Why Is the Political Establishment So Afraid of Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal?

Instead of pouring money into endless war and tax cuts for the rich, Congress now has a chance to solve the climate crisis. But devotion to the economic status quo is standing in the way.

Miles Kampf-Lassin

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did not come to Washington to play. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

At a time of widespread environmental devastation, much of the U.S. political establishment appears allergic to large-scale public projects that would solve the climate crisis through directly challenging the economic status quo.

Completely missing from Republicans’ outright opposition—and some Democrats’ ambiguous hedging—is a recognition of what’s at stake.

This attitude was perhaps best encapsulated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s glib mockery of the Green New Deal plan laid out Thursday morning by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). In an interview with Politico, Pelosi referred to the proposal as the green dream or whatever they call it.” She went on to suggest that the plan had not been thought through, saying, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”

Pelosi is not the only lawmaker who is reflexively resistant to the plan. There is the predictable opposition from Republicans, including Rep. John Shimkus (Ill.), the ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change. He said at a hearing Wednesday, We should be open to the fact that wealth transfer schemes suggested in the radical policies like the Green New Deal may not be the best path to community prosperity and preparedness.”

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO), meanwhile, turned to red-baiting, saying the Green New Deal sounds too much like a Soviet five-year plan.” Lamborn’s critique echoed President Trump, who warned in his State of the Union (SOTU) speech on Tuesday that in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination and control.”

Pelosi herself has directly aided this anti-socialist appeal. At a CNN Town Hall event in 2017, Pelosi was asked by a New York University student, who cited the growing popularity of socialist policies among Democrats, whether the party could move farther left to a more populist message?” She responded, We’re capitalists, and that’s just the way it is.” In the aftermath of Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking victory last year, Pelosi was asked whether democratic socialism was ascendant” in the party. Her response: No.” And when Trump said in his SOTU address Tuesday that Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country,” Pelosi applauded. 

This opposition to democratic socialist policies helps explain why Pelosi has been so resistant to embrace the Democrats’ rising left flank that wants to see immediate action on redistributing wealth and power away from the top echelons of society. Such demands for a radical restructuring of the U.S. economy is a critical element underpinning calls for enacting up-and-coming left-wing policies like the Green New Deal.

Pelosi’s ideological positioning has, not surprisingly, dovetailed with opposition to the Green New Deal. Last year, Ocasio-Cortez joined a demonstration at Pelosi’s office organized by the Sunrise Movement — a youth-led environmental justice group — which called for the creation of a select committee to craft a Green New Deal. Rather than instituting such a committee, however, Pelosi instead created a select committee on climate change more broadly, with powers much more limited scope than what organizers had demanded. Pelosi’s committee, furthemore, will not require members to eschew campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry, another demand laid out by the Sunrise Movement. 

Meanwhile, other Democratic leaders are more cagey and guarded. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), the chair of the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, released an ambiguous statement today in which she declined to support the Green New Deal but praised the passion behind it. We must examine the entire range of tools we have to tackle the climate crisis,” she said. I share the sense of urgency behind the Green New Deal and I believe that we must act boldly to reduce greenhouse gases and to make clean energy a pillar of our economy.”

Completely missing from Republicans’ outright opposition — and some Democrats’ ambiguous hedging — is a recognition of what’s at stake. The planet faces monumental warming with threats not just of sea level rise and expansive droughts but massive bouts of famine, economic devastation and refugee crises. Instead of grappling with the massive destruction wrought by worsening climate change, the political establishment is continuing to deflect the debate toward criticism of those who want action that’s too bold, or public projects that are too ambitious.

Yet this opposition to costly and large-scale legislation apparently doesn’t extend to projects that concern endless war and tax cuts for the wealthy. Bipartisan lawmakers, including Pelosi, handed a major win to Trump last year by passing the staggering $716 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2019, which included funds for a nuclear buildup. Meanwhile, in 2017, Republicans gleefully lined up behind Trump to hand a tax break to corporations and the super-rich that will add nearly $2 trillion to the U.S. debt.

This incongruence is enabled by a media echo chamber. During an interview with NPR’s Morning Edition” on Thursday, Ocasio-Cortez was grilled by host Steve Inskeep about how she would pay for her climate plan. It is just certainly a lot of money. You don’t specify where it’s going to come from other than saying it will all pay for itself.” This refrain has been echoed across major media outlets since the concept of a Green New Deal was first introduced, from Politico to 60 Minutes.” As Aylin Woodward notes in Business Insider, Much of the discussion so far about the Green New Deal has centered on how to pay for its lofty objectives.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s response to Inskeep was instructive. I think the first move we need to do is kind of break the mistaken idea that taxes pay for 100 percent of government expenditure,” Ocasio-Cortez answered. It’s just not how government expenditure works,” she said. We can recoup costs, but oftentimes you look at, for example, the GOP tax cut which I think was an irresponsible use of government expenditure, but government projects are often financed by a combination of taxes, deficit spending and other kinds of investments, you know, bonds and so on.”

She went on to point out the long term failure of a market fundamentalist approach to environmental policy in dealing with climate change. We have tried their approach for 40 years — to let the private sector take care of it,” she explained, laying out a case for massive government intervention that – until recently – has rarely surfaced in mainstream political discourse.

Yet, amazingly, this hostile political climate is failing to squash the Green New Deal. To achieve the goals of staving off the worst effects of climate change while putting the United States on a path to environmental sustainability and economic equity, the Green New Deal calls for eliminating net greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, massively investing in government programs to update infrastructure and build up renewable energy sources, transforming sectors of the economy such as manufacturing and transportation to remove carbon emissions, retrofitting buildings and providing guaranteed living-wage employment to anyone who wants a job.

Not all of the details have been hashed out, and it will no doubt take considerable struggle — and outside agitating — to ensure any final plan is informed by left principles. But, nonetheless, the proposal represents the most ambitious effort yet to tackle the climate crisis. And it correctly refocuses the question of cost away from whether the United States can afford to pay for such a bold proposal to whether it can afford not to.

Already more than 60 members of the House and 9 senators have co-sponsored Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s resolution. Much like other bold left-wing proposals such as Medicare for All and tuition-free college, the Green New Deal has emerged as a consensus policy back by a number of high-profile potential 2020 Democratic nominees such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Bernie Sanders. And over 80 percent of the American public supports the Green New Deal, including 92 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans.

Republicans and centrist Democrats alike seem content continuing to oversee the same economic and political consensus that led us to the brink of climate chaos. But for the vast majority of Americans who want real solutions to the crisis, today’s Green New Deal resolution marks a clear escape path from the stale politics of the past.

Sarah Lazare and Marco Cartolano contributed reporting to this piece.

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Miles Kampf-Lassin, a graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School in Deliberative Democracy and Globalization, is a Web Editor at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter @MilesKLassin

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