The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats are invoking FDR in their Green New Deal. It’s historically misleading.

People line up on Fulton Street in New York to buy rationed meat in 1943.
People line up on Fulton Street in New York to buy rationed meat in 1943. (AP)

The ringing words of a congressional resolution by Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) summon Americans to “a new national, social, industrial and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal.”

The Green New Deal’s goal: a zero-carbon economy within 10 years, enabling the United States to lead a global attack on climate change while providing “unprecedented levels of prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States.”

It’s a stirring vision, this Green New Deal. It tugs effectively at mystic chords of memory, as Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) showed by quickly echoing the resolution’s themes in a stump speech: “When the planet has been in peril in the past, who came forward to save Earth from the scourge of Nazis and totalitarian regimes?” he asked an audience in Iowa on Friday. “We came forward.”

Politically powerful as the invocation of America’s great collective deeds under Franklin D. Roosevelt might be, however, it is historically misleading — deeply so.

Yes, “we all pulled together” (as the saying went) in the nearly four years between Pearl Harbor and V-J Day. The U.S. population overwhelmingly supported the war. It also accepted, or submitted to, extraordinary federal command and control. Mobilization required coercion. Without it, the war might have been lost.

Ordinary democratic processes and market mechanisms could not have accomplished the massive reallocation of resources, physical and human, away from all other priorities and toward one overriding short-term purpose — “victory.”

Fifty million men registered for the military draft, and 10 million were inducted. (A total of 16 million people served, including volunteers.) The press practiced “voluntary” censorship. With prices and wages tightly regulated, ordinary civilians faced rationing of coffee, sugar and meat. Before the war, only 7 percent of the population was required to pay income tax; by 1944, more than 60 percent did.

Under heavy federal pressure, organized labor took a no-strike pledge, but when coal miners walked out anyway in 1943, Roosevelt threatened to nationalize the mines. The federal atomic-bomb program, the Manhattan Project, was carried out partly in Oak Ridge, Tenn., a town built on rural Tennessee land that the government had summarily seized from 3,000 small farmers.

People wonder how the government could pay for the Green New Deal, but perhaps the real question is whether it could ever call forth, and distribute, physical and human resources on the World War II scale without resorting to similarly coercive measures?

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The Markey-Ocasio-Cortez resolution acknowledges that “many members of frontline and vulnerable communities” were excluded from the benefits of national mobilization during Roosevelt’s time. Though Markey and Ocasio-Cortez don’t name names, they may have been alluding to U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent who were interned in remote camps and African Americans denied the best defense jobs or access to housing.

The Green New Deal will not repeat these mistakes, they promise, but “must be developed through transparent and inclusive consultation, collaboration and partnership with frontline and vulnerable communities, labor unions, worker cooperatives, civil society groups, academia and businesses.” For now, at least, the resolution doesn’t even include a carbon tax.

Though reassuringly democratic, this call for a new layer of time-consuming governmental process, on top of existing representative bodies, has an obvious problem: It is inconsistent with the urgency of the climate problem. The resolution’s goal is to meet all U.S. electric power demand from “clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources” within a decade.

A single “green” public works project — California’s high-speed rail system — is already years behind schedule. Delays are due in part to court cases, negotiations with landowners and tedious public hearings. First approved by voters in a 2008 proposition, California’s bullet train is scheduled to open in 2033.

No amount of historical idealization can overcome these real-world issues. What really happened during World War II is that, as the years went by, defense workers increasingly chafed at mandatory overtime, consumer shortages and crowded living conditions. (Building materials were set aside for military bases, not civilian housing.) Black markets flourished; many people were arrested for illegal sales of gasoline and other basics. Wildcat strikes hit key industries; workers who participated were often fired.

In short, even when faced with a clear and present military threat during World War II, even in a good cause led by a popular president, many Americans did not go along with all aspects of the mobilization at all times. Here and there they actively refused. Where patriotic inspiration did not suffice to secure public cooperation, the Roosevelt administration resorted to stronger measures, and didn’t waste too much time apologizing for them.

Whatever else might be said about that attitude, at least it had to be taken seriously.

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Read more:

Eugene Robinson: A ‘Green New Deal’ sounds like pie in the sky. But we need it.

Megan McArdle: ‘We’re nuts!’ isn’t a great pitch for a Green New Deal

Paul Waldman: Here comes the Green New Deal. It could dramatically alter our political debate.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Why the time has come for a Green New Deal