The Point of a Green New Deal: An American Political Realignment
The GND’s greatest potential is to usher in a new historical paradigm which governs political, social, and economic life equitably.
The Green New Deal has become a bridge connecting the climate movement and the rising Left. Until actual policies are drafted, it will remain a blank canvas on which people from many different backgrounds can project their hopes and fears. To some it’s a vehicle for guaranteeing universal healthcare and federal jobs. For others it’s a tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and decarbonizing electricity. And for still others, it’s a communist plot to steal Americans’ hard-earned hamburgers.
We won’t know exactly what it is until legislation gets drafted and hard lines get drawn. But now is the time to set out aspirational visions for what it could be—and what it must be—so that if the window of opportunity arrives to pass this necessary policy, we can seize it.
The Green New Deal should not be just a platform. Nor just a policy package. It should not be a mere wishlist of progressive policies. Instead, the GND’s greatest potential is to represent a whole new political paradigm in which legislation—and political, social, and economic life itself—occurs.
American politics happens in such paradigm shifts. These paradigms represent periods in which lots of progressive policies pass, or, conversely, periods in which lots of progressive policies are dismantled and replaced with regressive policies. It’s not just a random assortment of progress here and there, spread evenly throughout time; it happens in big clumps. Every period has its own alignment, its own dominant ideological coalition, whose goals and worldview shape the terms of the debate. The White House and Congress may flip back and forth between parties, but both parties generally pass policies within the confines of that dominant set of goals, ideas, and ethical systems.
In the United States, the contemporary alignment—one whose credibility is being substantially contested for the first time in four decades—was born amid the decisive election of arch-conservative Ronald Reagan. The Reagan Revolution was made not only by the Kochs but by religious conservatives, suburban race reactionaries, and bloodthirsty imperialists. For forty-five years this alliance held steady, rolling back protections for workers at the state level while deregulating business and committing to harsh austerity at the federal level. The neo-conservative wing of the coalition got their desired wars in the Middle East, while radical evangelical Christians and white supremacists made common cause with fiscal conservatives to erode gender rights, fuel the drug war, and reinforce racial hierarchies. This paradigm has prevailed in Democratic administrations as much as Republican ones: consider the crime “crackdown,” welfare cuts, and financial deregulation of the Clintonian nineties, and the mass deportations, drone strikes, and state-level attacks on Roe v. Wade which marked the Obama era.
Now, after decades of failed wars, surging inequality, collapsing ecosystems, economic precarity, and state repression, it is clear this alignment is splintering amid internal factionalism between its members and widespread popular discontent with the status quo. What alignment emerges next is up for grabs in a way unseen since the Gilded Age. How should the Left attempt to seize the moment, particularly at a time when ecological collapse threatens the possibility of organized civilization?
So far, one of the answers offered to this question is to look to the halcyon days of American social democracy. The 20th century’s first such era occurred around the turn of the century and is fittingly known as the Progressive Era. This paradigm lasted from around 1890 to 1920. During this period, workers, activists, journalists, and presidents from both parties helped to dismantle trusts and monopolies, created the first federal income tax, founded the nation’s expansive National Parks system, instituted labor protections like child labor laws, and passed the 17th and 19th amendments, which made the Senate an elective body and gave women the right to vote.
The next progressive paradigm occurred with the New Deal era, which lasted from around 1940 to 1980. The New Deal era saw the creation of more than sixty prominent government programs, some of the most famous including the foundation of social welfare programs like Medicare and Social Security. This period also saw the creation of collective bargaining laws that enshrined labor’s ability to protect workers, instituted very high marginal taxes on the wealthy, reaching a high of 92%, created federal employment programs, passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, as well as Clean Air and Water Acts.
For American leftists, these are generally proud legacies. But they offer incomplete solutions, and are themselves rife with dark spots: while they solve some problems, they still have allowed inequities in income distribution, racial and gender rights, and ecological health to flourish—fundamentally leaving social and economic power in the hands of society's upper echelons.
What the Green New Deal era—or some other all-encompassing legislative paradigm—has an opportunity to do is not just usher in a new social democratic age like the New Deal or Progressive eras, but instead to propose a new means of ordering the nation’s political economy. While no single policy package alone can fundamentally restructure the economy, a GND could help to put in place the foundations necessary to build a new political economy that is capable of building broad prosperity without destroying the planet or embedding racial and wealth inequalities long-term. If humans and complex life are to continue living on Earth, it has to.
The hope of a Green New Deal is not just that it will hasten the kind of political realignment that happened from the 19th century’s Robber Baron era to the Progressive Era, nor even from the 1920s Gilded Age to the New Deal era. The shift we need now is not just a transition from forty years of Reaganism to forty years of expanded social democracy. Instead, the greatest potential for a GND era is that it could spark political and economic catalysts, shifting the world from an industrial economy to…something else. The UK Labour Party, too, has begun to call for a Green New Deal, inspired by the US vision. And while Green New Deal-style legislation has been confined to the Anglophone world so far, and while it may start by moving these massive economies, it must trigger shifts that reverberate throughout the world. It has already begun to send ripples of inspiration globally: Yanis Varoufakis recently called for nations to rally around an international Green New Deal. Deciding what that “something else” will look like through the construction of new alliances across left constituencies is this moment’s most important task.
The series we are launching today at The Trouble therefore understands the Green New Deal as an instrument of attempted realignment in the American political economy. We see the candidates of this new coalition as radical antiracists, precarious workers, feminists, migrants, students, the disabled, poor people, and their genuine allies. This implies coalition-building, and no dominant political coalition has ever possessed ideological uniformity. Yet successful realignment requires a common vision which incorporates and makes compatible the goals and priorities of all its members. We interpret the Green New Deal as attempting to meet this challenge by offering a sharp break from the present era so many of us find intolerable. Our hope with this series, therefore, is not just to provide additional ideas about how a legislative package might be won, or what it should contain, but rather how it might succeed in inaugurating the kind of sea change our predecessors have so often attempted and so rarely achieved. The articles in this series are pitched to an audience who understands the climate crisis as providing such a mandate, and—rather than questioning the scale of a necessary response—are committed to seeing this mandate out. As an active member of the climate movement, we hope you will read, consider, and respond to make our collective project better.
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