On Nov. 13, one week after Democrats rode the blue wave to victory in the midterm elections, Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) made headlines when she joined economic and environmental activists outside the office of Minority Leader (and presumptive Speaker of the House) Nancy Pelosi.
Demonstrators challenged Pelosi with simple signs that read “What is your plan?” and “Green jobs for all.”
Organized by the Sunrise Movement, activists demanded that House Democrats draft a “Green New Deal” offering legislative solutions to economic inequality and climate change. Ocasio-Cortez’s appearance amplified their voices and created political momentum behind the proposal.
The Green New Deal that Ocasio-Cortez and a growing list of members of Congress now support is straightforward: Power the U.S. economy with 100 percent renewable energy within 12 years, establish a federal living-wage jobs program, institute universal health care, and help workers move from carbon-tied jobs to more sustainable employment. People need jobs and economic security; the world needs green infrastructure. Simple.
But those are ambitious goals, and Green New Dealers need to find ways to achieve them legislatively in a political context that has not been favorable for confronting climate change, let alone inequality. Green New Dealers would do well to follow Ocasio-Cortez’s lead in drawing inspiration from the original New Deal. They must borrow from the spirit of experimentation that shaped President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s bold policy proposals in the 1930s and be willing to think broadly and adaptably about how to achieve their ambitious goals.
Like the Green New Deal today, the 1930s New Deal began as a framework for change rather than a precise set of policy proposals.
The 1930s New Dealers, led by Roosevelt, confronted an enormous challenge: lifting Americans out of the worst economic collapse in the nation’s history. Searching for solutions, they knew that no idea was too big to consider. More than 11 million Americans were out of work, nearly a quarter of the nation’s workforce. Banks, factories and farms failed en masse, ripping apart the nation’s systems of exchange.
Confident, however, that federal intervention was the solution to the disaster, New Dealers moved their agenda forward with tenacity — and flexibility — despite political setbacks.
Roosevelt first used the term “new deal” in his speech accepting the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1932. “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people … this is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms,” he said. Calling for “courage” from all, the Democratic nominee promised to use the power of the federal government to lift the nation out of the Great Depression.
In a landslide election, Roosevelt won all but six states. With popular support behind him, he and his “brain trust” of advisers followed through on their promises to direct the federal government’s capacity toward turning around the economic disaster.
A cornucopia of policy experiments followed. Each intended to stabilize various parts of the failing American economy. Some worked, some did not — and that was the point: to experiment with solutions to the national crisis until a durable fix was found.
The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), for instance, kick-started the economy in 1933 through stimulus and security measures. Price and wage regulations offered stability, while the act’s famous Section 7(a) protected collective bargaining rights for workers. With boosted spending confidence, workers cycled their wages back into the economy, helping overall growth. They could also more confidently deposit their earnings in banks, thanks to another early New Deal intervention: the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
The NIRA provided stimulus through other measures, as well. Notably, it established the Public Works Administration (PWA), which created jobs for the unemployed on projects such as dams, bridges and schools. With a budget of $3.3 billion in its first year, the PWA made up an astonishing 5.9 percent of the nation’s economy measured in gross domestic product and represented a massive investment in the nation’s economic and social infrastructure.
The NIRA, however, was short-lived. In 1935, the Supreme Court struck it down, holding that the statute violated the Constitution’s commerce clause. Undeterred — and showing their experimental spirit — New Dealers moved on to other policy solutions. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act replaced the NIRA’s Section 7(a) to protect workers’ rights to collective bargaining, and a newly established Works Progress Administration continued to put Americans to work building everything from hospitals to highways.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), another successful public works program, took a different angle, employing 2.5 million men (women were excluded; it was not a perfect program) on projects related to natural resource conservation.
In fact, the CCC shows how to blend economic stabilization and environmental sustainability, the goal of today’s Green New Dealers. CCC workers constructed new irrigation systems for farms, worked on flood and fire prevention, built service roads and planted 3 billion trees. In the short term, the CCC employed out-of-work Americans, putting money in their pockets that then circulated through banks and markets, reviving the economy. In the long term, the CCC created healthier farms, timber plots and entire ecologies, offering the American economy more durable growth prospects.
The process of experimentation worked. As historian Lawrence Glickman writes, the “New Deal laid the groundwork for the economic boom that made the United States the envy of the world in the postwar decades.” The economy grew 8 to 10 percent per year throughout the 1930s (with the exception of a brief recessionary period in 1937-38). Unemployment fell from the staggering 25 percent mark when FDR took office to 14.4 percent by the end of the decade.
Like their 1930s forebears, the Green New Dealers will face obstacles in reimagining a more equitable and less carbon-filled world, especially given the Republican Party’s disregard for inequality and increasingly insidious denial of basic climate science.
There are also challenges within the Democratic Party. To make the Green New Deal reality, Ocasio-Cortez proposed forming a Green New Deal select committee, limited to members who do not accept money from fossil-fuel interests, with the power to draft legislation ready for a hoped-for Democratic president to sign into law in 2020. But Pelosi and other party leaders have so far demurred, leaving the next step for Green New Dealers unclear.
But the Green New Deal has secured traction with the public. A recent poll conducted by Yale University and George Mason University shows that 81 percent of registered voters support the Green New Deal. The combination of strong grass-roots support and clear political leadership presents an opportunity to turn the Green New Deal’s big goals into tangible policy, at a moment when inequality is on the rise, 40 million Americans now live in poverty and we may have just 12 years left to avert catastrophe caused by climate change.
“The only way we are going to get out of this situation is by choosing to be courageous,” says Ocasio-Cortez, echoing Roosevelt’s campaign call for courage. Now she and her colleagues must adopt Roosevelt’s flexibility and spirit of experimentation if they hope to usher in a new era of economic stability and environmental sustainability.