The Green New Deal Is the Progressive Version of ‘Build That Wall!’
Last week, long-serving Senator Dianne Feinstein greeted a group, composed primarily of young adults and children, in her office to discuss the proposed Green New Deal. This legislation is sponsored by the newest face of the burgeoning progressive movement in the United States, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Feinstein’s colleague Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts. This plan is an aggressive legislative proposal that looks to tackle both climate change and income inequality in one fell swoop. Recent analysis by the centrist (-to-right-leaning) group American Action Forum estimates this plan would cost Americans $51 — $93 trillion. This breaks down to $36,000 to $65,000 per American, per year in new taxes. However, this bill wasn’t written to become law nor serve as a viable solution to the very real, very imminent dangers we face. No, this is meant to be a dead-on-arrival legislative package signaling to voters which Democrats are worth supporting and which should slink away, unremembered, into the night.
Unfortunately for Sen. Feinstein, she is firmly in the slink away camp. Her opposition to this symbolic legislative manifesto in favor of her own, more modest, proposal that (she believes) has a chance of becoming law is to blame. The draft of her proposal has differences and similarities to the GND. Essentially, she wants the U.S. to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, “recommitting” to existing climate change policies such as the Paris Accords and Obama-era fuel efficiency goals, and adapt to the hazardous effects of climate change that can no longer be deterred. She also adds a provision for assisting “all communities” including workers in fossil fuel energy careers and historically oppressed communities mistakenly overlooked, willfully ignored, or actively harmed in the past. Sure, some progressives think that this bill doesn’t go nearly far enough to stem to the climate change crisis, but that’s not Feinstein’s greatest sin. No, what she did was have the nerve to assert that her experience in the legislature is worth listening to.
Feinstein reserves her “yes” vote for legislation that may pass rather than symbolic gestures meant to fire up the base. Even though there is literally no chance for the GND, as it is, to become law, progressive political minds think this is a sign that Feinstein should go. And not just by retiring from the Senate either. Bill McKibben of The New Yorker believes that Feinstein should abandon her experienced opinion of how a bill becomes a law and listen to teenagers, because she’ll be dead soon and not have to worry about climate change. This sort of all-or-nothing, scorched-earth approach to policymaking is what I would expect to hear from the Tea Party, circa 2013. Yet, there is no more hated figure in American politics that a woman who asserts her expertise after having navigated a sexist landscape to get to where she is today. Just ask the last Democratic nominee for president.
In the video of Feinstein’s meeting with the activists, many of them implore the senator to support the un-passable GND because of the extreme urgency of the climate change problem. If this were about the issue, rather than shaming an “establishment” politician, one would expect the group to be excited by Feinstein’s proposal. Passing her legislation right now would be a step towards a solution and doesn’t mean that the GND would have to be abandoned. Yet, in asking the protesters to listen to her and trust in her ability to understand how her job works, Feinstein was called “smug” and “condescending.” She’s been written off barely a year into her latest six-year term. It’s the loyalty test aspect of the GND that makes it very similar to Donald Trump and his burning desire for a big, dumb wall on the border to keep out the immigrants.
To be clear, since nuance doesn’t seem to exist anymore, the intention of the GND in the eyes of its creators is to save the planet, help those Americans who need it most, and build a Utopian future for our kids. The intention of the wall, on the other hand, is to appeal to racism, xenophobia, and general hate to create a literal barrier-to-entry to the kind of life the so-called “American Dream” promises. They are not alike in any way, save for one: These proposals are the impossible-to-achieve but easy-to-understand rallying cry of future campaigns in service to an ideology greater than its current stars. Before Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Bernie Sanders was the Great White Hope of Democratic Socialism, as was Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (at least, until she decided to seek the presidency). Similarly, while President Trump is seemingly the leader of a cult of personality, he’s been preceded by countless Tea Party Republicans who blame immigrants and the poor for the ills in the nation.
That these things will never happen is a “feature,” actually, not a “bug.” While President Trump may be too vainglorious to see it, his wall is a greater asset in theory than it ever would be in practice. Once the wall went up, immigration levels would likely stay where they are. The ransacking of the “unskilled” labor market will continue to be ravaged by automation and technological advancements. Only instead of it being the fault of those people who were too goddamned stupid to build a wall, it will be on those politicians who used it as a rallying cry. I would bet that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and those protesters in Feinstein’s office all firmly believe the GND is the only way to save the planet. However, there are certainly some who see the value of having a “pass the new deal” chant to answer the cries of “build that wall” each election cycle.
Yet, the Green New Deal is not worth the recycled-paper its printed on. Not only because it can’t pass through the legislature nor because the current president would never sign it, but because even if they did we’d never be able to afford it. The only effect it has is sending clear messages about which national political figures are the ones to rally around. Whether Ocasio-Cortez truly believes in the proposal (what I believe, for the record) or whether it’s just a cynical ploy to rally her supporters, the only result will be a boost of her national profile. It would also set her up to fail, like so many before her. Many people who typically avoid partisan nonsense believed in 2008 that Barack Obama was the man who could fix what was wrong with America. As the first black president, he would be a symbol of how we’ve overcome our terrible history with race. As a reasonable, professorial leader, he would provide sober solutions that embrace compromise. Finally, he seemed like the man who could make America “hope” again, leading towards a brighter and more positive political future. Obviously, he didn’t.
