Who Gets to Be Serious? 


In the months since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and activists with the millennial-driven Sunrise Movement began to push for the Green New Deal, an ambitious and holistic set of political programs to head off some of the more cataclysmic impacts of global climate change, the idea has gained enormous momentum. Bolstered in part by a recent United Nations report that revealed that there are only 12 years left to meaningfully accomplish the task, it’s clear that solving this issue is the most urgent challenge we face right now.

Most people seem to grasp this. When the plan’s goals—a sweeping proposal to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, transition to 100 percent renewable energy in 10 years, and guarantee jobs to every American—were described to voters, they received 81 percent support in a survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

But in a teaser for an upcoming 60 Minutes interview, Anderson Cooper asks Ocasio-Cortez about the Green New Deal in a tone that lands somewhere between incredulous and pitying. She describes its scope in broad terms, saying, “It’s going to require a lot of rapid change that we don’t even conceive as possible right now. What is the problem with trying to push our technological capacities to the furthest extent possible?” Cooper replies, as though she had just asked for a pony to carry her to the North Pole, “This would require, though, raising taxes.”

The juxtaposition here is acute. Ocasio-Cortez is trying to address an issue that will, if left unaddressed, cause mass death and turn the planet largely uninhabitable. Fighting against extinction isn’t the kind of thing you’d imagine needs to be deficit-neutral, but Cooper frames the proposal itself—not the consequences of ignoring the crisis ahead—as outside the bounds of political reality. He goes on to say that Ocasio-Cortez is describing a “radical agenda compared to the way politics is done now” and asks if she calls herself a radical.

It’s a well-worn portrait of a serious journalist, a familiar posture by now. When Bernie Sanders campaigned on Medicare-for-All in the 2016 primary—introducing a plan premised on the idea that healthcare is a basic human right—Vox’s Ezra Klein quickly jumped on it as “puppies-and-rainbows,” while Paul Krugman called it “smoke and mirrors.” We have seen the human toll of treating urgent medical intervention as a luxury good, but the idea of retooling our politics to actually sustain human life was nevertheless, and continues to be, framed as the truly preposterous thing.

Contrast this to how a politician like Paul Ryan was received when he arrived in Washington. Ryan, whose radical budget ideas would have completely dismantled the welfare state, was quickly hailed by liberals and conservatives alike as a man with serious ideas. Klein applauded Ryan in 2010 for being “willing to propose solutions in proportion to the problem.” In 2011, Ryan was awarded a “Fiscy” by policy groups for his so-called fiscally responsible plans to tackle the debt. The coverage of Ryan as serious wonk over his career has forced writers like Klein today to admit that they were conned. Ryan never, however, called the poor people he most intended to harm with his policies “motherfuckers.” Maybe that makes you a serious man.

But even now, deficit fearmongering has become such an entrenched Serious Idea that newly-empowered House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has decided to ram through a “pay as you go”—also called PAYGO—rule that requires new spending to be offset with budget cuts or tax increases, making it more difficult for progressives to pass their policies. As economist Stephanie Kelton has written, our adherence to the deficit is “almost Pavlovian.” Not all deficit-causing policies are equal. A tax cut that engineers even greater wealth concentration at the very top is not the same thing as, say, paying for universal healthcare. Instead, as Kelton argues, “we should be advancing legislation aimed at raising living standards and delivering the public investments in education, technology and infrastructure that are critical for long-term prosperity.”

In the meantime, while Pelosi called climate change “the existential threat of our time” in her first speech as House Speaker, House Democrats are still refusing to back the select committee that Green New Deal advocates want to set up. The threat of global catastrophe is serious. The idea of doing something equally serious about it, even for Democrats, is apparently not.

The widespread horror at the progressives of the congressional freshman class is responding to something significant, though: newly elected lawmakers like Ocasio-Cortez and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib aren’t operating within the bounds of “how things are done.” They also don’t seem afraid of that, either. They are proposing solutions in proportion to the problems at hand. What could be more serious?

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