The Green New Deal, which in the past month has come to define the progressive cause in Washington, exists in its most authoritative form as an eleven-page Google Doc. The document was written over a single December weekend by the staff of the freshman representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and three like-minded progressive groups, none of which existed two years ago: the Sunrise Movement, a grassroots climate organization; the Justice Democrats, which recruits and supports progressive candidates; and an upstart policy shop called the New Consensus. Just about everyone involved was new to lawmaking. “We spent the weekend learning how to put laws together,” Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, told me. “We looked up how to write resolutions.”
The format of the document looks familiar: there are sections for “procedure” and “funding.” But its maximalist, aspirational approach is, to say the least, unusual for a legislative document. Its goal is to make the United States greenhouse-gas emission neutral within ten years. That alone would be a historic transformation, but the authors were more ambitious still. Clause (6)(B) begins, “The Plan for a Green New Deal (and the draft legislation) shall recognize that a national, industrial, economic mobilization of this scope and scale is a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation.” Its seventh subsection suggests, in a dependent clause, the inclusion of a federal jobs guarantee and universal health insurance. The document raises the example of a trillion-dollar investment over ten years, then dismisses it as “wholly inadequate.” To its creators, the scale of the project is not a political complication but a point of pride.
No one who helped draft the resolution expected it to catch on quickly. But it did. Within a few weeks, more than forty-five Democrats in Congress had voiced support for the project, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, as well as Bernie Sanders. Al Gore called it “part of the answer to global inequality.” There are hard limits on how much power the group has won—House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quickly rejected Ocasio-Cortez’s call for a select committee on the Green New Deal—but its influence has been plain. Christy Goldfuss, who served under President Barack Obama as the managing director of the Council on Environmental Quality and now leads the energy and environmental team at the Center for American Progress, said that she has noticed a change in how more senior Democrats are thinking about climate policy. “People are asking how are we going to address climate change at scale, not what’s our building-block approach,” she said. “For me, that is a huge, huge shift, and it would not have happened if the Green New Deal had not come along.” On the campaign trail, and in the House, Democrats have a confident veneer. They are winning elections; they are younger than the opposition; the press is full of appreciations of Pelosi’s tactical savvy. But to watch the unlikely progress of the Green New Deal is to realize how much of the Party’s program and its sources of moral authority remain up for grabs.
Last spring, Chakrabarti, a thirty-two-year-old veteran of the Sanders campaign, was leading Brand New Congress, an organization that he co-founded to recruit progressive candidates, and which helped persuade Ocasio-Cortez to challenge a powerful Democratic incumbent, Joseph Crowley, in New York’s Fourteenth Congressional District. He became Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign manager, and, at first, he said, “Climate wasn’t the frame in which we were talking about this—we were trying to go back to a place where we as a society were taking on massive challenges, like how do you move people out of poverty into the middle class.” Ocasio-Cortez’s early ads emphasized Medicare for All and free college tuition—the Sanders package—but she herself was a more eclectic figure. In interviews, she credited her political awakening to the anti-pipeline protests she joined at Standing Rock. Eventually, Chakrabarti said, the campaign decided “that this idea of doing a gigantic economic transformation was hard to convey,” and that the concept of a Green New Deal could help. “That’s huge. It’s a gigantic national project to transform our economy.” The theme began to surface in the fall. At a campaign event in October in the Queens neighborhood of College Point, Ocasio-Cortez spoke at length about environmental transformation, calling it “one of the most existential issues for our generation and our time.”
Ocasio-Cortez has been such a practiced presence in the media that her ascent has seemed, from afar, to flow from some design, but Chakrabarti made it sound more chaotic. Her first act when she arrived in Washington for new-member orientation was to join the Sunrise Movement’s sit-in outside Pelosi’s office, to call for a select committee for the Green New Deal. It started with a request for a retweet from the activists, who knew the young congresswoman and her staff only slightly. “Alexandria was, like, ‘Shoot them a retweet? I’m going to join it,’ ” Chakrabarti said. He was more judicious—it would be her first major act as a member of Congress, she would be challenging the Speaker, and it could easily backfire. But it didn’t, and, once the protest drew attention, it seemed necessary to explain what the fuss was about. By the weekend, Chakrabarti was at work with the activists in the Google Doc. “If it’s really not possible, then we can revisit,” he said, of their proposal. “The idea is to set the most ambitious thing we can do and then make a plan for it. Why not try?”
