobs guarantee into a climate bill, or that putting more urgent deadlines—like 100% renewables by 2030—than previously seen will fail. But do they mean those are mistakes because they’re bad policy, or because they’re bad strategy? Sometimes you can tell from critiques; sometimes you can’t.

Here’s the debate we should be having instead:

First, let’s decide our ideal policy. Does it involve everything in the GND? Maybe 90% of it? Maybe just the provisions about renewable energy? Then, let’s decide our starting negotiating point. Should we propose just our ideal policy? Or should we propose something bolder?

If you’re psyched about every one of the GND resolution policy proposals, then you’re probably psyched about the strategy of proposing it all at once. Some on the Left, however, aren’t as persuaded by all of these policy elements; but that doesn’t mean there’s not strategic merit to the proposition. For example: A) Proposing lots of policy benefits for lots of people can help mobilize various groups (as Johnathan Guy has argued here). B) This is a resolution, so you’re not signing your life away without knowing what a specific policy costs. C) Starting with a big, Left negotiating point can help when legislative dealmaking eventually happens (this is intuitive negotiating technique: bargain high, giving yourself room to come down if you need to).

The center-Left folks who agree with most of the GND but are terrified of the strategy make a reasonable argument that proposing too much at one time has the potential to not be taken seriously and can turn off moderates. The democratic-socialist Left should take this to heart, understanding that sometimes it’s more strategically beneficial to not propose the entire Leftist kitchen sink policy array. For example, maybe the jobs guarantee should have been left out of the resolution. Maybe it means moderate elites who are pro-climate but hesitant to expand the benevolent reach of government won’t get behind the GND or will publicly disagree with it. Subsequently, ordinary voters who are less attuned to politics might get distracted by the fight instead of seeing the potential of the GND to make their lives better in many ways.

However, the strategy of proposing the big Left GND policy package—as seen in the resolution—has borne fruit. The Sunrise Movement, AOC, and others have simultaneously generated far more grassroots energy behind the proposal—which has caused presidential candidates to engage—while forcing an immediate uptick in climate policy discussion. And fortunately, this grassroots and media momentum has the potential for messaging on the GND to actually reach ordinary voters, which is a primary way to get politicians who aren’t on the far ideological edges to shift their policy thinking.

There’s evidence that the GND kitchen sink policy package is working. And until it runs into serious pushback from the center-Left that would threaten the very possibility of federal climate legislation, we should keep pushing it. Because even if you disagree with policy elements of the resolution, there’s a huge strategic upside to generating serious, mainstream debate about ambitious climate policy.

A final important distinction to make is that, as an observer, you can critique the strategy of proposing the GND resolution we see before us while separately choosing to support it. Even if you think you would have done something slightly differently in the shoes of AOC, Markey, and friends, conflating your critique with your stance on the GND is the wrong move: you can separately see the imperfections in something while also recognizing the power in coming together as a united front. As David Roberts reminds his readers, the climate crisis is a fucking emergency, and this kind of grassroots energy doesn’t come around all that often. On climate, it never has.

We can quibble over policy, and we can quibble over strategy. But for those seriously engaged in figuring out how we can move toward federal climate policy, we must remain careful not to conflate the two debates: we shouldn’t reject a good policy because we’re afraid of the strategy, and vice versa. There’s a huge strategic upside to the big Left GND proposal, even if you’re not bought into every policy detail. The more the entire Left can get behind the strategy at this point in the game, the better chance it has of getting us final Green New Deal legislation that facilitates a serious just transition away from fossil fuels, and not some watered-down version.

Sam Zacher is a PhD student in political science at Yale University studying how interest groups can improve their strategies for success on issues like climate change. He tweets @samzacher