How the Green New Deal from Below Integrates Diverse Constituencies
By Jeremy Brecher, Senior Strategic Advisor, LNS Co-Founder
Green New Deal initiatives at local, state, regional, and civil society levels around the country have drawn together diverse, sometimes isolated, or even conflicted constituencies around common programs for climate, jobs, and justice. How have they done so?
The Green New Deal from Below is more than a set of policies; it is also a social phenomenon that exhibits many of the traits of a social movement.
Historical sociologist Michael Mann describes how new solutions to problems often emerge from multiple locations in the interstices – the nooks and crannies – of existing power structures. The linking of these interstices is frequently the way that isolated, powerless social elements come to propose and impose alternatives to existing social arrangements. This has sometimes been called the Lilliput strategy. The Lilliput strategy inevitably involves a tension between the need for identity and autonomy among its constituent groups and the need to escape from silos and cooperate on a wider scale. This tension can lead to domination or fragmentation, but it can also drive an interactive process through which the needs and interests of each part are incorporated in the whole and conversely the parts incorporate the needs and interests of each other and of the whole as aspects of their own.
This dynamic has been central to the development of the Green New Deal from Below. At the same time that they have recognized the needs and contributions of specific constituencies, Green New Dealers have also forged cooperation among diverse groups across lines that have conventionally divided them. This is particularly striking in the case of organized workers and environmentalists, where these often-opposed groups have joined together in instance after instance around the country. Such coalescence need not deny the identities of the distinct elements of the coalition; rather it adds an additional layer of identity – an identity with the common program and those who need and support it.
The care and feeding of such coalitions depends on providing once-antagonistic groups benefits from cooperation and mutual support, such as legislation that includes labor standards, health benefits for environmental justice communities, and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Conversely, such coalitions are put at risk by failure to keep the concerns of key constituencies front and center.
While the history of every Green New Deal is different, they typically emerge neither from isolated individuals nor from a unified preexisting organization. They generally develop from a field of quasi-fragmented, quasi-organized groups through a process of integration. Often the groups from which they emerge already have complex overlapping, multi-level identities, for example predominantly Black neighborhoods that also include members of other ethnicities or unions with members of varied genders and occupations.
Green New Deal activities have been initiated and led in a variety of ways. Usually they have grown out of a long history of previous struggles, mobilizations, campaigns, research studies, program development, and alliance building that have established relations among different groups. No doubt in some cases those processes would have continued without the emergence of the national Green New Deal, but in many cases participants were galvanized by the national Green New Deal proposals. Narratives of the Boston and Seattle Green New Deals, for example, start with people hearing about the occupation of Nancy Pelosi’s office and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ proposal for a Green New Deal and asking themselves, what would it mean to have a Green New Deal in Boston or Seattle?
Healthy Through Heat and Smoke Press Conference September 7, 2022| Credit: 350 Seattle
This was often followed by small gatherings among groups who had different backgrounds and concerns but who knew each other and had some experience of working together. In Seattle a climate and an environmental justice organization launched the campaign for a Seattle Green New Deal which was quickly endorsed by over 200 other local organizations. In Somerville MA, organized labor had formed a coalition with community and immigrant groups; environmental activists had started coming to their meetings and the groups had begun to discover common ground, laying the basis for the Somerville Green New Deal. In Illinois, a coalition of environmental groups and frontline communities had worked together for several years, but most of organized labor had not participated and indeed formed a separate coalition of their own; for a considerable time the two groups appeared to be antagonists and this gap was only gradually bridged as they worked out details of major climate-labor-justice legislation.
These nascent coalitions were often defined less by agreement on specific policies than by a sense of common interests. After initial discussions, in several cases they commissioned experts to write reports that would present a strategy to realize their seemingly disparate goals: reducing greenhouse gas emissions while protecting workers and communities and reducing inequality and injustice. Such reports played an important role in unifying Green New Deal groups in Boston, California, Washington, Colorado, and elsewhere. Green New Deal initiatives have also learned from each other. For example, various state just transition programs have learned from the pioneering efforts in Washington and Colorado; the Boston jobs corps learned from similar efforts in Philadelphia and other cities.
Even after reaching agreement on common goals, Green New Deal coalitions often take significant time and extended discussion to transform those goals into specific policies and legislation. And after the development of tentative policies, these coalitions often put in additional time reaching out to the rank and file of member groups and to constituencies that are not yet part of the coalition. This often allows proposed policies to be tweaked to take into consideration the needs and objectives of varied groups. It also allows extensive education on the proposals, creating a committed base when the time comes for political action to implement them.
At some point there is the translation of values, objectives, and policies into specific legislation and administrative rules and practices. “Inside the system” politicians, as well as technical legislation experts, often play a significant role at this point. This often involves considerable negotiation and compromise among different groups. It therefore also opens the danger that compromise may pass over into sell-out.
Once a specific local or state legislative proposal has been solidified, the next step is usually campaigning for support. This generally starts with the creation of a campaign organization. It utilizes marches, rallies, educational workshops, and door-knocking as well as websites and social media. It may also involve conventional political techniques like advertising.
When legislation or an administrative policy is won, the coalition needs to turn to implementation. There is no guarantee that government officials or agencies will actually carry out legislation or regulations in ways that realize their initiators’ intentions; they can easily sit on their hands or put control in the hands of those who have entirely other objectives. The groups within coalitions who are directly connected with impacts on the ground – for example unions and neighborhood organizations – need to monitor the results; coalitions need to support them in pushing back when their objectives are disregarded or betrayed. Green New Deal legislation and policies often include strategies for empowering coalition members to implement their objectives themselves. For example, the Illinois Climate and Equitable Jobs Act established hubs for job training and business development to be led by community organizations. Similarly, legislation in Connecticut and other states provides for Project Labor Agreements and Community Benefit Agreements; unions and community organizations are positioned to take the initiative in negotiating and enforcing such agreements.
Not all campaigns end in victory and not every apparent victory leads to successful implementation. Creating a Green New Deal program is not a once-and-forever thing; it is an ongoing process of social transformation, often involving struggle. A prime example is the 2016 Illinois climate and jobs legislation, which was touted as a national model but turned out to be highly problematic for both labor and frontline communities. Far from despairing, however, Illinois activists evaluated the weaknesses of their “success,” reached out for new input from relevant constituencies, and constructed a new campaign around new legislation that built on but went far beyond the earlier version. Even campaigns that lose can transform the landscape for future possibilities. In Seattle, a proposal to tax businesses to pay for progressive development programs was defeated in 2018 because of its feared impact on small businesses and those who work for them. Two years later a similar proposal was passed after it was modified to place the burden on large businesses like Amazon. In both these instances setbacks led to course correction followed by success.
Even campaigns that succeed can be subject to pushback. In Chicago, real estate interests sued to block the city from building affordable housing near public transit; fortunately, a judge threw out the suit as an infringement on an appropriate government action. In California fossil fuel interests and allies are trying to reverse the decision requiring that oil and gas extraction facilities be set back from residential areas. Such cases evoke the ancient watchword: eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.
The arduous path to implementing Green New Deal programs can open up divisions among constituencies that appeared to have united. Eternal vigilance is necessary not only to counter enemies, but to see that Green New Deal programs continue to meet the needs of those they are intended to serve. When Green New Dealers succeed in keeping their constituencies united, they have the opportunity to build on their successes to implement further elements of a full Green New Deal program.
 Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986) Volume 1, p. 15.