In our conversation, Chakrabarti came across as curious and excitable—he kept using the word “gigantic” to describe the changes he envisioned—and not unlike the young people who, a decade ago, attached themselves to Obama. In the group that joined him to draft the Green New Deal, you can see the emergence of the next generation of the progressive élite: Waleed Shahid, the most prominent spokesman for the Justice Democrats, was the policy director on Cynthia Nixon’s campaign for governor of New York; Rhiana Gunn-Wright, the policy director for the New Consensus, played the same role for the progressive gubernatorial campaign of Abdul El-Sayed, in Michigan. The leaders of the Sunrise Movement are younger still, in their twenties, with at least as great a sense of urgency. “If you look at the latest United Nations I.P.C.C. report, we need a massive transformation of our economy, unlike any we’ve seen in recent history,” Stephen O’Hanlon, a co-founder of the group, told me. The ubiquitous young left-wing activist Sean McElwee, whose weekly East Village happy hours have drawn senators and Presidential aspirants, published an early sketch of what a Green New Deal policy might look like. Some of these people may have thought of themselves as outsiders but, to older Democrats, they must have looked the way rising leaders of the Party always have.
In their draft document, the Green New Deal group writes, “Many will say, ‘Massive government intervention! How in the world can we pay for this?’ The answer is: in the same ways that we paid for the 2008 bank bailout and extended quantitative easing programs, the same ways we paid for World War II and many other wars.” Several of them told me that, on climate policy, Obama had not been audacious enough. “It sounds like hyperbole, but we are fighting to preserve life as we know it,” O’Hanlon said. “A lot of the solutions proposed during the Obama Administration were not up to that scale.” Chakrabarti said that Obama “wasn’t talking about a big mobilization and the solutions were too small.”
This way of thinking isn’t exactly new, either. When Obama appointed the prominent environmental activist Van Jones as his special adviser for green jobs, in 2009, Jones also spoke of a Green New Deal, and was also confident that a climate-driven economic transformation could help correct racial inequities. The Obama economic stimulus, Jones, who is now a CNN commentator, pointed out to me this week, provided more than eighty billion dollars for clean-energy jobs, an investment that the White House expected would be supplemented by a national cap-and-trade program. But the cap-and-trade plan failed in the Senate after being labelled, as Jones put it, “so-called socialism.” Jones said he thought the current movement had certain advantages over his—the environmental crisis is deeper and better understood, the grassroots activists are more diverse and more energized—but the vision was the same. It made sense to him that the idea had come back around. “The most exciting, inspiring vision out there is still the Green New Deal,” Jones said. He expected it to keep resurfacing “until it gets done.”
Democrats have not hesitated, in the Trump era, to call out existential threats to democracy and to the climate. But their campaigns have not often reflected that sense of alarm—their focus in the midterms, a success for the Party, was on the defense of health-care coverage for preëxisting conditions. One early uncertainty of the 2020 Presidential race is how deep a crisis its leaders see. This week a Washington Post reporter, in El Paso, caught a bearded Beto O’Rourke in a Hamlet mode, worrying over illegal immigration and the other great topics of the day. O’Rourke praised the Green New Deal for being “bold” and said, “Thank God, the work has been done to articulate the goal, the vision, the means to achieve it.” The Post’s reporter, Jenna Johnson, noticed that he was vacillating between “a bright-eyed hope that the United States will soon dramatically change its approach to a whole host of issues and a dismal suspicion that the country is incapable of implementing sweeping change.” Which was it, she asked. “Yeah, I think that’s the question of the moment: Does this still work?” O’Rourke said. By “this,” he seemed to mean America.
That old Gen-X tick—transparent uncertainty. No such ambiguity from the Green New Deal faction. Lately Chakrabarti has been reading not just into climate policy but into the history of transformative governmental programs. Sounding a little amazed, he told me about F.D.R.’s “Arsenal of Democracy” speech, which spurred the industrial effort to support the Second World War. “Did you know about this?” Chakrabarti asked. “He gave this great speech, and then he also set production targets: a hundred and eighty thousand planes at a time when America was going to produce three thousand, and we ended up producing three hundred thousand.” He went on, “I don’t know if it’s a uniquely American thing, but I associate it that way. People get excited by this idea of, ‘Let’s come together and defeat this huge enemy through innovation, by solving this crisis.’ I think that’s motivating and inspiring.” Of course the millennial left has been able to set the Party’s mood, as it has returned to Washington this month. It has an idea about how to transform bleakness into hope.
Benjamin Wallace-Wells began contributing to The New Yorker in 2006, and joined the magazine as a staff writer in 2015. He writes mainly about American politics and society.
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