These proposals are activist but humble. It’s not the federal government centrally deciding how to remake your community. It’s giving communities and people the resources to take responsibility and assume power for themselves.
As many conservatives have shifted leftward, so have progressives. From Bill Clinton through to Barack Obama, Democrats respected market forces but tried to use tax credits and regulations to steer them in more humane ways. Obamacare was an effort to expand and reform private health insurance markets.
That Democratic Party is ending. Today, Democrats are much more likely to want government to take direct control. This is the true importance of the Green New Deal, which is becoming the litmus test of progressive seriousness. I don’t know if it is socialism or not socialism – that’s a semantic game – but it would definitely represent the greatest centralisation of power in the hands of the Washington elite in our history.
The resolution is unabashed about this, celebrating and calling for more “federal government-led mobilisations”. Under the Green New Deal, the government would provide a job to any person who wanted one. The government would oversee the renovation of every building in America. The government would put sector after sector under partial or complete federal control: the energy sector, the transportation system, the farm economy, capital markets, the health care system.
The authors liken their plan to the New Deal, but the real parallel is to World War II. It is the state mobilising as many of society’s resources as possible to wage a war on global warming and other ills. The document is notably coy about how all this would be implemented. Exactly which agency would inspect and oversee the renovation of every building in America? Exactly which agency would hire every worker?
But the underlying faith of the Green New Deal is a faith in the guiding wisdom of the political elite. The authors of the Green New Deal assume that technocratic planners can master the movements of 328 million Americans and design a transportation system so that “air travel stops becoming necessary”. (This is from people who couldn’t even organise the successful release of their own background document.)
They assume that congressional leaders have the ability to direct what, in effect, would be gigantic energy firms and gigantic investment houses without giving sweetheart deals to vested interests, without getting corrupted by this newfound power, without letting the whole thing get swallowed up by incompetence. (This is a Congress that can’t pass a budget.)
If this were ever put into practice, there would have to be several new Pentagons built to house the hundreds of thousands of new social planners. The elite universities would have to be transformed into technocratic academies in which the children of the rich were trained so they could be dirigistes for the state.
The authors of this fantasy are right that we need to do something about global warming and inequality. But simple attempts to realign incentives, like the carbon tax, would be more effective and more realistic than government efforts to reorganise vast industries.
In an alienated America, efforts to decentralise power are more effective and realistic than efforts to concentrate it in the Washington elite. The great paradox of progressive populism is that it leads to elitism in its purist form.
The impulse to create a highly centralised superstate recurs throughout US history. There were people writing such grand master plans in the 1880s, the 1910s, the 1930s. They never work out. As Richard Weaver once put it, the problem with the next generation is that it hasn’t read the minutes of the last meeting.
David Brooks is a columnist on The New York Times
The New York Times