The tag line on Facebook poses the question: “Is Diane Feinstein a Bigger Climate Threat Than Trump?”
The headline of the actual article in The New Republic is less curious: “Diane Feinstein is a Bigger Climate Threat Than Trump.”
The actual article, and the author who wrote it, is done a great injustice by these words, which greatly simplify the article’s content and the important issues it addresses.
But an even greater injustice is being done to readers of the New Republic, and even more, to all readers of the magazine’s headlines as they are emblazoned and spread across the social media world. The New Republic is hardly alone. Nor is it the greatest offender. But these kinds of headlines are becoming all too common, not simply among tabloids or commercial mass media outlets eager for digital “hits” and the marketing dollars they bring, but among serious journals of opinion who seem too often to exult in presenting politics in the most Manichean way possible (perhaps because they too need the “hits” and the dollars).
The question posed by this article’s Facebook tag is absurd. The answer presented by its actual title is even more absurd.
But the repetition of headlines like this reinforces misunderstanding and acrimony at precisely the moment when serious debate, mutual understanding and coalition building are more important than ever.
The article itself takes aim at Dianne Feinstein’s “moderation” relative to a set of important public issues, but most especially climate change. It is occasioned by, and centers on, the recent video in which Feinstein encountered young supporters of a Green New Deal and refused to go along with their insistence that she support it. The reaction of many commentators to this short clip, which has gone viral, was well summed up by the Guardian: “Dianne Feinstein Rebuffs young climate activists’ call for a Green New Deal.” The New York Times was a bit more restrained: “ Dianne Feinstein Lectures Who Want Green New Deal, Portraying it as Untenable.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not a big fan of Feinstein, and I’ve said repeatedly in public that I think “A Green New Deal is a Great Idea.” Further, I think that Feinstein missed an opportunity in that encounter with the young people, and I like to think that if I had been in her position, I would have behaved in a more sympathetic way. Nonetheless, as Amanda Sakuma reported in Vox:
Edited video of the exchange, in which Feinstein appears to be dismissive toward the concerns of young children, quickly went viral heading into the weekend. In the clip, Feinstein appears bristly to the kids and stresses that she doesn’t have to cave to their demands — her job is to represent her constituents, and it will be several Senate election cycles before these children will be of voting age. The full version of the video, however, paints a broader picture. Feinstein still doesn’t come off great, but she clearly engages with the children — at one point she even discussed internship opportunities for one of the older activists in the group.
Indeed, even in the “offending” video clip, Feinstein’s first response to the young people is to say that “we have our own Green New Deal piece of legislation,” which is quite a far cry from saying “go away, and stop bothering me with this non-issue.” But this did not prevent the story from being blown up into an enormous controversy. On the left, Democracy Now! featured the young people as heroes dissed by an out-of-touch old pol — and, don’t get me wrong, they are wonderful, admirable, and even exemplary young people. On the right, they have been denounced as foolish young zealots being used by foolish older zealots of the left (and ironically Feinstein, loathed by the right for her role in the Kavanaugh hearings, is now being celebrated as a scold of these upstart young leftists).
The table is now set for another acrimonious conflict between centrist Democrats and those progressives, liberals, and radicals to their left. And we can be sure that Trumpists will do their part to pour gasoline on the fire.
Wouldn’t it be better if instead there were a very serious, sharp, vigorous debate, a very public hearing between those who support the very ambitious policy agenda outlined in the Green New Deal sponsored by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the House and Ed Markey in the Senate, and those more “moderate” Democrats who raise questions about cost, or timing, or institutional obstacles to such grand visions?
There are real issues in play here worth debating. Differences of disposition and perspective, differences of constituency and donor-links, but also serious differences of interpretation and political judgment. The TNR article itself makes this clear. Another fine piece by David Atkins in the American Prospect, “The Democratic Party Divide is About Competing Theories of Power,” makes it even more clear. Akins argues, convincingly, that Democratic centrists have for too long being playing a “game” with the right:
The right succeeds in pushing the envelope in Congress and in the media: They let everyone know that they’re willing to pull out the stops if social conservatives with racist and sexist leanings don’t stay centered in society, and if the wealthy don’t continue to take an ever larger share of the economic pie. . . . The center-left, which has dominated the Democratic Party since at least the late 1970s, has long depended on being the “responsible” party . . . The problem is that this dynamic between right and center-left is codependent and convenient to the status quo. The far right gets to keep the angry old racists happy; the center-left keeps the concerned vaguely cosmopolitan educated crowd happy. Notably, the donor class and those with an interest in maintaining the current order always seem to come out ahead.
