Friday, March 22, 2019

Tread carefully, think big: Impressions on AOC and the Green New Deal

It will be up to the activist communities she came from to defend the Green New Deal and push for it to become a reality in 2020 and beyond.

The Green New Deal (GND) had a good rollout just a couple of weeks ago, on February 7th. The initial co-sponsors Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass) and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez held a press conference surrounded by some of the resolution’s more than 60 other Democratic co-sponsors. Both answered reporter’s questions with aplomb on the same day they released what is officially named H. Res 109.

Reading the 14 page text, it’s obvious that the resolution is meant as a declaration of intent to craft a variety of legislation to meet its ambitious goals after the 2020 elections. It’s purposefully broad in scope, calling to not only deal with the ecological crisis but transform the American economy in a number of exciting ways, from guaranteeing good employment for those in need of work to greening the construction industry and building high speed rail networks.

Answering a question about the somewhat dismissive response of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who referred to the GND as a “green dream or whatever they call it”, Ocasio Cortez was diplomatic, telling reporters, “…I think it is a green dream and I think that all great American programs everything from the Great Society to the New Deal started with a vision for our future and I don’t consider that to be a dismissive term, I think it’s a great term.”

Despite having only been a sitting member of Congress for a little more than a month, in her response to the leader of House Democrats’ seeming irritation, possibly with her growing popularity, it appears that AOC is already a better politician than many of her peers, some of whom have been on Capital Hill for decades.

Even before she took office, when AOC joined an occupation Pelosi’s office with Justice Democrats and members of the Sunrise Movement, her tone was not confrontational but conciliatory, saying they were there not to criticize the Speaker but to let her know they, “have her back” in terms of fighting to address climate change.

While the main cable networks did report on H.Res. 109, there was an unexpected and surprising disparity in the coverage. Fox News did 34 segments on the deal between February 7th and 11th, MSNBC did 8 and CNN did just three over the same period. As we might expect, Fox’s coverage barely mentioned climate change, instead pushing the idea that the GND could be the Trojan horse that jump starts the United States’ possible descent into a ‘socialist nightmare’.

Fox host Tucker Carlson’s comments were typical of this coverage, with the host telling his audience, “The Green New Deal is a religious document, it punishes America for the sins of its prosperity. The only atonement it offers is turning over control of the entire U.S. economy to the Democratic Party.”

While it could easily be argued that turning over control of government to Democrats might be a relief for many Americans after two years of Republican rule, as many commentators have noted, the resolution makes compromise to win over centrist Democrats, including many of the presidential candidates already in the field of 2020 hopefuls, most of whom quickly embraced it.

Involving Senator Markey, who has pushed for cap and trade legislation in the past, which allows for the purchase of greater emissions by those who can afford to, basically creating a new market for pollution and not a solution favored by progressives, shows that AOC has a pragmatic streak that could help make a Green New Deal a reality, even if the left might not like some of its eventual compromises. Rather than a disappointment, this wooing of the center could turn out to be a smart strategy if it can be used to move the party left.

It will be hard for centrist and center right Democrats to argue against language like this, relating to how the GND will work with business by, “directing investments to spur economic development, deepen and diversify industry in local and regional economies, and build wealth and community ownership, while prioritizing high-quality job creation and economic, social, and environmental benefits in frontline and vulnerable communities that may otherwise struggle with the transition away from greenhouse gas intensive industries”.

At the same time, by rightly concentrating a good deal of its focus on Indigenous, African American and other “front line communities” that are a crucial part of the party’s base, the resolution also makes it more politically difficult for more corporatist Democrats to dismiss its as utopian and still win votes from these citizens, including the young, who are struggling with unprecedented levels of educational debt..

We need only look at how many Democrats have switched their position on Medicare for all since realizing how popular the idea is with most American voters, regardless of party.

After a preamble explaining the urgency of dealing with climate change as expressed in recent reports from both the UN affiliated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the second volume of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, the work of over 300 American experts, which predicted a possible warming of up to 9 degrees F (5 degrees C) by the end of this century, far higher than previously thought, H. Res. 109 begins simply enough, calling citizens and their representatives to a higher purpose, “Whereas, because the United States has historically been responsible for a disproportionate amount of green house gas emissions, having emitted 20 percent of green house gas through 2014, and has a high technological capacity, the United States must take a leading role in reducing emissions through economic transformation.”

This critique of the U.S.’ contribution to the crisis offers an important counterpoint to Tucker Carlson’s claim about ‘the sins of its prosperity’, secular sins that are shared with other developed countries, most of whom have made little effort towards solving the crisis beyond signing non-binding agreements like the one negotiated under former President Obama in Paris and torn up by Donald Trump almost immediately upon taking office.

Ironically, tackling climate change would allow the current U.S. president to make much more progress on his signature issue of migration than a wall ever could. A little understood part of what is bringing people from Central America’s Northern Triangle is drought, which forces subsistence farmers off their land and into city slums where they often become easy victims of the criminal gangs many of them, including far too many children, are now fleeing.

The inevitable criticism that the broad Resolution might have brought from the center and right was blunted by a rare misstep on the part of AOC’s team, who released a much more radical sounding fact sheet along with it. Seemingly caught off guard, AOC’s office, and the Congresswoman herself, have offered a variety of explanations for the differences between the FAQ, which was quickly removed from her website, and the actual resolution.

The FAQ led to much hysteria on the right, who saw the ideas about reducing air travel and reliance on industrialized animal agriculture, both of which are inarguably huge drivers of climate change, as written in stone rather than a call for negotiation about how far a Green New Deal can go.

Besides, as Salvador Rizzo, a fact checker for the Washington Post put it, “There’s a case to be made that the criticism about ending airplanes and cows was a stretch to begin with, since the resolution didn’t mention any of that the FAQs were not definitive on those points.”

Right-wing commentators were also scandalized by a call to provide for people, “unwilling to work”, a turn of phrase that is not in the text of the actual resolution.

While there will be continued efforts by billionaires and their bought politicians to ridicule an idea now very much associated with AOC, who has already captured the hopes of many vulnerable and working people, it will be up to the activist communities she came from to defend the Green New Deal and push for it to become a reality in 2020 and beyond.

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