Amid the unceasing awfulness of the Trump administration, I’ve lately found comfort in the Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek’s concept of “political time,” which has in turn informed my thinking about the almost utopian ambitions of the Green New Deal.
Surveying the American presidency, Skowronek sees politics unfolding in cycles. Every so often, insurgent coalitions bring an agenda-setting president to power who sweeps away the verities of the old regime, fundamentally restructuring our politics. These “reconstructive presidents,” as Skowronek refers to them, create the political framework that their successors of both parties must operate within.
In time, however, insurgencies calcify into enervated establishments. They become dependent on what Skowronek, in his book “Presidential Leadership in Political Time,” called “sectarian interests with myopic demands.” As the regime’s “political energies dissipate,” he wrote, it becomes an obstacle to addressing the country’s most urgent challenges.
In the resulting atmosphere of crisis and upheaval, a new coalition can bring a new reconstructive president to power. When that happens, Skowronek wrote, governing priorities are “durably recast,” and a “corresponding set of legitimating ideas becomes the new common sense.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a reconstructive president. So was Ronald Reagan. The assumptions of New Deal liberalism governed American politics from 1932 to 1980. The assumptions of the conservative movement have dominated thereafter, though perhaps not for much longer.
Viewed through this schema, Donald Trump’s presidency looks more like the end of a cycle than the end of the Republic. Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign and the early months of the Trump administration, the constitutional law professors Jack Balkin and Sanford Levinson exchanged letters arguing about the durability of our system; the letters will be published this spring as a book, “Democracy and Dysfunction.” Balkin is the more sanguine of the two, in part because he sees Trump fitting into Skowronek’s model.
Trump’s presidency, wrote Balkin, could be what Skowronek called “disjunctive,” meaning one “in which a president allied with an aging political regime promises to restore its dominance and former greatness, is unable to keep all of the elements of his coalition together, and as a result presides over the regime’s dissolution.”
If this analysis is correct, intrepid activists have a chance to decide what comes next. “In the next few election cycles, a new regime will begin, offering the possibility of a new beginning in American politics,” wrote Balkin.
The young progressives pushing the Green New Deal have a similar sense of historic opportunity. Waleed Shahid, communications director for the Justice Democrats — the group that recruited Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to run for Congress — frames the Green New Deal as an overarching vision for political renewal.
“This is not just an environmental sustainability policy,” Shahid told me. “It’s also about rewriting and expanding the social contract that began under the New Deal, was expanded under the civil rights movement and then was completely torn apart over the past 50 years.”
A rapidly congealing conventional wisdom holds that the Green New Deal is likely to be electoral kryptonite for Democrats. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, clearly thinks the proposal is politically toxic, which is why he plans to have senators vote on it.
Maybe McConnell is right. I’ve lived through enough right-wing backlashes to worry about left-wing overreach. But it seems at least possible that, at this moment of social breakdown and planetary emergency, the calculus of what’s politically feasible could be changing. The electorate certainly is; within the next decade, millennials, the most diverse and perhaps most progressive generation in history, will be the single largest voting bloc.
If we are in fact on the cusp of a new political epoch, then a sweeping, idealistic plan for social transformation is not a wild fantasy but a practical necessity.
This is not to say there’s nothing to dispute in the Green New Deal resolution introduced in Congress last week. Ocasio-Cortez’s staff certainly made a mistake by releasing a flip document about the resolution saying that it will be impossible to “fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes” in 10 years, giving Republicans an opening to claim that Democrats want to ban hamburgers and air travel.
Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith makes a convincing case for a version of a Green New Deal that emphasizes funding for the development and export of green technologies and includes a carbon tax and carbon tariffs. The United States, after all, is responsible for only about 14 percent of current global greenhouse gas emissions; in a hypothetical future where America became a leader on climate, it would probably have to use economic incentives to convince other countries to change their behavior.
Still, the fact that more centrist thinkers are now coming up with their own takes on the Green New Deal is testament to the idea’s conceptual power. If there’s a mainstream debate about how best to completely reorient the economy around environmental sustainability, then the proponents of the Green New Deal are already winning.
Democrats who are dismissive of the Green New Deal, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, have written it off as a “dream.” But if America is going to start again after the nightmare of Trump, maybe dreaming big is what’s needed.
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