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The Greening of the New Deal

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We are in a new era to which I do not belong,” ex-president Calvin Coolidge confided to a close friend on a cold December day in 1932 when the country and the world were already in the depths of the Great Depression. A few weeks later, he punctuated that melancholic thought by dying.

Coolidge was right. Within months of his death, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, known as FDR, would launch a “New Deal,” a wide-ranging set of programs to promote economic recovery that would recreate the American political universe. From that moment to this one, it has served as ground zero for the country’s political imagination, the Rosetta Stone for understanding every enduring political development of the last 75 years.

President Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal” (including proposals for universal health insurance and federal aid to education) and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” were conceived as elaborations and extensions of what the New Deal had wrought in the 1930s. “Neoliberalism” and the “new conservatism” were invented to undo what their creators considered its damage.

Today, the “Green New Deal”—a 10-year plan introduced by New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey to transition to 100 percent renewable energy, while embarking on major social reforms—marks the far horizon of the left-liberal imagination. For those opposed to it, the Green New Deal, like the original one, is already considered little but camouflage for a program to introduce socialism to America.

Like its predecessor, it arrives on the scene at a fateful moment. There is no way to exaggerate the gravity of the Great Depression in its time or the looming prospect of climate catastrophe in ours. The question is: Could the Green New Deal do what the first one did to stave off the worst—or even do more? In this case, facing the reality of a fast-heating planet in a country whose president is Donald J. Trump, looking back is a way of looking forward.

Truth and Consequences

Republicans and conservatives of every stripe defamed Democratic President Roosevelt’s New Deal from its inception, as has been true of the very idea of a Green New Deal in the age of Trump. Vitriol was then and is now focused on two supposedly fatal flaws in those plans. The New Deal was quickly denounced as a form of fiscal suicide, of reckless venturing into deficit spending sure to bankrupt the economy and so the country. Its promise of recovery from economic disaster was decried as at best a chimera, at worst as cynical political chicanery meant to win votes in the here and now while leaving future generations to deal with the consequences. As if that weren’t bad enough, such an ambitious program focused on enlarging the government’s presence and power would surely open a highway to communism.

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