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Is The ‘Green New Deal’ Smart Politics For Democrats?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): In early February, Democrats Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unveiled the “Green New Deal,” an ambitious 14-page manifesto that outlines a number of different proposals to tackle climate change.

It wants to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and create millions of jobs. It’s not just a plan to save the environment; it’s also an economic vision, focused on social justice. And depending on which side of the political aisle you sit, it’s either been touted as absurd or as a way forward.

Democratic 2020 contenders are busy taking positions on it –- even if they’re wary of it — so it’s safe to say it’ll keep cropping up, even if it’s as fodder for Republicans trying to paint Democrats as having moved too far to the left.

So is this bad politics for Democrats? Good politics? What do we make of the Green New Deal? And where do we think the conversation goes in 2020?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): The Green New Deal is neither green, nor new, nor a deal. Actually, I take that back. It’s certainly green and it’s certainly new, in the sense that it represents a pretty big pivot in strategy from what Democrats had been trying previously.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Well, we should also clarify that the plan doesn’t lay out policy specifics. So … people are kinda just taking stances on the ultimate goals it outlines.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): The video of school children confronting Sen. Dianne Feinstein about the Green New Deal, and the reaction to it, was super interesting. It showed how divided Democrats are on policy, but also how divided they are by ideology, age and tactics.

It reminded me of when speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, another longtime congressional Democrat, referred to the Green New Deal as the “green dream,” and also dismissed younger members of the party.

sarahf: Philip Bump at the Washington Post had an article about how younger Americans are more likely to view climate change as “very serious” problem compared to older generations, which might help explain why Sen. Feinsten, who has been in Congress for more than thirty years, didn’t see eye-to-eye with the students asking her to support the Green New Deal — some of what we’re seeing is a generation gap.

natesilver: Well, it’s young people who are going to have to live with the mess.

maggiekb (Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science writer): Although you can’t count on that to be a trend where the next generation just cares more forever. One researcher I talked to looked at whether age cohorts are a factor that determines support for environmental policies. He found that political ideology and economics mattered more — meaning if there’s a recession and people are feeling economically insecure, that can trump support for environmental policies.

perry: Interesting. I wonder if younger Democrats are more liberal overall, and we are capturing that effect on this issue but would see it on other issues as well.

natesilver: But maybe young people are more liberal in part because of climate change?

maggiekb: Ehhh, that’s not what the social research suggests, Nate. For instance, there’s a study from Australia that found support for climate change follows FROM your political identity and who you voted for. Not the other way around.

natesilver: It seems like the Green New Deal raises two major tactical questions:

1) Incrementalism vs. swinging for the fences.

2) Separating climate change from other issues vs. lumping them together.

sarahf: In regards to your first point, Nate … why not swing for the fences? I’m thinking of Maggie’s piece on the Green New Deal where she pointed out that an incremental approach hasn’t exactly gotten Democrats the environmental change they wanted.

perry: I don’t know, Sarah. Other political movements have happened incrementally and have experienced success. I’m thinking of the civil rights movement, and various health care programs (Medicare, Medicaid, and, of course, the Affordable Care Act). So I see merits in a more incremental approach.

It’s not clear, at least to me, that incrementalism has failed on this issue — maybe it’s just taking too long and there is not enough time.

maggiekb: Yeah, that’s the really big question, Perry. Incrementalism can work. But can it work fast enough?

natesilver: And obviously a lot of scientists feel that unless action is taken immediately, the problem is going to become exponentially worse. The U.S. has somewhat curbed its CO2 emissions, right?

maggiekb: Yes. But the biggest drops coincided with the recession and have tapered off since 2015.

sarahf: But what do we make of the intentional choice to package it as the “Green New Deal.” Was it smart of Democrats to explicitly evoke President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal? Or a bridge too far?

maggiekb: Is it namby-pamby waffling on my part to say that’s probably really going to depend on what you thought about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Democrats to begin with?

sarahf: Yes, Maggie 😉

clare.malone: It’s better than “socialism” if you’re looking to sell it to a wide swath of Americans.

perry: Making climate change part of a big comprehensive proposal helped me connect it to other issues. It isn’t just an environmental issue — it’s something that requires a “New Deal.” I thought connecting climate change to a broader policy agenda was smart.

clare.malone: In general, I think the Democratic Party calling back to the era of FDR isn’t too controversial. He’s sort of seen as generally “good” through the mists of history.

