As the wide field of Democratic presidential candidates took their places for the second round of debates at Detroit’s Fox Theatre last week, the more captivating show was taking place outside, where a grassroots force of much greater intensity was sweeping through the streets.
More than 1,000 people strong, the rally and mile-long march to the theatre was organized by the Frontline Detroit Organizing Committee, a web of local progressive groups comprised largely of working-class people of color. The banner they rallied under was simple and precise: “Make Detroit the Engine of the Green New Deal.” And their demands came together to form a clear tapestry of progressive goals — from “good, clean, local union jobs” to a “green economy that serves” “human need” rather than “corporate greed.”
With the second round of debates unfolding across the street, protesters were basically pinning a list of demands to the castle gates, or more accurately, thundering them through a bullhorn. Inside were some of the most powerful people in the country. And 20 of them, spread across two nights of debate, were asking for yet more power over the lives of millions. Those gathered outside refused to let it pass without scrutiny.
It’s no secret that across an entire landscape of issues, the left wing of the Democratic party has dragged the center kicking and screaming to many of its priorities — from a $15 minimum wage to a health care policy inching ever closer to Medicare for All.
The same is true of the enormous threat posed by climate change. The idea behind the Green New Deal is straightforward: climate change is a galloping threat that needs to be met by an equally forceful response in order to prevent its most devastating consequences. That response, supporters of the plan argue, should be a World War II-style mobilization of resources that cuts off the fossil fuel tap and totally transforms every aspect of our economy that relies on it.
The Democratic candidates all agree that the climate threat is real, but are divided on the urgency and scale of the response needed. That divide largely exists along the same line that has menaced the party since 2016: progressives on one side in favor of sweeping change, and more moderate candidates on the other favoring lukewarm and gradual steps.
Progressive favorites Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have embraced the substance of the Green New Deal.
Sanders has called it a “bold idea” that stands to “create millions of good paying jobs” and “rebuild communities in rural America that have been devastated.”
And Warren certainly echoed its spirit when she argued that the “climate crisis is the existential crisis for our world.” She went on to highlight her “plan for a green industrial policy” that would create more than one million manufacturing jobs and “revitalize huge cities across this country.”
But more nonchalant voices were also in the building. The loudest was former Rep. John Delaney who called the Green New Deal unrealistic for including “things that are completely unrelated to climate like universal health care and guaranteed jobs.” Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper added some spice by calling the proposal “a disaster at the ballot box” and sneering that supporters “might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump.”
What both Delaney and Hickenlooper either ignore or look away from is that the Green New Deal is wildly popular: 63 percent of adults consider it a good idea according to a recent national poll, making it difficult to figure out just what exactly these gentlemen are even talking about.
Not to mention, progressive who call for more radical steps have the world’s scientists in their corner. Last year, the International Panel on Climate Change sounded a civilization-wide alarm: we’ve got just 12 years to introduce “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” before the most devastating effects of climate change are locked in for good.
With the science, popular enthusiasm, and grassroots muscle clearly on their side, champions of the Green New Deal are well-positioned to press their demands on the hot shots in the Democratic Party.
And what better city to do it in than Detroit?
The historical drama is thrilling to think about: WWII’s “arsenal of democracy” for its enormous contributions to war production and thus the fight against European fascism now recast as the “engine of the Green New Deal” in the fight against species-threatening climate disaster.
But there’s one massive difference, which no candidate spoke to with the same intensity or clarity that the marchers did. It’s a simple principle: that this era’s New Deal not repeat the moral crimes of the last, with its hideous exclusion of large slices of the black community from its programs. This time, supporters demand, we must place the priorities of communities who stand to be hit first and hardest by climate change at center stage. Around the world, many of those communities look similar to Detroit’s poor and working-class communities of color.
Despite the near radio silence on this aspect, supporters of the Green New Deal know how to get them talking. It’s the same tool that brought the proposal to national prominence in the first place, and that brought so much of its weight to bear on the Detroit debates: popular movements united around a feeling of shared destiny.