Ever since Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made a “Green New Deal” a cornerstone of her legislative agenda earlier this month, liberals have been buzzing about its transformative potential to fight climate change. Some even view the comprehensive package of federal planning and jobs programs designed to tackle emissions, pollution and environmental decay as a progressive panacea: a strategy to rollback President Donald Trump’s climate policies (or lack thereof), end economic inequality and win elections in 2020 and beyond. “This is going to be the New Deal, the Great Society, the Moonshot, the Civil Rights Movement of our generation,” Ocasio-Cortez said alongside Senator Bernie Sanders recently. Over the last month, a number of lawmakers, including presidential aspirants like Cory Booker, have been pressured by activists to endorse the program.
The Green New Deal, while ambitious, is smart politics. By branding proposals for carbon emission caps, infrastructure investments to adapt to the already changing climate, and federal job creation to satisfy those and other environmental objectives all as a Green New Deal, Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders and other proponents have made the unprecedented seem familiar, wedding the party’s successes of the 20th century to its future in the 21st. Indeed, they have aligned their agenda by name with a time when outsized aspirations for reform were commonplace in the Democratic Party.
Like so many of the left’s big policy ideas today—from a federal job guarantee to Medicare for All—the Green New Deal is not new. In fact, Democrats first attempted a jobs program focused on the environment in the early 1960s. It failed due to the same kinds of issues that plague Democrats now: intraparty rivalries, ideological divisions and deep-rooted corporate interests in the party. If today’s progressives seek to capture both public and congressional support for environmental reform, they should heed this history.
The initial effort to realize what’s now stylized as a Green New Deal was proposed in the early 1960s by the Democratic senator from South Dakota and future presidential candidate George McGovern. McGovern was first elected to the Senate in 1962 with grand designs to remake America’s role at home and abroad. Captivated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning of the “military-industrial complex” in 1961, McGovern argued that the nation’s federal defense budget was akin to a New Deal program run amok. He described the Pentagon as a “gigantic WPA” that spent exorbitant government funds on a needless arms race and distracted Americans from domestic concerns, among them, the environment.
In 1964, McGovern sponsored legislation for the creation of a National Economic Conversion Commission (NECC) to transfer jobs in defense to peacetime work, for example, civil engineering and commercial manufacturing. On the surface, the NECC’s purpose was rather simple: to help unemployed defense workers find jobs. But McGovern’s ulterior motive for the commission was to reallocate military spending to fight environmental problems, to give defense workers “green jobs,” to use an anachronistic term.
Influenced by the research of Columbia University economist Seymour Melman, a critic of the “permanent war economy,” McGovern believed employees of the defense industry would better serve their country by working on “water pollution, air pollution” and other environmental fields, which McGovern felt were more “exciting and hopeful alternatives where those resources and that manpower can be used.” “I think we ought to stress,” McGovern said in 1964, “that reductions in defense spending can provide a very hopeful opportunity for the people of the United States.”
History was on McGovern’s side in 1964. Just two years earlier, the marine biologist Rachel Carson had published her groundbreaking work, Silent Spring. Carson’s account of the insecticide DDT’s impact on the environment appalled many Americans, including congressional Democrats, who called upon Carson to testify before Congress in the months before McGovern proposed the NECC. Silent Spring’s moving descriptions of pesticides’ deleterious effects on the environment—and Carson’s warning that the 1960s was Americans’ “only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the Earth”—proved the United States had no real policy to alleviate the degradation of the environment, jarring Democrats like McGovern into action and propelling the environmental movement forward, years before a federal agency dedicated to environmental protection (EPA) was established in 1970.
Changes to the Cold War also helped McGovern’s cause. After the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation in October 1962, President John F. Kennedy reexamined the arms race and the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. In an effort to cool tensions between the two superpowers, Kennedy signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963, which prohibited atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in both the Soviet Union and the United States. Its ratification was also spurred by new scientific evidence on the environmental effects of high levels of radiation in the atmosphere. That same year, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, supposing that maintaining a preponderance of American power amidst a thaw in the Cold War was superfluous, began to close military bases throughout the country with the goal of “obtaining the maximum defense at the lowest possible cost.”
None of this meant passing his environmental project would be easy. McGovern knew that if the NECC had any chance of surviving in Congress, it needed an unlikely coalition behind it. Whenever he had a colleague or a camera in front of him, McGovern argued that the NECC had something for everyone. Defense contractors needn’t worry about converting jobs to peacetime purposes, since the process would still be coordinated by “the wisdom of our private contractors” and “our private businessmen.” Scientists and engineers, he maintained, should be excited that their “skill and brainpower” would be funneled into solving the world’s problems, rather than weapons production. And the American military, now free of unnecessary defense programs, could more effectively concentrate on “the dangers of the times” (at that time, the Cold War).
At first, McGovern’s message had some appeal in Washington, D.C. Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance liked the prospect of saving on defense while continuing to provide long-term support to the industry’s employees, and Cold Warriors like Democrat Hubert Humphrey—while adamant that the United States did not have a “war economy”—thought the commission a vital first step in providing government funds to “meet broad public needs: air and water pollution, urban transport, providing adequate water supply and other conservation of natural resources for a growing population.”
But then came Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to escalate the war in Southeast Asia derailed McGovern’s vision. Whereas in 1963 the world seemed at the precipice of a new era in the Cold War, Vietnam revived ideological tensions between Democratic proponents and opponents of Cold War foreign policy. Hawkish Democrats became enemies to the NECC, afraid of diverting monies away from the war. The stiffest opposition to the plan came from the Johnson administration, which criticized McGovern’s idea for a 10 percent cut to a $300 billion-dollar defense budget as “radical.” Moreover, defense contractors failed to see the utility of McGovern’s commission as they were now awash in new, albeit temporary, defense contracts to fight the war. When the NECC would be revived over two decades later as the Cold War was finally coming to an end, it would be a smaller, private endeavor focused on public education about economic conversion and disarmament and stripped of its earlier environmentalist goals.
The collapse of this earlier Green New Deal has important lessons for Democrats today. Its failure was not due to a lack of imagination but to the Democratic Party’s lackluster and divided response to that imagination. McGovern’s prospects for solving environmental problems in the 1960s were bound up in his party’s politics of the time, as the Cold War forced Democrats to reconcile their global fight against communism with their liberal designs for domestic reform. Without party-wide agreement on foreign policy priorities, or environmental ones, McGovern’s proposal was doomed.
Democrats today need to make sure their priorities align before they tackle a Green New Deal again. But even though the climate has become an increasingly partisan issue over the past few decades, mustering a progressive coalition might actually prove easier than it was 50 years ago. Democrats now universally embrace climate change as science and as existential threat; and a coalition of business interests, activists, scientists and politicians see the urgency of the issue and are looking for ways to collaborate.
It might even be possible to reallocate defense spending for the new project, as McGovern attempted half a century ago. After all, it is not the 1960s anymore, and the funding for a massive social program would need to come from somewhere. However, should this be the strategy once again, the Democratic Party would be better off this time presenting a Green New Deal as compatible with and integral to their foreign policy agenda—one that, for example, de-emphasizes militarism and redirects excessive defense spending—rather than separate from or opposed to it.
Above all, if a Green New Deal is to ever happen—and it likely couldn’t until at least post-2020 because of the extent of modern partisanship—Democrats would need to be united this time and firm in their commitment to its bold agenda and its place in their broader platform.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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The Article Was Written/Published By: Michael Brenes