Here’s What Happened to the Last Green New Deal

tags: Green New Deal

Michael Brenes is the senior archivist for American diplomacy and lecturer in global affairs at Yale University. He is currently finishing a book on Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey.

Ever since Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made a “Green New Deal” a cornerstone of her legislative agenda earlier this month, liberals have been buzzing about its transformative potential to fight climate change. Some even view the comprehensive package of federal planning and jobs programs designed to tackle emissions, pollution and environmental decayas a progressive panacea: a strategy to rollback President Donald Trump’s climate policies (or lack thereof), end economic inequality and win elections in 2020 and beyond. “This is going to be the New Deal, the Great Society, the Moonshot, the Civil Rights Movement of our generation,” Ocasio-Cortez said alongside Senator Bernie Sanders recently. Over the last month, a number of lawmakers, including presidential aspirants like Cory Booker, have been pressured by activists to endorse the program.

The Green New Deal, while ambitious, is smart politics. By branding proposals for carbon emission caps, infrastructure investments to adapt to the already changing climate, and federal job creation to satisfy those and other environmental objectives all as a Green New Deal, Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders and other proponents have made the unprecedented seem familiar, wedding the party’s successes of the 20th century to its future in the 21st. Indeed, they have aligned their agenda by name with a time when outsized aspirations for reform were commonplace in the Democratic Party.

Like so many of the left’s big policy ideas today—from a federal job guarantee to Medicare for All—the Green New Deal is not new. In fact, Democrats first attempted a jobs program focused on the environment in the early 1960s. It failed due to the same kinds of issues that plague Democrats now: intraparty rivalries, ideological divisions and deep-rooted corporate interests in the party. If today’s progressives seek to capture both public and congressional support for environmental reform, they should heed this history.

The initial effort to realize what’s now stylized as a Green New Deal was proposed in the early 1960s by the Democratic senator from South Dakota and future presidential candidate George McGovern. McGovern was first elected to the Senate in 1962 with grand designs to remake America’s role at home and abroad. Captivated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning of the “military-industrial complex” in 1961, McGovern argued that the nation’s federal defense budget was akin to a New Deal program run amok. He described the Pentagon as a “gigantic WPA” that spent exorbitant government funds on a needless arms race and distracted Americans from domestic concerns, among them, the environment.

In 1964, McGovern sponsored legislation for the creation of a National Economic Conversion Commission (NECC) to transfer jobs in defense to peacetime work, for example, civil engineering and commercial manufacturing. On the surface, the NECC’s purpose was rather simple: to help unemployed defense workers find jobs. But McGovern’s ulterior motive for the commission was to reallocate military spending to fight environmental problems, to give defense workers “green jobs,” to use an anachronistic term. ...

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