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Populism or socialism? The divided heart of the Green New Deal

Whether the Green New Deal is pursued in a state-centered or democratic-populist framework will make all the difference. We need the activation of citizen energies that animated the New Deal in Minnesota and across the nation.

photo of article author
Harry C. Boyte
Will the Green New Deal be a top-down mobilization led by the federal government or a bottom-up populist activation of the people? Whether the Green New Deal is pursued in a state-centered or democratic-populist framework will make all the difference.

On Feb. 7, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey introduced a 14-page resolution in Congress for a “Green New Deal.” It contains a hidden confusion between two different paradigms of politics. As currently advocated, the Green New Deal puts government at the center of the action. It is a state-centered politics that reflects the rapid growth of the Democratic Socialists of America following Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2016. Ocasio-Cortez has joined Sanders as a proponent of democratic socialism.

The congressional resolution for a Green New Deal reflects this top-down, government-centered focus. It argues that World War II and the New Deal were “Federal Government-led mobilizations.” It proposes “a new national, social, industrial and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal era.”

An alternative populist paradigm

But there is an alternative populist paradigm of politics hinted at by the invocation of the New Deal. Moreover, Minnesota’s strong populist traditions helped lead the way for the nation.

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The New Deal of the 1930s involved an enormous movement of the people. Government played more a catalytic than a directing role. In contrast, U.S. involvement in World War II was a centralized process in which citizens were “mobilized” with little scope for independent action.

New Deal government policy had centralizing elements such as the National Industrial and Recovery Act (NIRA), which suspended anti-trust laws and encouraged industry-wide planning. The New Deal passed legislation like the Wagner Act, which protected the right of workers to organize unions, and Social Security. Its policies also included measures that decentralized power and authority, like the Tennessee Valley Authority and Farm Security Administration, winning support from advocates of decentralization. The TVA is still at it, making headlines recently by defying President Trump and shutting down two aging coal plants.

The overall New Deal approach to policy was experimental and piecemeal, evolving through interactions with self-organized movements among workers, rural communities, ethnic and racial minorities and educators that were spreading across the country. In Minnesota, the Farmer-Labor Party grew out of rural farmers’ cooperatives, the Farm Holiday Movement, and strong labor organizing in the Twin Cities and on the Range. Such movements usually set the pace for legislative reform. For instance, as Eric Foner shows in “The Story of American Freedom,” “It was the Popular Front, not the mainstream Democratic party, that forthrightly sought to popularize the idea that the country’s strength lay in diversity and tolerance, a love of equality, and a rejection of ethnic prejudice and class privilege.”

Emphasized participation of the people

Government programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, and the National Youth Administration emphasized not only jobs and tangible public outcomes but the participation of the people in the public work of the New Deal. A trip to Lake Itasca, one of the first CCC sites in the nation, introduces the visitor to the pride and zeal of the “CCC boys,” who built much of Minnesota’s state park system.

The democratic populist qualities of the New Deal generated the conviction that average citizens helped to “make it,” as Lizabeth Cohen details in “Making a New Deal.” Attitudes toward government among the Chicago working class were transformed radically from the early 1920s, when people were deeply alienated from government, to the late 1930s, when huge majorities supported the New Deal.

Today, “populism” and “populist” are favorite epithets of journalist and scholars, who use them to mean demagogic political rhetoric that inflames mass hatred. I learned a different meaning of populism on a hot day in St. Augustine in 1964. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., for whom I was working, told me he identified with populism after I told him about a conversation with a group of Ku Klux Klansmen who had caught me outside the jail and accused me of being a “communist Yankee.”

My counter that I was a southern “populist,” which I defined as believing that poor whites like them should make common cause with blacks, helped me to escape a dire fate.

King, I learned, was expressing the view of populism he had gained from leaders and organizers like Bayard Rustin, Stanley Levinson, Ella Baker, and A Philip Randolph. All had been shaped in various ways by the democratic populist movements of the 1930s.

Public art examples

Examples of public art can illustrate. In 1997, the National Archives mounted an exhibit, “A New Deal for the Arts.” It featured government-employed artists in the 1930s New Deal, with art from different regions, different genres, and different ideological persuasions. It was organized by topics that captured something of the public mission of the New Deal — “Rediscovering America,” “Celebrating ‘the People,’” and “Work Pays America.” The recurring theme was “the strength and dignity of common men and women, even as they faced difficult circumstances.” Government agencies and workers appear in the art — but as resources of popular action, not as the center of the political universe.

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University of Minnesota historian Lary May has shown the shift from the New Deal focus on the people in the arts and movies to a state-centered, top-down politics in his book, “The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way.” “Instead of finding their roots in the local community or an autonomous civic sphere, wartime heroes gave their loyalty to large ‘savior institutions’ linked to the state or the defense industries,” May writes. The result was a huge cultural shift. “Wartime movies emphasized monolithic visual perceptions and censors eliminated images that subverted state and business leaders … [reversing] the basis of cultural authority from the bottom to the top of society.”

The American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s put “the strength and dignity of common men and women” again at the center of public attention. It sparked more than a decade of democratic movements.

But government-centered politics has returned with a vengeance.

Demonizing ‘others’

Today’s social media and other technologies accelerate government-centered, polarizing politics by demonizing “others.” Many groups in today’s environmental movement use such polarizing methods, but others, like the Citizens Climate Lobby, Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light, and the National Wildlife Federation, create foundations for democratic populist politics. The scholar Hahrie Han describes the difference between organizing, which generates democratic politics, and mass mobilizing in “How Organizations Develop Activists.” Organizing builds civic muscle by teaching relational, cross-partisan skills. It generates democratic power that we need for wide-ranging changes.

As Bruce Porter puts it in “War and the Rise of the State,”  “a government at war is a juggernaut of centralization determined to crush any internal opposition that impedes the mobilization of military vital resources.” Warlike mobilization would only deepen divisions and generate policy gridlock.

We need, instead, the activation of citizen energies that animated the New Deal in Minnesota and across the nation.

Harry C. Boyte, a senior scholar in public work philosophy at Augsburg University, worked for Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement. He is the author of “Awakening Democracy Through Public Work.”


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