How to Implement the Green New Deal

There are two ways. One is much more practical than the other.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the 2019 SXSW conference. Source: Flickr

The Green New Deal has received more press in the past six months than any liberal policy in the past five years. Its tenets have been exaggerated, ridiculed, and critiqued from all points on the political spectrum. Republicans have seized on a poorly messaged rollout to decry the policy as banning air travel and hamburgers. Leftists have demeaned the proposal as not going far enough. Samuel Miller McDonald at the New Republic believed that the Green New Deal is limited in the face of an existential crisis to humanity, while a Slate contributor saw it as unable to deal with problems of population density and as a plan that “completely ignores the most crucial environmental, economic, and racial-justice issue of all: where we live.”

Many centrist and liberal critiques dwell on the idea of feasibility. Just how will Democrats pay for the Green New Deal? How will they get it passed? And how much will they have to change the American political system in order to pass it? The answer to these questions is more important any disputes about carbon taxes or the future of factory farms. Indeed, it is the difference between a green future and one defined by more drilling and coal investments, with the occasional floodwall thrown in to satisfy coastal communities.

Since the name of this policy is a historical one, the hopes of the Green New Deal should be viewed through a historical lens. In the annals of American history, there have been two ways in which a program of this magnitude has been passed. If the Green New Deal is ever enacted, it will be through one of these two methods.

The first, and most common, method of precipitating significant changes in American history has been through crisis. The Civil War reshaped American social relations and economic structures in the span of four years. There was more change and a greater expansion of equality in those four years than there had been during the previous twenty years. More recently, the original New Deal enacted more significant social legislation in three months than had been enacted in the previous decade. Just like the revolutionary shifts of the Civil War, the changes of the New Deal required crises.

There was not just the Great Depression, arguably the most significant economic breakdown since the 1600s. The New Deal was also preceded by four years of Republican rule. Republicans held power before the Depression, and after the crash of 1929, they were tasked with saving the country from it. For four years, their policies were utterly ineffective. The momentous change of the New Deal was only possible because its opponents had so clearly proven themselves to be ineffective.

The second method of enacting significant social change is through an established movement that seizes political control. Sometimes, this control is only possible through changing political rules. The Progressives revamped the House of Representatives and broke apart political machines in order to enact their policies, while the Jacksonians had to remove suffrage restraints to take power. These rule changes are not absolutely necessary, however. Lyndon Johnson won a number of policy victories without significant alterations to the Electoral College or the filibuster. Instead, he prioritized electoral victory for liberals who supported his programs. Johnson knew that the Great Society would never be enacted without a robust liberal majority, and he worked tirelessly in order to make that majority a reality.

Note that neither of these approaches involves fear or lecturing. They are not technocratic or dictated by scientists. Instead, they are time-honored parts of the American political tradition. While change by crisis obviously cannot be embraced or planned for, change by political landslide certainly can. The country’s liberals need to focus on political change and victories at every level of government. They must have a group of leaders who know the rules of the Senate and are liberals, not just Democrats. These liberals need to secure so many political victories that their opponents are discredited and removed from the halls of power, like Barry Goldwater and the Hoover Republicans. In this country, and in this political climate, victorious Democrats will be able to do nothing else.

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

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