Turning The Green New Deal From Impossible To Inevitable

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Note: The article below describes how abolition of slavery which seemed impossible became inevitable and how the Green New Deal is positioned to do the same.

An important aspect of this not discussed in the article is the role of third parties in ending abolition and the role they are playing in the Green New Deal and other issues today.

In the 1830s the abolition movement, which as old as the founding of the United States, began to enter electoral politics. A series of third parties were formed calling for abolition that gathered political strength and represented the abolition movement in the electoral process. This culminated with the election of the most successful third-party president in US history, Abraham Lincoln, who won a four-way race and ended slavery.

Since the abolition era, no party has wanted to be the Whigs, so they have absorbed movements and issues, especially the Democrats. Aong the issues developed outside of the Democratic Party, usually in opposition to the party until the issue became popular included union rights, women’s right to vote, ending alcohol prohibition, the 8 hour work day, the entire New Deal (which came from the Progressive and Socialist Party), civil rights, and enironmental issues.

Currently the Democrats two marquee issues in the 2020 elections came from the Greens — Medicare for all and the Green New Deal.  The Green New Deal began to be developed a decade by the Global Greens and the first candidate to run on a full-fledged Green New Deal was Howie Hawkins in New York. Jill Stein ran on the issue in both her presidential campaigns as have many Green Party candidates throughout the country. See New Republic Gives Green Party Credit for the Green New Deal.  It has now been introduced by Democrats, in a weakened form, and continues to be pushed by people’s movements and the Green Party.

This week, Hawkins has told the media he is setting up an exploratory committee to seek the Green Party presidential nomination.  See Hawkins Announces He Is Building An Exploratory Committee. He looks forward to differentiating the Green New Deal of the Green Party with the weaker version the Democrats are considering. With regard to single payer healthcare, improved Medicare for all, this was an issue put on the electoral agenda by Greens in the 2000 campaign of Ralph Nader and has been part of the Green Party platform since it became a national party in 2000.

Of course, the Green Party represents the movement in electoral politics so, it is the combination of popular movements and third party politics. This has been the role of third parties since the abolition of slavery. KZ

If you are sneering at advocates of the Green New Deal as impractical dreamers, misguided fanatics or headline seeking demagogues here is a lesson from our nation’s past that should make you think again. Not only are these agitators deadly serious, but they have substantial historical precedent to back them up.

Their demand that we abruptly abolish our carbon-driven economy in the space of a single decade and redesign it around renewable energy sounds wildly impractical on first blush. But a critical examination of our nation’s past strongly suggests that they have it within their reach to dramatically alter the way we choose to live as the likelihood of environmental catastrophe grows ever larger.

The history lesson that backs this bold assertion comes from the early 1830s when an unruly handful of people very much like the Green New Dealers, the fearlessly iconoclastic abolitionists, suddenly issued an extraordinary challenge to the political status quo. They demanded that the three or so million African Americans living in the South be permanently liberated not sooner or later, but this instant. Their slogan was “Immediate Emancipation.” Not a dime should go in compensation to their former owners, whose collective investment in their “chattel property’ amounted to the economy’s second largest capital asset. Only the aggregate value of the nation’s total holdings in real estate exceeded the value of their investments in the enslaved. No matter insisted these abolitionists.  The moral imperative to liberate the grievously oppressed far overbalanced any selfish concerns about profit and loss.

The mission the abolitionists set for themselves was to persuade their fellow citizens to embrace this truth and act on it. They called this technique “moral suasion.” Most of their fellow citizens initially dismissed them as being hallucinatory but their three decades of ceaseless agitation ultimately persuaded many to take some their own stands against slavery.  Scholars today hold them in high regard as powerful advocates for racial equality and resourceful defenders of human rights.

Let us now whisk ourselves back into the present where awaiting us are the aforementioned Green New Dealers, every bit as much the unruly iconoclasts as those old-time abolitionists. Like the abolitionists they demand profoundly drastic changes that are, it seems, patently impossible: “convert 100% of the power demand in the United States” to “clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources.” Upgrade “all existing buildings” to meet existing energy efficient requirements.” Expand high-speed rail everywhere so as to eliminate air travel. All within the next ten years.