“Progressives,” Akins continues, “are no longer willing to play the responsible straight man to the GOP’s destructive clown.” As a consequence, they are “laying down the marker that if this system won’t allow the Green New Deal to be enacted, they will change the system until it does — whatever it takes. . . . This might seem like fantastical thinking, but it actually carries a greater dose of realism about both the current political situation and about the opposition in the Republican Party.”
Akins’ analysis rightly identifies a core difference that separates the center-left from the left. But I think he exaggerates the “whatever it takes” disposition of many on the left, and simultaneously underestimates the significance of the fact that, by his own description, the Democratic center is in at least some ways center-left rather than center-right. More importantly, Akins minimizes the importance of the extent to which the Trump administration, and the Trumpist capture of the Republican Party, raises the stakes of the coming elections, and requires serious leaders of both the center-left and the progressive left to debate their real differences and then come together to defeat the Republicans in 2020.
Akins, who concludes by linking to the aforementioned New Republic piece, makes it clear from whence he speaks: “From the left, it’s clear that the current system also won’t let us deal with our environmental, technological, and economic challenges in anything like the timeframe we need to solve them. Which means the defenders of that system are just as dangerous in their own way as the right wing is. The future belongs to the side that changes the system to accomplish their goals. It’s a life-or-death struggle, and the only coalition that fails to grasp the reality of the moment is the center-left most firmly — but falsely — trying to claim the mantle of hard-edged realism.”
But a lot hinges on the force of the words “in their own way” above. For, as Akins knows, the Democratic Party leadership is currently entertaining radical reformism in a way that is unprecedented in recent decades; Ed Markey, the Senate co-sponsor of AOC’s “Green New Deal,” is hardly a man of the left, after all. Further, while the future might belong “to the side that changes the system to accomplish their goals,” it is also possible that the future might belong to the side that it quite happy to see the world burn, in which case there will be no future worth speaking of. What we do know, now, is that the left and the center-left need each other, and they need — we need — to defeat Trump and Trumpism, so that the world does not burn, and a better future is possible.
Hyperbolic headlines, hyped-up moralistic outrage, and an exaggerated sense of Manichean struggle, serve no good purpose. Many serious Green activists appreciate this. Kate Aronoff, in “Who’s Afraid of the Green New Deal?” her fine recent Intercept piece on the Public Accountability Initiative’s new report, “The Anti-Green New Deal Coalition”:
As the report authors make clear, this loose new anti-Green New Deal coalition is hardly working in lockstep, and the derision cast on the proposal from the likes of the Western Caucus looks a good deal different than that coming from Pelosi and company. “Not all centrist Democrats who express objections to a bold Green New Deal are equivalent in their skepticism or opposition, and it’s possible that Green New Deal supporters could bring some closer to their camp,” they note.
This seems right, both analytically and politically.
Dianne Feinstein is not a more dangerous threat to the climate than Donald Trump.
A powerful mainstream Democrat who lacks vision and vigor, and yet who sincerely claims to support a more “fiscally responsible” approach to global warming, is not more dangerous than an aspiring autocrat whose entire administration and party denies climate science, guts the EPA and despoils the environment, and who makes idiotic and contemptuous jokes about how in the cold of winter we could do with some more global warming.
Recognizing this does not mean playing “the responsible straight man to the GOP’s destructive clown.”
It does mean seriously debating the issues with a sense of proportion; working hard to persuade others who are more moderate to your point of view to the best extent possible; and then working together to decisively defeat a GOP that is not clownish but monstrous, so that we can then continue the struggle to create a better, more sustainable, livable, and democratic future. The debate is important and will continue. But so too is the constructive dialogue without which there can be no policy change.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is a Senior Editor at Public Seminar, and his book #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, was recently published by Public Seminar/OR Books.