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

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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.

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.

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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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by judy solmonson on 03/02/2019 - 09:40 am.

    As a 77 year old with a new and expanding interest in politics I am thankful for this article by Mr. Boyle. The differences of the New Deal and the Green Deal and the New Green Deal have been enlarged. I want a populist-led plan that is in touch with the general population. I look forward to learning more about these plans but don’t want to get caught up in some ‘package’ that sweeps us into another type of authoritarian rule.
    Thank you for your work Mr. Boyle.

  2. Submitted by Tom Crain on 03/02/2019 - 12:32 pm.

    Unfortunately it may be too late to count on a rising tide of ‘green populism’ as a catalyst for the drastic change necessary to deal with the problem of climate change. We’ve had a green populist movement for decades now and although much progress has been made, it is still too little (almost comically so) – at least in relation to the progress required.

    It seems the only realistic and effective option available now is to advocate a top-down approach that the author seems to reject. The obvious problem becomes how to politically implement such a state-centered approach. Unlike WWII or the moon-shot, the problem of drastic climate change offers no dramatic event – like Pearl Harbor or Russia’s sputnik – to focus the minds of those that can’t see past the next election cycle. Let’s face it, half this country needs a common enemy, an ‘other’ to really embrace the drastic change required and this problem does not offer a single dramatic event, but instead death by a thousand cuts, fires and floods.

    The problem I have with this congresses version of the GND is that its stated goals are too aggressive. It is important to have realistic goals in order to politically sell this. Once skeptics are brought on and progress is demonstrated the emissions goals can be made more aggressive.

    Also it needs to include a market-based approach via a carbon tax. The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2019 is a good start. This bill has bi-partisan political support and puts a price on carbon emissions at the source and returns the fee back to taxpayers as a dividend. Economists agree the best first step to reduce CO2 is to put a price on it.

  3. Submitted by Richard Adair on 03/02/2019 - 07:31 pm.

    You read my mind, Tom. Too late for an organic groundswell. We need to act as if Pearl Harbor had been bombed yesterday. We need a leader like FDR. But who?

  4. Submitted by Keith Luebke on 03/02/2019 - 08:23 pm.

    Community Action Programs grew out of the war on poverty. Historically (depending on funding levels), they play a role in weatherizing homes to reduce fossil fuel consumption, providing job training, and implementing other initiatives making them possible candidates for some of the funding that might spin out of a Green New Deal. Would you see that as a positive option for implementing Green New Deal programs? They are often the primary nonprofit addressing poverty issues in rural areas. Would you see their participation in Green New Deal programs as state-centered or potentially populist?

  5. Submitted by Sam Daley-Harris on 03/02/2019 - 08:33 pm.

    In his piece, “Populism or socialism? The divided heart of the Green New Deal,” Harry Boyte writes, “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…create foundations for democratic populist politics.”

    But how do we avoid joining the polarizers? Small armies of volunteers are taking a closer look at what it takes to return to civility in their communities and in Congress and implementing what they’ve learned.

    Citizens Climate Lobby began working for a carbon fee and dividend more than seven years ago, is seeing unpredictable progress reaching across the aisle with dozens of Republicans and Democrats joining a House Climate Solutions Caucus. But how? Tom Moyer, a volunteer who worked with former Republican Rep. Mia Love of Utah said, it’s impossible to convince anyone of anything if you fundamentally don’t like them.

    “If you walk in thinking they’re an idiot and evil, you’re done from the start, it doesn’t matter how logical your position is,” he said. “You have to put yourself in a place where you can find something to respect [in them].”

    Respect is a critical ingredient of bipartisanship. I led a “lobby day” training session for American Promise, a group focused on enacting a 28thAmendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, one cause of the growing flood of money in politics. I told trainees they needed to find something to thank their members of Congress for, even if it was on a totally different issue. “But you don’t know my member of Congress,” one participant complained. “There’s nothing they’ve done that I appreciate.”

    “That’s why this is a spiritual practice,” I replied. “Look deeper. You’ll find something.”
    Respect and appreciation sound anachronistic these days, but we see the futility in the alternative.

    Thank you to Boyte for pointing a way forward.

  6. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 03/02/2019 - 10:10 pm.

    As the globe continues to cool… this GND will go the way of the dodo. The GND would destroy the US economy and put countless millions in poverty that aren’t currently there. Whole sections of the nation would become places few, if any, could afford to live (upper midwest and northeast). The cost of electric heat alone would be beyond the means of all but the top few percent of income earners. The Agriculture industry would be decimated. Food would skyrocket in price and famines would hit other nations as we couldn’t export nearly as much as we do now.

    Those advocating for the GND haven’t run the math, haven’t looked at the facts, and haven’t remembered that the original New Deal didn’t fix anything , it just helped prolong the depression (massive govt spending will do that in an economic recession/depression).

    • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 03/03/2019 - 05:55 pm.

      Bob, can you please present evidence that the average global temperature is actually cooling? Also, can you also present evidence that the New Deal prolonged the Great Depression?

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/03/2019 - 06:26 pm.

    I have to say that I actually find Mr. Boyte’s article to be rather devoid of substance. He appears to be making a false distinction between past and present progressives.