The moral obligation to prevent the catastrophe of unchecked global warming, they argue, overwhelms all concerns about economic consequences. The task these Green New Dealers set for themselves is to mobilize voters all over the country to demand enactment of their unprecedented legislative agenda. How? By appealing to them to open and change their minds. Their tactic is “moral suasion,” much like the abolitionists and so is the terrifying moral urgency of their cause.

So to summarize: Back in the day, the abolitionists demanded the overthrow of “King Cotton” by liberating its labor force. Today Green New Dealers seek to overthrow “King Carbon” by transforming our energy resources, a goal at least as disruptive as was immediate slave emancipation. For precisely this reason, it is impossible to decide which group of insurgents faces(ed) the more powerful opponents.

Staring down the abolitionists was the South’s all-powerful planter class, the wealthiest, most self-aware, best organized and most politically potent interest group in all of pre- Civil War America (five of our first seven Presidents were notable slaveholders). For the Green New Dealers, the equivalent is the formidable network of agencies and agents that promote, protect and consume “big energy.” To imagine the enormity of it all think at once about the Koch Brothers, Exxon Mobil and the fact that the United States is the largest oil consuming nation in the world (18.9 million barrels per day). King Cotton then, King Carbon now, each fully arrayed against their most extreme ideological adversaries. Giving their full support to both juggernauts, most tellingly, was /is the heavyweight of public opinion.

During the 1830s the abolitionists’ opening campaign for immediate emancipation forcibly confirmed this brutal truth. Since the overwhelming majority of white Americans had convinced themselves long ago that black skin confirmed innate inferiority,the prospect of three million emancipated African Americans “let loose”in civil society drove them to extreme actions. They broke up the abolitionists’ meetings, attacked free black communities, intimidated abolitionist newspaper editors and voted en masse for politicians who supported legislation to suppress the abolitionists’ freedom of expression. When the riots subsided, most white Northerners continued to express hostility to abolitionism with sullen apathy. Below the Mason Dixon line, any suspicion of abolitionist activity prompted brutal retribution.

Compared to the abolitionists, the prospects for success for Green New Dealers seem at this moment just as unpromising.  Despite ongoing protests and lawsuits, oil and gas pipelines proliferate alongside rapidly multiplying fracking operations and drilling leases. Drivers spurn high mileage small sedans for Ford F150s, SUV Cross-Overs, and Cadillac Escalades. Delta Airlines and enforceable air quality standards occupy alternate universes. Federal subsidies supporting solar technology are dwindling fast…and so forth. Overwhelmed by the enormity of the environmental crisis, many Americans simply despair. And the brute fact is that any hint of separating workaday Americans from their internal combustion transport would surely incite in-the-streets rebellion. Who faces/ faced the more daunting prospects, abolitionists or Green New Dealers? It’s a toss-up.

So how can one claim that the Green New Dealers actually have history on their side? To understand why this is so, let us consider further the history of those old-time abolitionists. What do we learn when evaluating their war against slavery that foretells an empowered future for the Green New Dealers?

We learn, above all, that for all their deep moral insight, the abolitionists demand for immediate emancipation was all aspiration, no plan. It contained not a shred of down-to-earth politically engaged public policy. The problem of slavery was so all-encompassing that abolitionists found it impossible to undermine incrementally. The only options left to them were condemning, prophesying and resisting. As a result, during three long decades of struggling to change people’s minds, abolitionists watched helplessly while slaveholders doubled their portion of the national domain. Profits wrung from enslaved labor doubled then doubled again. The enslaved population shot up by 25% from three to four million. In response to “moral suasion,” slavery waxed fat, white supremacy endured.

Under these conditions, as historians Eric Foner, James Huston, and James Oakes have all emphasized, slavery’s path to extinction was plotted not by the abolitionists, but by mobilized northern voters whose militant response to the continued expansion of slavery was to demand the construction of an “antislavery bulwark” to stop the plantation owners’ march westward and a new Republican party pledged to maintain such a barrier. Theirs was a forceful expression of “Not in my back yard,” not a bold initiative to unshackle King Cotton’s labor force.  Employing “moral suasion” in the hope of changing minds and moral outlooks in favor of African Americans had utterly failed. The highest aspiration of all—racial equality—moved away ever further as the abolitionists clung to the margins of the politics leading to the Civil War.