maggiekb: I was surprised to talk to an environmental scientist and some science policy people who thought the branding WAS an overreach. I had expected them to be more on the “YEAH LET’S GET THIS DONE HOO-AH” side of things. And, instead, they were criticizing it for trying to tie itself to issues that had lot stronger levels of unified public opinion.

perry: The way Pelosi and Feinstein have reacted is significant. They seem to think this broader packaging is bad — and they are not against climate change legislation.

natesilver: Swinging for the fences is good, in large part because that’s maybe just what this particular issue necessitates. But I’m much more uncertain about whether linking it to a broader leftist economic policy is good politics.

sarahf: I guess I thought it was a weird branding choice for Democrats to evoke the New Deal, because it opens them up to criticism from the right. I’d argue Republicans blame FDR for creating much of America’s current social safety net, but then again, maybe I’m conflating too much with Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society policies.

natesilver: For years, one of the Republican critiques of efforts to ameliorate climate change was that it was just sort of a liberal excuse to implement left-wing economic policies. Now, you have a framework that explicitly ties those things together. So it’s a big shift. And maybe it’s smart — you can make some arguments for it, certainly. But it’s a big shift.

maggiekb: So here’s the thing, though. Given the way carbon emissions and fossil fuel use is embedded in everything we do, it might be pretty wishful thinking to imagine that you can keep the role of government and the exact business-as-usual business world the same while actually making big cuts to carbon emissions.

And this creates a political stalemate. Because telling conservatives that we have to gravitate to a political/economic system they oppose in order to address the full scope of the problem is a tough sell.

perry: But if you think that politics is fairly polarized, and Republicans will oppose a Democratic-backed climate policy no matter what (and that’s basically what I think), then liberal policy activists’ goal should be to make the issue more salient among Democrats. And so, what we have with the New Green Deal is a useful litmus test for environmental activists to apply to candidates. Asking whether a politician supports the Green New Deal serves as a proxy to basically asking, “How committed are you to fighting climate change?”

natesilver: But some versions of the Green New Deal implement, for instance, universal health care. Others don’t because the Green New Deal is really more of a sort of … framework or rubric or rhetorical device than a concrete set of policy positions, and indeed, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats have sometimes been a little shady when people have tried to pin them down on exactly what the Green New Deal would do.

sarahf: Regarding Perry’s point about it being a useful litmus test, I think that’s right. And maybe because the environment isn’t the most important issue to Democratic voters (Gallup found it ranked fifth among voters behind health care and wealth inequality before the 2018 midterms), it does actually make a certain amount of sense to broaden the scope of the Green New Deal so it just isn’t about the environment.

natesilver: Couldn’t you argue the opposite? That if the environment isn’t a high salience issue, the last thing you want to do is to bury it in with a bunch of other stuff?

Instead, you want to raise the profile of global warming relative to other issues, arguably.

maggiekb: I’m not convinced you could do that, Nate. I mean, humans are more motivated by immediate things affecting us than big picture risks in the far-off future. How do you convince people to raise the profile of global warming relative to, like, whether they’re going bankrupt from medical bills right now?

Here’s a question for the political side: To my understanding, the Green New Deal is pretty clearly written as (and meant as) a rallying cry, “This is what we care about. Let’s move the ‘Overton Window’ kind of stuff.” So why are people treating it like it is (or was meant to be) a detailed policy proposal? It feels like going to an auto show to see “Car of the Future” designs, and then being pissed that you’re not looking at a 2017 Taurus.

clare.malone: That’s an interesting question. And I think it has a lot to do with the presidential campaign. Democratic candidates want to be able to point out that they’re on board with the new left-leaning litmus tests without having to get pinned down by policies that might prove controversial. I think that’s a learned behavior from the 2016 campaign: people don’t vote on detailed policy proposals, they vote on the good feelings evoked by broad goals.

natesilver: I’m wary of drawing too many lessons from 2016, And I’d think the architects of the Green New Deal might be, too.

clare.malone: Who, Nate, are the architects?

natesilver: The — I fucking hate this phrase — thought-leader types. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez certainly qualifies there. Sean McElwee.

clare.malone: Ok, and you’re saying they don’t think incrementalism works? Because of Obama’s legacy?

natesilver: I don’t think of most of those people as being anti-Obama. In fact, the relatively few anti-Obama Democrats seem to march in somewhat different circles. But I do think there’s an implicit critique of Obama in there. That he was naive to think the Republicans would go along with his agenda. And that taking half-measures doesn’t really get you anywhere. In fact, it might weaken your bargaining position relative to demanding a ***lot*** and then settling for half of what you get.

