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The Green New Deal Meets Green Republicanism

Does an empire of consumers have any hope of saving the planet?

Bridget Bennett/Bloomberg/Getty

In Concrete Economics, Stephen S. Cohen and J. Bradford DeLong exalt Alexander Hamilton as the architect of the booming industrial economy that took off in America in the second part of the nineteenth century. Hamilton’s great innovation was to marshal the federal government behind the infrastructure required to create a strong industrial base for the nation. To take just one example, the Department of War launched many of the mechanical devices and processes that later facilitated America’s industrial leap. And in her book The Entrepreneurial State, Mariana Mazzucato painstakingly traces how most of the technologies propelling today’s economy—including its centerpiece, the internet itself—were invented in research laboratories underwritten by the post-World War II Department of Defense.

The authors of both books are said to be involved in developing concrete strategies for the still-vague concept of a Green New Deal. But the ghost of Alexander Hamilton also smiles upon many of presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s plans for addressing the urgent threat of climate change. Vox writer Matthew Yglesias, in an exegesis of Warren’s “plan … to marry industrial policy to environmentalism and transform the American economy,” notes that fans of the musical Hamilton “will recall that Hamilton favored setting a fairly high tariff on imported manufactured goods to encourage Americans to set up their own factories.” This is in reference to Warren’s “desire for monetary policy that’s more attendant to the needs of American manufacturing,” which, Yglesias explains, “implies that most Americans … will on balance pay more for stuff,” as with tariffs. “The case for doing this,” he continues, “is that globally competitive manufacturing industries can breed national wealth over time in a way that non-tradable things like hair salons and child care centers can’t.”

“The prevailing view in Washington—from both political parties—has been that our government should not aggressively intervene in the markets to boost American workers,” Warren has written. She correctly characterizes this approach as having “failed spectacularly.” She makes much the same Hamiltonian case that Cohen, DeLong, and Mazzucato have advanced, advocating massive government investment in R&D for anti-global warming technology, for economic as well as environmental purposes. However, to those who believe the salvation of the American polity requires a revival of the ideals of civic republicanism, to modify those of individualistic liberalism, Alexander Hamilton is at best an ambiguous figure. True, he was imbued, as were most of the Founding Fathers, with the republican ethic—which calls for putting the general interests of the community ahead of your own personal interests, with respect to issues of public concern. But Hamilton also foresaw its attenuation under the influence of a commercial order, and if he did not wholeheartedly welcome this development, he still considered it both necessary and inevitable, if America was to become the commercial and military empire he envisioned.

From the point of view of environmental or “green” republicanism, Warren’s plans, like those of the economists advising on the Green New Deal, raise a couple of serious questions. Republican theory puts a heavy emphasis on political participation by the citizenry, and on the structural decentralization that makes citizen involvement feasible. So far, it appears such concerns have eluded the designers of the inchoate Green New Deal. Public opinion in the United States on climate change, and also on how to deal with it, is deeply cleaved, and our current president and his minions at Fox News have made a point of trying to discredit the federal bureaucracy by deriding it as the “deep state.” A feeling of alienation from the national government, and a lack of confidence in its efficacy, existed before Donald Trump came into office, and is one of the main reasons he got elected. A serious program to forestall further damage to human life from global warming will require major efforts on a national scale, but those efforts must draw on actual citizen involvement and support at the local level. A top-down, heavy-handed bureaucratic structure will not suffice.

But there is another, more deep-seated republican reservation provoked by plans to turbocharge the American economy with an all-out assault on the climate change problem, akin to the massive mobilization of federally funded technology to address the threat posed by the Soviet Union after World War II. That has to do with the whole issue of consumerism. Back in Hamilton’s day, Americans viewed themselves primarily as producers, not consumers, and their watchword was “producerism.” Somewhere around the beginning of the twentieth century, that ethos began to change. Americans became, first and foremost, consumers of the products of industrial capitalism, and the United States was transformed into an essentially consumerist society. Green republicans have an unshakable conviction that the endless search for economic growth set in motion by the advent of mass consumerism is at the very root of our ecological crisis. That is an issue that needs to be debated—on the presidential debate stage and off.