    One of the biggest mistakes activist made in the post Vietnam War era was deciding that government and electoral politics are irrelevant. This egocentric mentality merely ceded political and economic power to American oligarchs for decades. For 45 years or so most political, social, environment, and equality movements collapsed into irrelevancy. Is THIS the “alternative” Mr. Boyte is recommending? If so, we know this is a failed model.

    Is AOC some kind of demigod trying to push Green New Deal down a reluctant nations throat? Or is she (and her fellow progressive politicians) trying to convert grass roots activism into real political power? I don’t see any demigod’s personally.

    Boyte’s description of the “New Deal” is kind of weird. The New Deal was a legislative regime of federal laws pushed through by the President of the United States and a US Congress controlled by the Democratic Party. Yes, it was a popular regime, but that popularity doesn’t reverse the direction from whence it came. Workers did not organize themselves into WPA teams who just built stuff all over the country. These programs were top-down government programs if ever there were top down programs. Such programs can be popular and effective… obviously.

    So Mr. Boyte says:

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

    Well, that’s EXACTLY what the Green New Deal is, and what congress people like AOC represent, is Boyte saying it’s something else?

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/03/2019 - 06:40 pm.

    Social media isn’t inherently “polarizing”, it can be used to promote division, intolerance, and hostility or it can be used to promote unity and tolerance.

    The Green New Deal is inherently unifying because it focuses on a an agenda that transcends divisive politics. If you see divisiveness in that… it’s not because someone ELSE is being divisive.

    I’ll say it again, I think the “polarization” narrative is simply and expression of centrist anxiety. American’s are not in fact “polarized”, we’re actually coalescing around a set of liberal policies and agendas. Those who complain about the polarization simply feel threatened for some reason by liberal agendas.

  9. Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/04/2019 - 12:26 pm.

    I read this piece twice and I have no idea what he is trying to say.

  10. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 03/04/2019 - 12:50 pm.

    Appears the author has tried to gently provide some philosophical subtleties (truths), if you turn to hard, folks get afraid or tribal and can’t hang on, even though those folks should have started turning, 10-20 years ago. What is that saying: “United we stand divided we fall” how do we drive towards unity and away from division? And it sure isn’t demonizing or discrediting everyone that doesn’t agree with your position, with illogical, unsupported rhetoric,

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/04/2019 - 01:02 pm.

    I think the reason Mr. Boyte’s article strikes as kind of incoherent is that it appears to be a false premise organized around a manufactured “dilemma” i.e. the “divided heart”. I just have a hard time seeing the “division”.

    Dilemma’s require at least two “horns” and the fact that actual Socialism is/was not a factor in either the New Deal or the Green New Deal leaves us with but one horn. It’s a misnomer pretending to be a division.

    While some of the architects of the Green New Deal call themselves Democratic Socialists, GND is clearly NOT a socialist program. Nor was FDR’s New Deal.

    On the contrary, the New Deal was an elite response to the socialist/communist threat that preserved capitalism and kept the means of production in private hands. I mean, you know who the Roosevelt’s were right? They had absolutely no interest or desire to hand their wealth and various holdings over to the proletariat. The New Deal was a stop gap in many ways, that gave American’s a safety they were beginning to demand rather than wait and see what might happen should the people decide to TAKE what they needed. The Czar had taken the “wait and see” approach and nobody else wanted to make THAT mistake.

    Although the New Deal cannot be characterized in any meaningful way as a socialist program, the Green New Deal is even less socialist. The New Deal created a number of huge government programs, programs actually run the the government. With the exception of jobs initiative which looks kind of like a mini-WPA, the entire Green New Deal relies on private sector profit and non-profit innovation and participation. Even the infrastructure spending simply contracts out all of the construction rather than creating a federal agency like the CCC or the WPA to build the infrastructure.

    Without the bogeyman of socialism we’re left with a unicorn of “populism” upon which it’s actually quite difficult be become impaled. The specter of “populism” is really just another form of fear mongering. Status quo politicians and their sympathetic media have taken to describing democratic movements as “populist” movements; but they characterize populists as threats to the natural order rather than consensus movements seeking to implement popular and necessary initiatives. You know there’s something funky going on with the narrative when an historically unpopular president, promoting historically unpopular agendas and policies… is described as a “populist” along side Bernie Sanders.

    Sure, the Green New Deal challenges the existing order to some extent, but when the existing order is literally destroying the planet and delivering pain and suffering to millions of Americans, what else are you going to do? We’re running out band aids.

    When we strip the artificial dilemma and fear mongering from Boyte’s discussion, I just don’t see a lot left to talk about.

    You can read the actual proposal that is the Green New Deal here:

    I would recommend reading it and simply asking yourself: “Does this frighten me for some reason? And if so: why?”

  12. Submitted by Harry Boyte on 05/11/2019 - 01:36 pm.

    I develop the argument that the politics I learned working for Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement — “constructive, nonviolent, democratic populist” — is more important than ever to engage the challenges of climate change and other challenges of our time.

    Such politics contrasts with the reductionist, state centered technocratic politics that dominates today on left and right.

    Here is a link to the essay on

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