The viral video of Senator Dianne Feinstein discussing a Green New Deal resolution highlights important questions about the friends and enemies that social movements make. Brief clips of children from the Sunrise Movement imploring Feinstein to support their ambitious resolution circulated everywhere, featuring the senator trying to explain her opposition and her alternatives.
A fuller video, pasted below, offered more context.
If you wade through all 14 minutes, you’ll find plenty of condescension all around. Senator Feinstein welcomes the children, acknowledges climate change as a real and serious problem (not a majority position in the US Senate), and explains why she wants to promote more modest measures that might actually pass the Senate. She explains that she represents voters, and knows the legislative process very well.
The younger and older children emphasize the urgency of the problem, America’s failure to act, and the necessity of bold action. They are impatient, and not at all interested in Feinstein’s discussion of the dynamics of legislation.
It’s not a great conversation, and the shorter versions make for better viewing. The real question is what a confrontation like this does for the Sunrise Movement, and what it does for the larger cause of purposeful action to address climate change. I don’t think the answers are easy.
The Green New Deal is a holder for a range of aspirational social, economic, and environmental goals that represent bold moves to confront a set of truly urgent and mostly global problems. In a scant 14 pages, the Green New Deal promises to end pollution and the discharge of greenhouse gases in power production, create millions of good jobs, a sustainable healthy food system, improve public education, and substantially reduce economic inequality–among other things.
Here’s the text Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Democrat, New York) introduced in the House. Senator Edward Markey (Democrat, Massachusetts) introduced the resolution in the US Senate.
Offered as a non-binding resolution expressing the sense of each house of Congress, it’s far more important as a symbol of support and action than a set of developed policy proposals. The resolution gives supporters in office the chance to take a stand without actually having to make policy, and if all goes well, forces opponents to go on record against doing something.
More importantly, it gives activists something to focus on, organize around, raise money for, and carry into movement and electoral politics. The broad, vague resolution is an effort to avoid the difficult and detailed politics of regulation, taxation, and spending. Much as “the wall” became shorthand for a range of anti-immigration policies, the Green New Deal is a code for progressive economic policies coupled with infrastructure development and comprehensive, albeit unspecified, environmental measures. Paradoxically, the debate about the Green New Deal is far simpler than an informed debate about, for example, developing high speed rail, one promised component.
It’s a good strategy for movement politics, big and bold, and simple, without the baggage and difficult trade-offs associated with legislation. Movements set a broad agenda, and elected officials respond with something significantly more modest, compromising and diluting bold goals in the service of incremental progress, selling out their strongest supporters in the process. It’s exactly the sort of frustrating politics that the founders envisioned.
It’s worth noting that Senator Markey built his early career in Congress as a key supporter of the nuclear freeze proposal in the early 1980s. The bilateral freeze on testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons was an expressly simple approach to ending the nuclear arms race, and the centerpiece of a broad social movement. The freeze cut short complicated debates about throw-weight, missiles with multiple warheads, or verifying arms control agreements. It also worked….somewhat…restoring some measure of restraint in the arms race and bringing back arms control. (It’s the subject of my first book.) But it didn’t eliminate all nuclear weapons or stop nuclear proliferation.
Now Sunrise Movement activists are putting as much pressure as they can on people who support them. Right after last November’s elections brought the Democrats into power in the House, young activists poured into incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and staged a sit-in. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez joined them.
Speaker Pelosi endorsed their energy and expressed sympathy for their goals….but not quite the Green New Deal; she has her own broad agenda.
In real life, at least for now, Speaker Pelosi and Senator Feinstein will meet with the activists, acknowledge the problem of climate change, and offer partial remedies. This makes for publicity and viral videos.
But softer versions of environmental protection are hardly the greatest political obstacle climate change activists face. The president, his administration, and the Republican leadership of the Senate refuse to acknowledge climate change, much less economic inequality, as a real problem. Young Kentucky Sunrise activists have promised to confront Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. (I’ll predict with some confidence that they won’t get ten minutes of video in his office.) Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has announced that he will put the Green New Deal on the senate floor, intending to embarrass Democrats–whether they vote for or against it.
Targeting Feinstein raises the profile of the issue and the movement for the moment, but she’s not the real obstacle. But focusing on less enthusiastic or more critical allies might also divert attention from the real culprits. Climate change activists were glad to circulate the video from Feinstein’s office. Republicans were happy to retweet them.