Will Americans Support a Big Green Government?

What will it take to restore the popular faith in government that a green transition requires?

Yes, the bulk of the new jobs and opportunities will be in the private sector, and much of the work will be done through states and localities. But getting even close to where scientists say we need to be over the next three decades will require a vastly expanded federal workforce of scientists, engineers, managers, planners, technicians, and skilled bureaucrats armed with ample budgets and the authority to regulate more of our lives.

We do not lack either talent or precedents. FDR’s New Deal, JFK’s man on the moon, LBJ’s War on Poverty inspired large numbers of Americans to enter government service. Today, we have an ample pool of educated, energetic people discontent with their prospects in a marketplace culture where the wealth and opportunities are hogged by fewer and fewer people at the top.

But they will need strong public support through a long, politically painful process of trial and error. And unfortunately, decades of relentless corporate-financed propaganda aimed at delegitimating the very idea of government has left us with a civilian public sector that is diminished, demoralized, and discredited.

Trust in government is at an all-time low. In April, a Pew poll reported that only 17 percent of Americans trust the federal government to do the right thing all or most of the time, just slightly less than the 19 percent toward the end of Barack Obama’s presidency. When John Kennedy proposed the much less politically difficult eight-year project for a lunar landing, trust in government was at about 75 percent. And it was even higher when Lyndon Johnson launched the Great Society.

Creating distrust in government was a bipartisan project, made politically fashionable by Ronald Reagan and further promoted by the Wall Street–infected Democrats who succeeded him. It was Bill Clinton who pronounced the original New Deal dead: “The era of big government is over.”

Chart Data source: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication; Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University

It wasn’t over, of course. It was hidden behind a smoke screen of outsourcing to private profit-making contractors—further attenuating the connection between the taxes people pay and the services they get. A Cornell University study in 2012—the midst of Democrat Barack Obama’s presidency—found that 40 percent of Americans on Medicare, 53 percent of those with student loans, and 25 percent receiving food stamps believed that they did not receive any government benefits.

Democrats’ eyes roll as they mock the man who famously shouted at his Democratic senator, “Keep your government’s hands off my Medicare.” Typically left out of the story is that the senator responded that he certainly would.

Most Americans recognize that global warming is a problem. But despite the roughly 40 years of scientific research grown to a virtual consensus, forecasts of catastrophic change that will wreck their own lives strike some skeptics as just that—forecasts by experts who cannot predict tomorrow’s weather with 100 percent accuracy. Those old enough might also remember the near-consensus of 1970s experts that the world was running out of oil.

For most of us, who cannot by ourselves evaluate the science, it is a matter of weighing probabilities. So far, given the natural inclination of humans to discount the future, asking Americans who live paycheck to paycheck to make major changes in their lives today in order to reduce the risk that the Maldives or even Miami Beach will be underwater by 2050 has not been an easy sell.

A majority say they are willing to see their taxes raised by a dollar or two—but not much more. Indeed, the Green New Deal itself is in part a way of getting around the resistance to high carbon taxes by promising that public investments and regulation can do better with less apparent costs to voters’ pocketbooks.

“You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose,” famously said the late Mario Cuomo. The campaign for the Green New Deal correctly understands that it needs both: the stark prose of doomsday science and the poetic vision of building a better world.

Government’s leadership in molding the future is firmly in our democracy’s 200-year economic-development tradition, which includes visionary infrastructure projects, subsidies for critical technologies, and land grants to settle the West.

More recently, before Reagan pushed his party down the right-wing rathole, Republican Dwight Eisenhower launched big long-term investments in higher education, low-income housing, and transportation, and promoted a National Goals Commission. The Environmental Protection Agency was established and the Clean Air Act made law under Republican Richard Nixon. In the late 1970s, coalitions from business, labor, and the Congress proposed industrial policies to arrest the slide in America’s international competitiveness—a forerunner of the Green New Deal’s call for making the U.S. a leader in alternative-fuel technologies.

The Ocasio-Cortez/Markey Green New Deal resolution calls for a “national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II.” But the Green New Deal is an even tougher test of our democracy’s capacity for collective action. Like all wars, World War II required the blood sacrifice of those who fought. But for most Americans, who had been mired in ten years of economic depression, the war brought prosperity. Nor did FDR’s case for the New Deal ask the people to accept less of the American dream of material abundance. He promised more.

Creating distrust in government was a bipartisan project, begun by Ronald Reagan and furthered by Wall Street Democrats like Bill Clinton, who declared, “The era of big government is over.”

When today’s voters ask where the Green New Deal will take them, the answer is not so clear. Some advocates assure them life would be pretty much the same but with more electric cars, solar panels, and windmills. Others insist that it will require a radical change in lifestyles and values—but what that means remains murky.

Naomi Klein, whose book On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal is a popular text for the movement, tells us we need a radical change in where we live, where we go, and what we eat. Not to worry, she assures us, this will require sacrifices only for shareholders of polluting corporations and “the wealthiest 10-20 percent of humanity.” She glosses over the reality that in a world of almost eight billion humans, the richest 20 percent certainly includes almost all Americans.

Green economists have credibly made the case that a sustainable-energy future could create new jobs and opportunities. But the typical voter will want to know: What is the plan for me when on Friday I lose my job that is directly or indirectly dependent on our current wasteful system? Will I have a better-paying green one on Monday?

WE ARE RACING TIME, so the Green New Deal needs to become operational fast. Speed is also necessary to establish credibility that democratic government and national planning can deliver.

