Maturity and the Green New Deal

See if you can spot the problem with this survey question: “Some members of Congress are proposing a ‘Green New Deal’ for the U.S. They say that a Green New Deal will produce jobs and strengthen America’s economy by accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy…How much do you support or oppose this idea?”

When a team of researchers from Yale and George Mason Universities asked this question, they got overwhelmingly positive responses. And it was bipartisan: 92% of Democrats and 64% of Republicans (57% of conservative Republicans) supported the GND. This was a poll conducted back in December when few people had yet to hear of the GND. Needless to say, it seemed like a ray of hope that an idea this big could capture widespread support in a polarized age.

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But there’s that problem. Did you spot it? It’s the first word: ‘some.’ Some members of Congress, you say? Well…which ones? Oh, those ones?! Let me change my answer!

Here we are two months later. The GND has gone viral and Democratic Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, widely known as AOC, has introduced a Resolution to the House of Representatives “recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.” AOC has become the Republicans new favorite target, their symbol of leftist extremism that threatens to tip the U.S. into a socialist dystopia. It should come as no surprise that the GND is now being fed into the partisan buzz-saw.

The GND is mocked on Fox News as the product of “an idiot” and ridiculed by multiple conservative commentators. To be fair, the team that conducted the poll in December knew this might happen. They linked to a 2003 study titled “Party over Policy” by a Yale psychologist. That paper chronicled the “dominating impact of group influence on political beliefs” and concluded: “Even under conditions of effortful processing, attitudes toward a social policy depended almost exclusively upon the stated position of one’s political party.” This is mental sloth: allowing partisan categories to decide for us which ideas are good and which are bad.

But it’s also politics. In her masterful Policy Paradox and Political Reason, Deborah Stone argues that “Political reasoning is reasoning by metaphor and analogy. It is trying to get others to see a situation as one thing rather than another.” Republicans want us to see the GND as socialism, as Big Government taking over our lives. In so doing, they want to push it to the lunatic fringe. We need to see it rather as maturity – as the moment we try to match our responsibilities to the scope of our powers.

The GND-as-socialism framing is powerful precisely because it is simple – it soothes the itch for mental short-cuts. And it will only grow in influence over the coming months. If the U.S. is ever going to have a chance of taking meaningful climate action, this framing has to be broken. To break it, we have to understand the source of its strength. It is rooted in an appeal to the family, that bedrock proto-political human condition.

Kimberley Strassel at The Wall Street Journal writes that “The Green New Deal encapsulates everything Americans fear from government, all in one bonkers resolution.” She argues that the GND is a recipe for the government to control “the most fundamental aspects of private life.” How about visiting family for Christmas? Airplanes “don’t run on anything but fossil fuel. No jet fuel, no trips to see granny.” And that meat on the family table will be banned. She concludes that the goal of the GND is to eradicate “every family Christmas” and every “strip of bacon.”

This is the deep mythic core being marshalled to oppose the GND. Note the dissociation required to isolate the private sphere from the social sphere. In reality, the private family life of air travel and bacon breakfasts causes the very public problems the GND seeks to address. Shopping for those low prices at Walmart feeds into the globalization that drives wage stagnation and the evisceration of rural communities. And consumption in nearly every variety contributes to climate change when fossil fuels dominate the energy mix.

Family life is increasingly entangled with global flows of materials, energy, and waste. There is less and less private about the private sphere. Recognizing and wrestling with this reality is not ‘socialism.’ It’s maturity. And that’s the framing we need: GND-as-responsibility.

It’s not just that the U.S. is disproportionately responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. More basically, we have a responsibility to see behind all the commodities assembled in our family life. Look underneath the bacon and see the factory farm. See the heat waves in the wake of the airplane. Our private lives are complicit with wider harms and violence. Coming to terms with all the things that make your life possible is the hallmark of maturity. It’s when the child realizes the dishes don’t wash themselves or the clothes don’t fold themselves. We need to start taking responsibility for the way we have been living.

Strassel and the other commentators are a long ways away from the early conservative voices in America. They sound more like spoiled brats who don’t want to chip in to pick up the mess they helped to make.

The GND Resolution references the original New Deal as well as the massive national mobilization to defeat fascism. Yet the GND doesn’t call for anything like the sacrifices that occurred during World War II. Rather, it basically calls for technological fixes. You won’t have to give up bacon, because we’ll come up with artificial meat that tastes the same. Before she does more complaining, Strassel might want to review the rations that Americans endured during World War II: tires, sugar, coffee, gasoline, and, yes, meat. Even penicillin.

Their selfless endurance through hardship earned them the well-deserved title of “the greatest generation.” They expanded their sense of family and kinship to embrace a cause and ideals that transcend a life of comfort and convenience. How come that was patriotism back then but now it’s socialism?

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