In her first days on Capitol Hill, Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) paid a visit to the office of House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. That alone wasn’t out of the ordinary; such visits happen as a matter of course. The difference was that the 29-year-old was flanked by nearly 200 other young people, some of them barely out of high school, 51 of whom would later be arrested and hauled off by the Capitol Police. Ocasio-Cortez arrived at the November 13 demonstration with members of the youth-led climate group Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats, an organization that had backed her run (along with those of several other insurgent progressives) in the midterm elections. Together, they were calling for the creation of an initiative more sweeping than anything proposed by the Democratic Party in recent memory: a Green New Deal.
“Should Leader Pelosi become the next Speaker of the House, we need to tell her that we’ve got her back in showing and pursuing the most progressive energy agenda that this country has ever seen,” Ocasio-Cortez told those gathered around her. Some were wearing shirts emblazoned with the number 12—the years that the world has left to avert catastrophic warming.
With that number in mind, Ocasio-Cortez’s staff began circulating a proposal that day for a select House committee to “develop a detailed national, industrial, economic mobilization plan for the transition of the United States economy.” Central to that plan: weaning the country off fossil fuels in the next decade. As of press time, 18 additional sitting or incoming House members have signed on.
The Green New Deal thus embodies the kind of big thinking that party leaders have shirked over the past few decades, during which liberals in Washington opted for incremental policy tweaks and compromises with Republicans and corporations alike. Episodes like the one in Pelosi’s office offer a taste of what having democratic socialists in power will be like: an inspiring break with business and politics as usual, both in style and in content.
Beyond the mediagenic protests and slogans, the platforms of politicians like Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI)—both members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)—have begun to delineate a bold new governing agenda. In addition to a Green New Deal, they’ve backed calls for Medicare for All, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), ending cash bail, guaranteeing a federal job to anyone who wants one, raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, and refusing to accept money from corporate PACs. Many of these candidates delivered on the last item when they ran for office; but for now, the rest is mostly a wish list of policies—albeit ambitious, radically egalitarian ones.
That being said, today’s progressives and democratic socialists face a much bigger challenge than simply passing good legislation. They also need to chip away at the neoliberal consensus that the right has spent the last 40 years cementing, and to redefine what constitutes economic sense—all in time to save the planet from burning.
Washington’s progressive new arrivals may not have much in the way of legislative experience, but the political winds seem to be blowing in their direction. The fallout from the Great Recession and the looming threat of climate change have exposed bipartisan free-market dogmas as woefully ill-equipped to deal with the crises that we face today. National polling bears this out: In large part thanks to his appeals to Occupy Wall Street’s condemnation of economic inequality and the 1 percent, democratic socialist Bernie Sanders (I-VT) remains the country’s most popular politician. Meanwhile, a majority of millennials—just years away from becoming the country’s largest voting bloc—say they favor socialism over capitalism. And the rumored presidential hopefuls for 2020 are now competing to establish their progressive bona fides. Even Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), by all accounts a mainstream liberal, has taken credit for proposing a jobs guarantee—a relatively recent addition to the left’s new policy wish list that enjoys majority support in all 50 states (while universal health care, in the form of Medicare for All, is backed by even a majority of Republicans). The left, in short, is back in style, and its ideas are more popular than at any time in recent memory.
Nevertheless, it’s hard not to feel a little outgunned. It’s one thing to pass discrete policies to improve the lives of ordinary Americans; it’s another to change the economic and political consensus that the free-market dogmatists of the center-right and center-left have been building since before some of these insurgent newcomers were born—along with a political and intellectual infrastructure designed to outlive us all.
The small pack of advocates who pioneered the neoliberal revolution after the oil crisis and the inflation of the 1970s weren’t selling lower corporate tax rates or rollbacks of labor protections on their own merits; they were selling freedom and small, responsible government, realized through markets and the sage guidance of American business leaders. Their ideology placed profits before people and markets before democracy, though in the United States at least, they never put it that way to the public. So to get the word out, they built institutions like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI); cultivated promising talent for higher office, including Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan; wrote and published books; and founded magazines and radio shows, like National Review and The Manion Forum, aimed at spreading the doctrine of the free market.
In addition to a small army of wealthy backers (something that today’s left still lacks—largely by design), what allowed the right to become dominant in the second half of the 20th century was its ability to tell a compelling story about how the economy should work and who it should work for—and then repeat and tweak that story ad nauseam for anyone who would listen over the better part of half a century. As William Baroody Sr., the conservative activist who built AEI into a force to be reckoned with, noted: “This is no overnight miracle-passing operation… It will take time, financial resources, and the exercise of good brain power.”
It also took decades—but the hard work paid off. As Reagan settled into the Oval Office in 1980, he handed every member of his prospective cabinet a copy of a 1,100-page Heritage Foundation document that detailed some 2,000 conservative policy priorities. The document, which would later be published as the Mandate for Leadership series, served as the cornerstone of right-wing leadership; in his first year alone, Reagan would take up nearly two-thirds of its proposals.
Described by United Press International as “a blueprint for grabbing the government by its frayed New Deal lapels and shaking out 48 years of liberal policy,” the Mandate’s presence in the White House was the culmination of decades of work by a network of right-wing academics and activists who sought to dismantle the Keynesian consensus that there could be such a thing as good big government, in the mold of the New Deal and the Marshall Plan—and to provide a ready alternative.
Today, the institutions that the free marketeers built in the 1970s and ’80s still dwarf anything available to progressives. Top conservative think tanks enjoy lavish budgets, with the largest collectively pulling in tens of millions of dollars more per year than their progressive counterparts. (Compare the Heritage Foundation, which raised $82 million in 2016, to the Center for American Progress, which brought in some $25 million that same year.) Free-market organizations churn out fact sheets and model legislation for freshman state lawmakers, and recruit undergrads into leadership pipelines that end in influential academic and government positions. A study released this past summer found that nearly half of current federal judges have attended a two-week, Koch brothers–funded boot camp on economics—and that their attendance had a measurable effect on their rulings.