Attentive Green New Dealers reading this essay know already why this plunge into abolitionism’s history offers them such powerful reassurance. They’ve managed this feat by mapping the stark differences they discern between their movement and that of the abolitionists, not the similarities highlighted thus far. Each of these contrasts identifies one of the Green New Dealers significant strengths by setting it against a principal characteristic of the abolitionists. It’s a straightforward exercise and it makes it perfectly clear that history, applied comparatively, is on the side of the Green New Dealers.

Abolitionists; Vaulting Aspirations, No Policies/ The Green New Dealers: Vaulting Aspirations Backed With Specific Policies

Abolitionists: Highest Premium is Equalizing Races/ The Green New Dealers: Highest Premium is Securing Peoples’ Future Irrespective of Race

Abolitionists:  Marginalized Politically /Green New Dealers: Ever More Highly Organized Politically

Abolitionists: Strenuous Moralists /Green New Dealers: Strenuous Moralists and Strenuous Advocates of Empirical Science

Abolitionists: Driven By Abstract Beliefs, Not By Pressing Deadlines /Green New Dealers: Driven Entirely By Scientifically Predicted Disaster Dates…. and so forth.

In the end, as both this essay and this specific listing demonstrate, the New Green Deal exhibits all vital strengths of the abolitionists, one of our history’s most dynamic, disruptive, egalitarian and ethically grounded social movements. At the same time, it is burdened by none of abolitionism’s limitation even as it makes itself into a powerful hybrid mixture of a grassroots organization, political pressure group, guardian of the public good and legislative insurgency. In this particular historian’s best estimate, the Green New Dealers are the equivalent of the abolitionists reincarnated, but also so very much more than that and are poised to exert an enormous impact. “All things are ready, if our mind be so.” —― William Shakespeare, HenryV.

James Brewer Stewart is the James Wallace Professor of History, Emeritus at Macalester College. Stewart has written or edited thirteen books addressing the problem of slavery’s abolition and is the founder of Historians Against Slavery, an international network of scholars and activists that brings historical knowledge to bear on the problem of contemporary slavery.

  • mwildfire

    I think maybe the best part of this is Kevin’s note at the top. This dude is wearing heavily rose-tinted glasses. I can think of a couple of ways GND faces more serious obstacles than abolition. One is that politics is probably more corrupt now, the zeitgeist different as we coast down the downside of empire. That one is arguable. But the others are not: abolitionists wanted something that went against the interests of a significant segment of society, wealthy southerners. Non-wealthy southerners didn’t have a dog in the fight, could even have expected better wages with slavery abolished–but I think generally identified with the other white southerners and thus opposed abolition. Northerners might have feared an army of liberated blacks–but they often sympathized with blacks. How about the GND? It’s been a tactical choice to focus on oil companies (and to a lesser extent, gas and coal companies and utilities), but the reality is that everyone benefits in a hundred immediate ways from the status quo system. We might have a better life in ways that matter, with no fossil fuels–but that possible future life is not visible to most, whereas a suggestion that they drive smaller cars or not at all, stop using convenient plastic, turn down their thermostat, use heavy sweaters and pay for an insulation upgrade, buy less crap they don’t need, cook most or all of their food at home, eat less meat and processed food, etc., will quickly meet with stiff resistance, including from many huffily demanding action on climate. The closely related other problem is that the causes of climate change permeate our economy, our way of life. Abolishing slavery was a simple demand–it certainly changed the lifestyles of a segment of society but most were pretty much unaffected (and for every southerner forced to do his or her own housework and farm labor, there were several people now embarking on freedom). Abolishing greenhouse gas sources means drastic change in virtually everything we do from arising in the morning to going to bed at night.It will not be popular if we adopt policies that actually, rapidly cut emissions, despite the real upsides (new jobs, cleaner air, a slowing of extinctions). Most of the gains are a bit subtler–things like strengthened community when commuting becomes largely a thing of the past, increased cheerfulness and hope especially in the young, a renewed sense of purpose. Perhaps we could have more awareness of these things and thus more enthusiasm for the changes and sacrifices, if we had a well-made PR campaign on its behalf–instead of the relentless advertising now driving us in the other direction.