The thing that’s a little hard is that all of this is guesswork. My guess is that GND activists are right (politically) about the Overton Window stuff — wanting big, bold sweeping initiatives instead of incrementalism. But that they’re wrong (politically) about the strategy of lumping environmental policy along with a grab bag of other left-ish policy positions, instead of being more targeted. But I have no idea. It’s just my priors, and they’re fairly weak priors.

maggiekb: Do you see much of a political future for incrementalism, though? I mean, hypothetically, it can work. It’s worked on other issues. Realistically, we’ve seen a lot of attempts to do this that couldn’t pull bipartisan support necessary to get enacted, either. I mean, what is a candidate like Biden going to propose that COULD actually get through congress?

natesilver: I mean, it seems like we haven’t discussed the Most Important Thing yet.

The Most Important Thing is that *any* policies to curb greenhouse gas emissions are going to face huge challenges because the U.S. Senate dramatically inflates the power of rural states.

sarahf: This is a fair point, but I think some rural *coastal* states are more hip to climate change that we give them credit for:

clare.malone: All Democrats have to do is win the Senate then, right? That’s pretty easy.

perry: It will be worth studying at some point how much climate change policy you can do via the Senate’s reconciliation process, which only requires 51 votes. And this also ties into the progressive push to get 2020 candidates to support ending the filibuster.

natesilver: I actually think one of the better arguments for swinging for the fences in terms of the GND is that because the Senate is so resistant to change, you need some kind of paradigm shift.

A paradigm shift where even action that seems incremental is actually quite bold, just because the goalposts have shifted so much.

clare.malone: Do we think the paradigm shift comes through just political wangling/rhetoric like the GND? Or is something else needed too?

natesilver: I think the shift would just be a generational one. There’s a *lot* of evidence that people under about age 40 are willing to consider left-wing worldviews that a previous generation might have considered too radical.People under age 40 have also lived with two really unpopular Republican presidents, Bush and Trump (along with one semi-popular Democratic one). So I think there’s a decent chance that policy in the U.S. shifts significantly to the left as those young people grow older and gain influence and power.

sarahf: I don’t necessarily disagree, but I think part of what will limit the GND’s appeal is how easily you can dismiss it as a socialist overreach.You’re already seeing Republicans do this and I think that’s only going to be ramped up here leading into 2020

sarahf: It sounds as if, we’re on the fence for whether or not the GND will be good politics for Democrats?

natesilver: I’m not on the fence so much as I just have no f’ing clue. I guess the heuristic is “what we tried before didn’t work, so let’s try something new”, which I suppose on some level I agree with.

maggiekb: I second Nate’s take-away. With the addendum that I’m sort of skeptical incrementalism is going to do much better. So, what the hell?

natesilver: That’s an interesting argument, Maggie. Like, maybe the GND isn’t any more likely to succeed than incrementalism, but when it *does* succeed, there’s a much bigger payoff.

maggiekb: LEEROY JENKINS, basically.

natesilver: That even goes a little bit to whether you think climate change is a linear or nonlinear problem. If you think we’re all fucked unless there’s a massive paradigm shift, then you take whatever chance of a paradigm shift you can get, even if you also risk a backlash. If you think climate change harms are more adaptable and/or uncertain and/or solvable by technology and/or with international agreement, maybe you want a more incremental approach.

But I do think the particulars of climate change a problem are relevant here. The GND shouldn’t be taken as a stand-in for the overall debate about incrementalism vs. the big swing. You could very easily think that an incremental approach works for health care but is a disaster for the environment, for instance.

But then again, the fact that the GND lumps the environment together with so many other issues is complicated. Arguably it undermines the messaging that climate change is a *uniquely* urgent issue that requires uniquely bold solutions. Of course, the GND advocates might say that uniquely bold solutions necessitate a change from capitalism to a more mixed economy.

I’ve basically just typed out a whole American Chopper meme, so going to shut up now and revert back to “I have no fucking clue.”

maggiekb: When we’ve linked to Know Your Meme twice in 5 minutes, it’s time to go home.

From ABC News:

Dianne Feinstein and students debate Green New Deal

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.