One could blame the GOP for refusing to engage with President Obama in any way that resembled good-faith. One could blame his team or the man himself for not shoring up his Democratic defenses in down-ticket and mid-term elections. But the real reason he “failed” to live up to that promise is that no one person can fix anything, despite our penchant for mythologizing historical figures. We are all remiss if we don’t examine the role that ego plays when it comes to entering the political fray on the national stage. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Warren are two figures whose policy differences are barely worth examining. If Sanders truly wanted to usher in a progressive future, he’d throw his considerable support behind Warren’s candidacy. So often during the 2016 election, Warren’s name would come up as the woman that the so-called “Bernie Bros” would definitely vote for. It wasn’t that they were against a female president, they just didn’t want to vote for that woman.
Yet, despite the chance for the 77-year-old Sanders (who would be 79 on the day of his inauguration) to step aside in favor of a younger candidate from a historically underrepresented demographic, he’s running again. It takes a tremendous amount of ego to run for President, any national office really, and ego is a beast that must be fed often. For example, Ocasio-Cortez ran on a very clear set of principles in 2018: Medicare-for-all, tuition-free college, criminal justice reform, and guaranteeing a living wage. Now, if these were reforms the people in her district desperately needed, why go to the federal government instead of taking on the (already-Democratic) state legislature? Anyone would have a much better shot at achieving those policy aims on the state-level rather than the federal level. The reason, at least as she told Splinter back in March of 2018, is because she believes that her message is one the nation needs to hear. This is ego, and it’s something all politicians must have in order to succeed, especially the officials who are consistently told they don’t belong there.
To clarify again, I believe that Ocasio-Cortez receives an outsized amount of vitriol, anger, and (yes) hate than her male colleagues who say the same thing. (See: Bernie Sanders.) People on the right mock her for her beliefs, her living situation, her clothes, and even dancing in a video while in college. It’s disgusting and offensive, and I worry about what sort of message it sends to other young women and girls who want to be proactive in civic life. Yes, Ocasio-Cortez makes mistakes and seems to have a lot to learn about what it means to be in Congress. A person from a longtime political family who spent their entire life preparing for public office would also have a lot to learn, and also makes mistakes, even after their freshman term. If AOC walked into Congress knowing everything there is to know about governance and policy-making, then, hell, maybe she should be the next president.
Still, Ocasio-Cortez and her staff seem to see their ignorance about the machinery of the legislature as a virtue. A recent profile in The Washington Post quoted a staffer lamenting the fact that their Democratic colleges don’t want to “burn” down the system for which they work. This is the exact sort of attitude that many voters expected from President Donald Trump when they ignored his many flaws and sent him to the White House. Trump (and Bernie and other populists who promise impossible things to angry people) are a giant middle finger from the voters to the system they believed fails them continuously. Ironically, voting for uncompromising ideologues is a surefire way to ensure that the gridlock continues. Anyone who wants to make incremental change where they can are branded as a traitor, whether it’s Sen. Feinstein or would’ve-been Speaker of the House, former Rep. Eric Cantor.
If Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez resigned from Congress tomorrow in favor of a daily two-hour show behind the paywall on the Young Turks website, she’d already be an inspirational figure. Dissatisfied with her and her neighbors’ circumstances, she challenged one of the most established career legislators in the House and won. She’s faced constant onslaughts from people on the right and those in her own party either afraid of her meteoric rise or jealous of it. She’s made big, idealistic moves in the two months she’s been on the Capitol. Yet, just because she is the bright star of the moment, it doesn’t mean that she should supplant Nancy Pelosi (another much-maligned woman who, despite all odds, broke the glass ceiling over the Speakership) as the party’s de facto leader.
The point of all this is not to disparage AOC or even to highlight the areas where its fair to offer criticism. Rather, this about the increasing demand for ideological purity among elected officials. The Green New Deal is something worth discussing, and the ideas inside of it shouldn’t be automatically dismissed out-of-hand. This is where different perspectives and compromise can help make good ideas better and impossible goals more realistic. Yet, choosing a $50-$90 trillion statement of intent as the hill to die on for all Democrats in favor of more moderate proposals that can be put into action is not the way to a better future. That we’re fighting so the planet can have a future makes this all the more imperative. Instead of demanding that all politicians match ideas with those we like best, we need to demand that they get to work on something real. Maybe it’s too late for incremental change and maybe it’s too late altogether. But until such time that the human is race is destroyed by our own negligence, we should behave as if we’re going to keep on existing. That means taking action where we can rather than simply shouting slogans so the crowd keeps on cheering for you.