By 2016 I’d begun to wonder whether my country was magnetically attracted to doomsday. Popular culture favored dystopias. A leading TV series about politics was beyond cynical. The presidential race had come down to the candidate of change, distasteful and negative, and the candidate of timid incrementalism, who wanted us to join her in believing that the U.S. was doing fine as is. Where was the bold vision of a better world?
Even progressive social movements had become vision-averse. It’s not that activists were no longer innovative or weren’t developing exciting alternatives on a grassroots level. It’s just that, when it came to the big picture, the power of imagination went missing.
Then in August 2016, the Movement for Black Lives broke through with its agenda and specific policy demands for Black power, freedom, and justice. Dozens of organizations began to sign on, even though the platform’s breadth and boldness meant that the signers wouldn’t necessarily agree with every sentence.
A vision, after all, is not a blueprint. The blueprints come later, after wide discussion.
In the same year, pioneering spirits in the Northwest generated Solutionary Rail, envisioning a massive, solar-based reinvention of industrial transportation across the northern tier of the country that would put new economic life into a rural America that had concluded, correctly, that the Democrats had abandoned them.
Big visions of better futures continued in 2017. PopularResistance.Org convened a gathering that wrote “The People’s Agenda” (“the people should set the agenda not the oligarchy”). Naomi Klein published No Is Not Enough, in which she told the story of progressive Canadians’ vision, “The Leap Manifesto.” The Canadians consciously chose not to frame their work as “steps toward a just Canada,” since what’s actually needed there is a leap. (And in the U.S., a broad jump!)
In early 2018 a grassroots group of Vermonters, on reading about the Nordic countries’ success in turning their countries around, realized that collective vision was a critical ingredient. The group called for a statewide “Vermont Vision Summit,” and a hundred people came together from all parts of Vermont. They decided to tackle the vision task on a state level, building their research-and-imagination muscles for the future as they figure out what Vermont’s leap forward will look like.
The Green New Deal
It’s not surprising that the boldness of the Green New Deal is associated with a very bold new member of the House, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, self-identifying as a Democratic Socialist. Ocasio-Cortez’s dramatic entrance into national politics along with grassroots support from the Sunrise Movement gave strong legs to the Green New Deal even though the concept had been floated earlier by Bernie Sanders, and even before that had been urged by the U.S. Green Party.
Here’s the vision: a nation of 100 percent clean energy, a just transition to a more democratic economy, and massive public sector investments. Much as green jobs are needed, the vision goes further to include a web of economic policies, such as free higher education, that make possible the huge changes needed to make our country both sustainable and fair.
This combination, broad and inclusive, sets it apart from the ineffective strategy of single-issue environmentalists who keep expecting that fear of climate change is going to force an end to fossil fuel emissions. Fortunately, there is an alternative. Just as holistic health has taught us the value of a bigger view of human well-being, so also a big-picture strategy for our very complex society can energize us.
The very phrase “Green New Deal” evokes the 1930s and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, when mass nonviolent campaigns so besieged the economic elite and disrupted the political order that those in power were forced to grant major, progressive changes. After the 1920s eclipse of trade unions, labor grew mighty in the 1930s. Other movements created alliances at the grassroots level, and cooperative ventures multiplied. The New Deal resulted from a movement of movements. Pressing environmental problems were addressed in a context where equity was also addressed. No one movement became the most important one.
In fits and starts, the United States strengthened its democracy even though we were highly polarized in the 1930s. Surprisingly, a by-product of polarization, then and now, is that incrementalists lose popular favor; attention goes increasingly to the visionaries, whose visions take large leaps that appeal to common sense.
How to give a vision “legs”
Along with the growing realization of the importance of vision and building movements of movements, more people are taking seriously the technology of nonviolent direct action campaigning.
A Washington state ballot initiative last year combined a carbon tax with a Green New Deal-style program of investments. The initiative was intolerable to the corporate elite, who defeated it with $30 million of oil money. The lesson applies to the whole country: Expect fierce opposition to major change and be ready to go beyond the constraints of electoral politics.
Ocasio-Cortez and the young generation behind the Sunrise Movement understand that economic power needs to be met by people power.
When congressional supporters of the Green New Deal proposed a committee to explore it and House leadership blocked it, Sunrise activists started a sit-in at Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office. Ocasio-Cortez joined the sit-in.
It worked. Well, sort of. The sit-in won a “Select Committee on the Climate Crisis” in the House, with little power. Michael Grunwald reports in Politico that the Green New Deal concept nevertheless commands attention among Democratic office holders. After all, a December poll showed even a majority of grassroots Republicans like the idea. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found 81 percent of all registered voters support the Green New Deal. Among Democrats, 92 percent, and among Republicans, 64 percent.
Without bad-mouthing the concept, most Democratic politicians are now rushing to find ways to whittle the proposal down to something that won’t upset the status quo. That would, of course, prevent it from meeting the needs of either climate or justice.
The Democrats hope to win control of the Senate and White House in 2020. We can guess what will happen to the Green New Deal: a repeat of what happened under President Barack Obama to America’s long-deferred hunger for universal health care. By the time the sausage-making was done for the draft of the Affordable Care Act, even Obama’s strong push for a public option had been rejected by Democratic leaders.
If politicians are allowed to do business as usual, there’s no reason to believe that the Green New Deal as envisioned by the Sunrise Movement will be passed by even a Democrat-controlled White House and Congress. Sunrise spokesperson Stephen O’Hanlon says the movement understands that the Green New Deal depends on a major groundswell of pressure through action at the grassroots.
That’s where nonviolent direct action campaigning comes in. Study groups and training workshops are now spontaneously forming around the country that explore this type of campaigning to overcome roadblocks erected by those in power invested in preserving the status quo. Both new and veteran activists are studying the lessons from successful campaigns stretching back a century—especially the those that apply to this political moment of polarization and rising turbulence and violence.
The 1965 uprising in Selma, Alabama, holds one such lesson. It shows what is possible when grassroots action confronts a political class that doesn’t want to budge. When President Lyndon Johnson, arguably the most powerful individual in the world, ordered the civil rights movement to stop its next action, he encountered a still greater power—the mobilized will of the people. Johnson was forced to act for racial justice. That is what democracy looks like.
In mobilizing today, we are fortunate to have the civil rights and other movements’ experience to draw on. We also seem to be regaining the human capacity to create bold visions that inspire us and turn our values of fairness and a healthy future for planet into practical programs to fight for. We may decide that dystopias are not nearly as interesting.
George Lakey is a retired professor at Swarthmore College and a longtime activist, sociologist, and writer. His books include How We Win: A Guide for Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning and Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got It Right and How We Can, Too.