How to Package the Green New Deal

Focus on all the popular parts first.

Sen. Ed Markey, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other Democratic lawmakers at a February press conference for the Green New Deal. Source: Wikimedia

The Green New Deal has received more attention from major news outlets than any liberal policy program in the past decade. Its original supporter in Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has gained dozens of co-signers for a framework bill and has plugged the program on 60 Minutes. Republicans have grown worried enough about its prospects to begin fear-mongering about the policy, mainly mocking its language about airplanes and meat-eating. At the launch of the Green New Deal bill, Republican Representative Rob Bishop ate a hamburger and said, “If this goes through… I could no longer eat this type of thing.”

At the same time, nearly every aspect of the Green New Deal has been dissected in magazines and on the internet. Writers have discussed everything from the plan’s feasibility, cost, and rollout to what it may mean for animal rights, colonialism, and transportation. It seems that everyone has a different opinion on just what this currently hypothetical set of policies might do.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the national discourse surrounding the Green New Deal is its radical nature. Supporters argue that the policy is a radical solution to a radical problem: the rapid onset of world-altering climate change that will render large swaths of the planet uninhabitable in this century. To them, the Green New Deal is vital as a way to show the significance of the climate problem and the drastic measures human beings will have to take in order to combat that problem.

Many liberal opponents of the policy agree that climate change is real and needs to be combated, but they disagree about the necessary scope of climate-change-combating legislation. Last month, Jonathan Chait at New York argued that the plan was both too radical and incomplete. He wrote:

The trouble with the Green New Deal wasn’t just an unvetted fact sheet… The plan contains too little prescription in areas where it’s needed, avoiding any mention of the need to expand nuclear power, increase population density in cities, and cap pollution. At the same time, it contains far too much prescription in areas where none is needed, using the Green New Deal as a platform to add in unrelated proposals for free college, a job guarantee, and other ideas that motivate progressives.

The problem with the Green New Deal is not that it goes too far or does not go far enough. It is with the pace of change and the way that this policy will need to be sold to the public. Selling the policy the right way, with the right framework and the best possible message, is more important than any argument a concerned climate scientist could make.

The Green New Deal has a number of components that would be welcomed by a public worried about frequent natural disasters and sea level rises. Many of these components affect tax levels and some consumer choices. There are millions of households that could run on solar or wind power across the country. Companies could move away from greenhouse gases and pass the costs either on to the government or to consumers. By enacting this policy, Americans would be furthering a tradition that extended back to the internal improvements of the 19th century: pay more in taxes in exchange for the government providing goods and services. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones noted that these policies “would be popular since they generate economic activity and put people to work.”

On the other hand, the most radical aspects of the Green New Deal would change the way Americans live. Americans may not love paying taxes, but they are used to those payments and the services they make possible. Liberals may be able to marshal facts and analysis to show the massive carbon output from eating meat or flying planes, but banning meat or air travel would stop activities that Americans enjoy on a daily basis. Such a large-scale ban on daily activities would be almost unprecedented in American history, especially when, as Drum noted in the aforementioned article, “bans on plastic bags or straws provoke a huge backlash [today].” Even mentioning these potential aspects of the Green New Deal allows climate deniers to paint all environmental causes in a negative light. Liberals would be repeating the mistake of the Affordable Care Act, when Americans were much angrier about losing their poorly crafted health care plans than paying additional taxes or premiums. Large sections of the Green New Deal are popular with Americans. At this early stage, why even mention the aspects that are not?

Liberals have to focus their messaging on the popular, easier aspects of the Green New Deal. This imperative does not mean that more radical change will never be necessary or possible. Instead, it is an acknowledgment of the environmental movement’s many powerful enemies, all of whom are ready to pounce at the slightest hint of unpopularity or weakness. In a democracy, radical change is only possible when crafted and sold in the way that appeals most to Americans. Liberals must keep this prescript in mind as they gain power and start to put this plan into practice. More solar panels, more wind turbines, and more jobs will be much easier to push through Congress than the end of cheap hamburgers.

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

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