This is why a crucial goal for the insurgent left has to be to change the terms of the national debate. Currently, groups like the Sunrise Movement and the DSA support candidates based on their commitment to a set of goals, but they don’t have in-house policy shops coming up with big new ideas or the research to back them. Existing organizations like the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for Economic and Policy Research produce valuable research and some useful proposals, as does a small network of nontraditional, heterodox economists scattered in institutions throughout the United States and elsewhere—but they aren’t focused on making change or swaying public opinion in the same tight (and perhaps mercenary) way as the right was in Reagan’s day. Many of the more established and better-funded bodies, like the Center for American Progress, also tend to track closer to the center than to the left—and so they may not be of much help to democratic socialists in figuring out how to govern.
There are a handful of scrappy left-leaning think tanks, such as Data for Progress and the People’s Policy Project, starting to dip their toes in the policy-making waters, publishing lengthy reports on proposals like the Green New Deal and large-scale public-housing development. Some of the people who helped set up Justice Democrats have started their own policy shop, New Consensus, though for now it remains comparatively bare-bones. But this is an area worth investing in heavily: With the left’s surging popularity—and plenty of people interested in moving in that direction—it’s not impossible to imagine a democratic-socialist agenda capable of meeting today’s crises as Reagan purported to meet those of the 1970s.
Critically, it wasn’t only a battle of ideas that fueled the neoliberal revolution. The right’s rise also followed its concerted attempt to break up unions and shift the balance of class power in the United States. “The deeper threat of organized labor went far beyond dollars and cents,” Kim Phillips-Fein writes in Invisible Hands, her history of the corporate attacks on unions from the New Deal to Reagan’s election. “If workers believed that they owed their benefits to the time they spent on the picket line, why would they respect the authority of the boss?”
That fact makes governing from the left in such a context—with a decimated labor movement and enemies who possess virtually unlimited resources—every bit as challenging as actually getting elected. The American judiciary, for example, has a long shelf life, so progressives lack the deep bench of appointees readily provided to the GOP by groups like the Federalist Society and AEI. (In contrast to the right’s shadowy personnel networks, Ocasio-Cortez’s team has posted job descriptions for DC and in-district positions on a view-only Google Doc.) And thanks to the success of economists like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek in spreading their gospel, the economics discipline has become an echo chamber for orthodox neoclassical ideas, with only a small minority of departments teaching alternative theories.
With the prospect of progressives and even socialists winning control of the federal government, the left needs its own Mandate for Leadership to unravel 40 years of neoliberal policy. The Green New Deal is a start. Still, creating something of that magnitude will likely mean investing not just in getting progressives elected, but in helping them govern once they’re in office. That means coming up with smart ways to find talented candidates, and expanding the roster of staffers, policy wonks, and judges who are able to articulate and deliver on a vision for a radically egalitarian society. Today, democratic socialism represents less an ironclad ideological commitment than an accurate way to describe a set of policy priorities: namely, that the government has a basic responsibility to provide the makings of a good life and a livable planet. When Vogue asked Ocasio-Cortez, shortly before her primary win, why she’d embraced democratic socialism, she replied, “There is no other force, there is no other party, there is no other real ideology out there right now that is asserting the minimum elements necessary to lead a dignified American life.”
Even so, the vision of democratic socialism being championed by these insurgent candidates is more than just a revivified New Deal. For one thing, they don’t exactly look back on the era of the original New Deal as America’s salad days—not when the millions disenfranchised by Jim Crow were also largely excluded from its programs. While drawing on the lessons from these reforms, they’re also beginning to articulate a vision that’s more aspirational than nostalgic, and that looks squarely at a future defined by rising tides and temperatures. Indeed, eliminating the use of fossil fuels within the period demanded by both Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal plan and the scientific consensus on global warming would require what the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has called “unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
“You have to sell the hope and the possibility,” says Corbin Trent, a staffer on Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign and the co-founder of Justice Democrats. “Anything that’s amazing that we’ve accomplished as a species sounded completely insane before it happened. You’ve got to sell it.”
In that regard, an American democratic socialism for 2018 will certainly not resemble the policies of the Soviet Union—any more than American democracy resembles that of ancient Athens. Nor can any 21st-century democratic socialism be driven by the kind of carbon-intensive industrial development that was at the core of both the state-socialist experiments of the past and the New Deal itself. “The Green New Deal that Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez are advocating is the future of the Democratic Party,” says Sean McElwee, the co-founder of Data for Progress. “The next generations know that they are being fucked by the policies pursued by the current political system and demand aggressive action on climate change. It’s time for progressives to go to war with corporate polluters.”
Ultimately, for most Americans, democratic socialism will be defined by what its most public adherents—people like Sanders, Tlaib, and Ocasio-Cortez—are able to accomplish once they have the opportunity. At least in the short term, turning their ambitious bills into law will mean prying open the Overton window in policy debates to accommodate what might elsewhere be considered fairly basic social-democratic demands, such as removing health care from the private market and making it a right, or spending ample public money to take on existential threats like climate change. It will also mean beefing up the capacity to recruit and develop candidates and policy experts alike, ensuring that newly elected leftists have qualified staffers to hire and legislation to introduce at every level of government.
Patience matters, too—but only up to a point. For most of their careers, William Baroody and his comrades languished in relative obscurity on the fringes of policy-making. With just 12 years left to prevent a total climate catastrophe, time is a luxury that progressives simply don’t have.