Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Virtue of Simplicity

Her Green New Deal proposal is on par with the most successful programs in Democratic Party history.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being sworn in with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Courtesy: Harper’s Bazaar

The new Democratic class in Congress has made a considerable impact on American politics in the past two weeks. Progressives, led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, have forced a national conversation about many of the core components of their program. One of the more striking aspects of this program is the Green New Deal. The premise is simple: federal money will fund jobs that put unemployed Americans to work while also cutting back on fossil fuel emissions and lowering energy costs. According to Robinson Meyer in the Atlantic, this program is historically ambitious:

It promises to give every American a job in that new economy: installing solar panels, retrofitting coastal infrastructure, manufacturing electric vehicles. In the 1960s, the U.S. pointed the full power of its military-technological industry at going to the moon. Ocasio-Cortez wants to do the same thing, except to save the planet.

But the question of feasibility, and how to pay for the plan, has clouded the entire progressive platform in critique and debate. A critical POLITICO article asks, “What kind of compromises would be acceptable to broaden support and perhaps even win over some moderate Republicans? And should there be tax hikes or spending cuts to pay for it?” Even some supporters are skeptical. David Roberts of Vox described the Green New Deal as having “thrust climate change into the national conversation, put House Democrats on notice, and created an intense and escalating bandwagon effect.” But Roberts remained skeptical, warning, “American political history is a long story of wasted potential, of waves of progressive enthusiasm breaking on the rocky shores of Washington, DC, to no lasting effect.”

The Green New Deal may seem like a radical, fantastic program in the age of Donald Trump. But like many of Ocasio-Cortez’s policy programs, the policy has its roots in the history of successful Democratic politics. Democrats would be wise to revisit the legacy of their longest-serving president before they dismiss one of their newest members.

The New Deal was not the nation’s first program designed to alleviate poverty or aid society through government spending. Franklin Roosevelt‘s administration had many approaches to choose from when Roosevelt took office in 1933. There had been earlier poor relief programs that simply handed out money. But Roosevelt rejected this approach, arguing in 1931 that a dole “is not only repugnant to all sound principles of social economics, but is contrary to every principle of American citizenship and of sound government. American labor seeks no charity, but only a chance to work for its living.”

Therefore, in the first two years of his presidency, he enacted policies that put Americans to work electrifying the South, stabilizing the soil of the Midwest, and constructing necessary public buildings in cities and towns across the country. The basic formula of the New Deal — laws that solve unemployment while also fixing the nation’s other problem — continued to a lesser degree in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which also expanded the New Deal’s federal intervention from economic matters to civil rights. Beginning with the New Deal and the Great Society, Democrats controlled the House for nearly six straight decades and elected more liberal presidents than the nation had ever seen.

Later, Democrats lost the ability to craft and enact simple, effective pieces of legislation. One of the last examples was the Humphrey-Hawkins Bill, a proposed law that would have secured a job guarantee for Americans. This bill, introduced by New Deal stalwart Senator Herbert Humphrey, planned to eliminate national unemployment and subsequently raise wages. It would have been enormously influential against the deindustrialization and rising income inequality that began in earnest in the 1970s. But President Jimmy Carter supported a more multifaceted approach to the nation’s problems, as typified by his 1979 “malaise” speech. He abandoned the simple economic approach, watered down the Humphrey-Hawkins Bill, and lost his reelection bid by 440 electoral votes.

The Green New Deal is a clear return to Roosevelt-style social policy. Although liberal stakeholders may bicker over details, the ability to explain the program and its appeal in one sentence makes it a prepackaged campaign ad. It can be used to orient the platforms of both congressional and presidential candidates. A Green New Deal can also give Democratic candidates a tool to combat the economic populism that President Trump will return to in his next campaign. While centrists, conservatives, and some economists may hate it, the Green New Deal is a simple, clear-cut policy proposal every Democrat should love.

I’m a writer interested in the intersections of history, ideas, and politics. I publish every week.

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