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Discussion of the resolution’s merits as a policy proposal ignore its main goal of shaping the conversation around environmental issues. Liam Glen analyzes the politics of the Green New Deal.
It has been over a week since the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey’s Green New Deal resolution floundered in the Senate. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called a vote on the measure without debate or expert testimony. In protest, most Democratic senators voted “present,” leading to a 57-0 defeat.
This dampened momentum but has not stopped it entirely. If nothing else, the endless debate between supporters and detractors of the Green New Deal keeps it alive in the public consciousness.
The ambitious fourteen-page resolution sets out an agenda to restructure and decarbonize the economy with the eventual goal of 100% renewable energy. Immediately after its debut, conservatives attacked the proposal as unrealistic and Ocasio-Cortez as naive. This viewpoint was best summed up with Nate Beeler’s “unicorns and rainbows” political cartoon.
Members of the Democratic establishment have also given the Green New Deal a cold shoulder, criticizing it as vague and over-ambitious. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dismissed it as a “list of aspirations.” She is correct that the short resolution sets out bold goals without a detailed plan to implement them. What her comment misses is that this is exactly the point.
A Bold Agenda
No meaningful climate bill can pass under the current administration. Ocasio-Cortez is no idiot. Rather than supporting modest bills that will get shot down in the Senate anyway, she has decided to make bold promises to energize the party for 2020. The Green New Deal should not be analyzed as a detailed policy proposal but as a progressive manifesto.
The resolution puts climate change front and center in the national debate. Environmental issues are often a low priority for voters and politicians, but given the urgency of global climate change, this is no longer acceptable. Americans trust the Democratic Party on the environment more than on any other issue, so putting it at the forefront could even help the party in the upcoming elections.
The vague and radical nature of the resolution worries policy wonks, but the Green New Deal is necessary to move the long-stagnant conversation on climate change forward. If nothing else, opponents will be forced to compromise and meet at a more realistic middle point.
The resolution also encompasses progressive priorities like universal healthcare and increased labor rights. While opponents decry this as socialism, it could be a boon for working-class Americans.
Environmentalists have often been strawmanned as elitists who care more about nature than humanity, but the Green New Deal emphasizes the fact that human wellbeing is dependent on sustainability. Green infrastructure promises massive job creation for Americans, and as Ocasio-Cortez herself pointed out, a desire for clean air and water is anything but elitist.
The Green New Deal also augments the influence of Ocasio-Cortez and her progressive allies in the Democratic Caucus. Despite their claims of being concerned by its costs, this is what really has party leaders worried. Congress passes extravagant projects that it has no way of paying for all the time. The difference is that those proposals go through committee and receive the green light from establishment leaders.
In the seniority-focused culture of Washington, a freshman representative spearheading such a bold resolution and demanding that everyone else gets on board is unacceptable. Despite pushback from party leaders, however, many Democratic presidential candidates have endorsed the Green New Deal. This ensures that it will stay relevant through the upcoming election season.
Will It Work?
If the main goal of the Green New Deal is to energize Democrats ahead of 2020, then it better do more good than harm. For their part, Republicans are confident that it is a failing strategy. Mitch McConnell sought to embarrass Democrats by bringing the resolution to an early vote. Meanwhile, President Trump has encouraged them to continue pursuing it due to its perceived unpopularity.
Actual data is harder to come by. A poll in December 2018 found overwhelming support for the idea, but it suffered from biased survey design. Data for Progress’s research on the Green New Deal has found more modest, but still significant, support for the resolution across the country. However, as pundits on the left and right continue to spin the issue, public opinion is unpredictable.
Regardless of its ultimate fate, the Green New Deal has already succeeded in making people talk about climate change. Even those who oppose the resolution are now forced to address the issue and forge their own solutions.
On April 3, Republican representative Matt Graetz unveiled a “Green Real Deal” that seeks to address climate change through conservative policies. Moderate Democrats have also indicated that they are considering their own proposals. It is unlikely that any of this would be happening if Ocasio-Cortez and her allies had not taken the initiative to disrupt the status quo.