It should therefore be front-loaded with easy-to-understand projects that deliver tangible benefits in the form of jobs and services, such as retrofitting homes, improving mass transit, and building smart energy grids. It should also end counterproductive costly programs, such as the federal insurance subsidies for people who keep rebuilding their homes in flood-prone coastal areas.

Investments in new technology take time to produce results, so they also have to be started early. And they have to be big enough to spread the risks and transparent enough to avoid charges of cronyism. Done properly, a Green New Deal can operate cumulatively to rebuild the trust in government on which it depends.

The good news is that the ideological space is opening. As economic stress has spread into the middle class, the Reagan/Clinton deification of the free market certainly has lost credibility, particularly among the young, who are no longer spooked by the word “socialism.” Large majorities favor government-guaranteed access to health care and more federal investment in education and infrastructure and regulation of guns. Moreover, according to a September Pew poll, 64 percent of Americans agree that distrust of government makes it harder to solve the country’s problems. And 84 percent think it’s possible to reverse it.

Like the original New Deal, the green one is primarily a project of the Democratic Party. So there is no way forward unless Democrats stop dancing around the need for big government for fear of being charged with being big spenders. The Republican claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility has been a sham since the Reagan years. The shameless tax giveaways by nominally conservative Republicans should finally embolden Democrats to pursue fiscal policies that strengthen the country and not the country club.

But the country is more than the Democratic base. Acceptance of a federal civilian government with increased power will not float on rhetorical crosscurrents of identity politics that divide rather than unite.

Certainly, social justice and equity needs to be built into the design of a post-carbon society. The poor and disadvantaged, who will be most affected by global warming, need special help. But they themselves may not be all that enthusiastic about transition—even if it is labeled as “just”—because they have less ability to sacrifice short-term financial security for long-term goals. Moreover, when the dominoes fall from the dismantling of carbon-contaminating industries (which go far beyond coal and oil), the number and types of people who feel unjustly treated will surely rise.

THREE YEARS INTO Donald Trump’s vile kleptocracy, this might seem like the worst of times to make the case for policies that depend on honest, capable government. On the other hand, the Trump scandals and outrages have helped create the conditions for much stronger campaign finance and conflict-of-interest laws, which are absolutely essential to rebuilding the credibility of the public sector. Moreover, the willingness of some medium-rank deep-state officials to risk blowing the whistle on Trump has demonstrated the value of smart, dedicated bureaucrats.

The Green New Deal will not make its public servants rich. So the rewards will come from the respect of the country for the job they do.

One of John Kennedy’s first goals as president was to make the government’s treatment of its workers a model for the private sector. In a famous episode, he publicly celebrated Frances Kelsey, a mid-level analyst with the Food and Drug Administration who resisted enormous pressure from the pharmaceutical industry to approve the drug Thalidomide, which turned out to cause deformed babies.

The typical voter will want to know: What is the plan for me when on Friday I lose my job that is dependent on our current system? Will I have a better-paying green one on Monday?

Still, however dedicated and smart a new generation of green public servants may be, the prospect that a major redirection of voters’ lives will be guided by the “experts” in Washington or Silicon Valley is unnerving. After all, “the best and the brightest” Kennedy brought into the government eventually gave us the Vietnam War. We should also remember that World War II—like all wars—brought with it the curtailment of civil liberties.

So as the debate over the Green New Deal widens, so will the question of whether we can mobilize for climate change without further undercutting our already fragile democracy—and even strengthen it. One answer might lie in returning to the models of democratic planning that were evolving until they were aborted by Reagan’s right-wing revolution.

The politics of the 1960s helped establish the right of ordinary citizens to participate in public decisions that were previously made behind closed doors. Later, the Nixon administration made many federal transfers to state and local government contingent upon long-term, locally approved plans.

The process took another step forward in the mid-1970s. In part inspired by the bicentennial of the American Revolution, citizens and officials all over the country held public dialogues over their collective future. Many produced specific plans—visions of what California or Maine or Atlanta could be like in the year 2000. Some addressed the questions of energy use and environmental sustainability; others, land use planning. Some, the more difficult questions of race and gender relations.

But all that stopped dead with the election of 1980. What was the point of a collective plan for the future in an era of radical individualism? As Reagan’s ideological partner Margaret Thatcher famously lectured the Anglo-American world: “There is no such thing as society.”

The conservative conceit is that progress cannot be made by government, only by individuals voluntarily cooperating in their own self-interest, which often turns out to create a vacuum filled by corporations. But as the Pew poll also reports, the decline in trust in government has been associated with a low level of individuals’ trust in each other. Underneath the distrust of democratic government is a distrust of democracy.

Eventually, climate change—bringing floods, fires, dislocated migrants, and the need for unprecedented global cooperation—will force more power into the hands of central government. If history is any guide, the dangers of authoritarianism are real. Polls over the last several years report that 25 to 30 percent of Americans say they would support a military coup. The persistent 35 to 40 percent who remain in Trump’s camp no matter what tells us that fascist sentiment is now closer to the surface of our politics than many of us had thought.

Like the Green New Deal, the restoration of our citizens’ faith in our democracy—and themselves as citizens—is a project full of unknowns. But it is essential. Designing ways for national climate change strategies to be informed by local priorities, rather than by a tussle between conservative corporate lobbyists and elite liberal experts, would be a start.

Assuring citizens that they will be dealt into planning for the goals of the Green New Deal may be the last chance to salvage both our planet and our democracy.

(This article was first published in "American Prospect)

Jeff Faux

Jeff Faux, Member of the Editorial Board of Insight, is the founder and former president of the Economic Policy Institute and the author of the new book "The Servant Economy: Where America's Elite is Sending the Middle Class".

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