What would the Founding Fathers make of a young congresswoman of Puerto Rican descent and modest means calling for a sweeping overhaul of our nation’s political infrastructure?
First, remember that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s plan is inspired by a similar overhaul successfully enacted into law by a rich old white guy.
Yes, we’ve come a long way since the 1930s. The other key difference between Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and this updated one is that, whereas for Ocasio-Cortez the impetus is global ecological collapse, back then it was mass unemployment following a stock market crash.
Noteworthy, too, is how the 2008 financial meltdown, in many ways more catastrophic even than the one in 1929, was managed so as not to result in another Great Depression. The “fix” was a taxpayer-funded bailout paired with the few remaining New Deal protections from financial overreach left after decades of bank deregulation. The 2008 crisis wouldn’t have happened at all if FDR’s Glass-Steagall Act had not been repealed by the Clinton administration.
It is ironic that socialist intervention, in the form of that bailout, kicked the can down the road. Nothing fundamentally changed. The issues underlying the mortgage crisis were not resolved or even addressed. Too-big-to-fail banks are bigger than ever and increasingly interdependent. So are many other sectors of our economy. And as wealth concentrates, the majority of Americans are increasingly left behind. It has gotten to the point where the New York Times, in a recent piece about the wealth gap, defined as “upper middle class” anyone in the top 10 percent of earners. It used to be the upper third, didn’t it?
In truth, only the upper 1 percent of Americans with stock portfolios are benefiting from rising GDP and low unemployment. Most people’s income hasn’t budged since the 1970s, when the relatively low cost of living meant a family could still survive on one paycheck.
The day of reckoning has arrived. It is called, appropriately, I think, the Green New Deal. It begins with values, which is also appropriate. This is how the Founders crafted their vision for America. The Declaration of Independence set forth the “why” and the Constitution, hammered out through intense negotiation, created the “how.” The system of checks and balances seemed foolproof and set the course for steady improvement in America’s quality of life.
Unfortunately, it was not able to withstand globalization’s promise of both free and fair trade. The Founders’ central fear was international pressure to conform to the values of other nations, mainly the European powers whose practice of imperialism (as opposed to high-minded talk of manifest destiny) most of the Founders deplored.
That fear became real in the Reagan era with the ascendancy of laissez-faire capitalism. The Founders’ vision of a democratic oasis of fairness and equality was eventually eroded by a corporate-sponsored propaganda campaign that convinced most Americans that less is more when it comes to government.
The Green New Deal challenges Americans — all Americans — to link arms and take government back. Young people face a terrifying future. Only they understand that climate change is not an economic opportunity but a crisis more dire than Pearl Harbor — and that just as World War II was managed by FDR and not a handful of CEOs in some private resort in Davos, only government can fix this.
To patronizing comments by the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, young advocates of the Green New Deal have responded with reasoned insights. In a New York Times op/ed, the millennial Jedediah Brittoin-Purdy, author of “After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene,” wrote this: “What has taken liberal critics aback is that the Green New Deal strays so far from the traditional environmental emphasis on controlling pollution, which the carbon tax aims to do, and tries to solve the problems of economic inequality, poverty and even corporate concentration (there’s an antimonopoly clause).”
The young minds behind the Green New Deal know full well that, as Britton-Purdy writes, “[c]entrist proposals will concentrate on promoting investment in new technologies, with profits going, pharma-style, to private researchers and manufacturers.”
He goes on to educate his elders with memory problems on the American history they lived and he only read about. “Curiously, the idea that environmental policy could ever be separated from the larger economic order, or from fights over fairness, is recent, a product of an unusually technocratic period in American politics.”
The old attitude toward environmental policy was alive and well as recently as 1970, on both sides of the aisle, he adds. “Arguing for the Clean Air Act on Earth Day 1970 [it is now being dismantled], Senator Edmund Muskie, Democrat of Maine and the law’s lead drafter, insisted that ‘man’s environment’ included ‘the shape of the communities in which he lives’ and that ‘the only kind of society that has a chance’ was ‘a society that will not tolerate slums for some and decent houses for others, rats for some and playgrounds for others, clean air for some and filth for others.’ ”
What’s changed isn’t just our climate but our national priorities. By conflating socialism with Joe Stalin, the right succeeded in scaring Americans into thinking their democratically elected government with its elaborate checks and balances was somehow not just hopelessly inefficient at decisionmaking (true) but ruthlessly efficient at destroying freedom.
The Founders would have been appalled. Their own idealism was if anything more quixotic and impractical than the moonshot that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez invokes when she compares her plan with the can-do America that was still awed by supersonic jets and yet undaunted by the notion of putting a man on the moon. After all, the Founders had just whipped the mightiest military force in history.
Among them, the federalist Alexander Hamilton would be especially pleased to see that his beloved federal government was still powerful enough, 200 years on, to mobilize around a threat to the common good. Hamilton may have been an elitist, but he was also a staunch democrat who believed in fairness and would not have approved of a system as rigged in favor of the rich as the global economy is in 2019.
Historians generally agree that Hamilton would not only have deplored the serial laissez-faire administrations of Presidents Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover in the 1920s, but vigorously applauded FDR’s moves to strengthen the banking system that Hamilton himself had invented.
All the Founders would have seen that the current crisis is about preserving U.S. values from the same influences that threatened their new nation — cynicism and greed.
As for land stewardship, Thomas Jefferson adopted regenerative practices at Monticello after learning from his own mistakes as a farmer. He would have loved FDR’s Subsistence Homesteading Act because it helped farmers who had unwittingly exhausted the soil (arguably a minor offense compared to knowingly polluting it with chemicals toxic to soil microbes and other wildlife). The act did what the Green New Deal will do if its vision becomes law: Government subsidies enabled small-scale farmers to learn from their mistakes, adopt more eco-friendly practices and make the Dust Bowl productive again. This turnaround was accomplished long before the “green revolution” forced small-scale farmers off the land.
John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” tells how the Okies were demonized by fellow American citizens when they migrated to California in the ’30s, reminding us of yet another inconvenient truth about American history and basic human nature. Bigotry can almost always be traced to the survival instinct and its corollary in humans, fear of poverty. It isn’t dark skin that causes prejudice but its negative associations.
Fear of poverty is why Hoover brutally dismantled an encampment of mostly white veterans, the Bonus Army, who were only trying to collect back wages for serving in World War I.
Then as now the poor were branded as lazy and shiftless no matter who they were. There is one difference: People were kinder to the Okies and the hobos and the refugees from the Bonus encampment and Hoovervilles because they knew that “there but for the grace of God go I.”
They also knew the crisis would pass. They had confidence in FDR. Climate change is different. It is unprecedented in human history. Fear of losing advantage has gripped the elites of both parties. This is why they are loath to surrender power to young idealists.
But those agitating for a Green New Deal have their own truth. They know that the “measured approach” the elites pretend to believe in is in fact a shibboleth. By opposing a risky (to them) fight on all fronts, the elites are simply hedging their bets. They have built up defenses against any ideology other than dog-eat-dog. And now, they are willing to sacrifice not just the common good but a sizable portion, perhaps the majority, of their fellow human beings.
This is the greatest unfairness of all. Unless the Green New Deal is embraced, only the rich will have the means to place a bet. Ordinary working Americans must win this fight. It’s not about the survival of the species, as the elites would have us believe (though they know otherwise: Homo sapiens is as resilient as the cockroach). It’s about who will survive … and why they will survive … and how that story will be told for generations to come.
Bonnie Blodgett, of St. Paul, specializes in environmental topics. She’s at firstname.lastname@example.org.