The 116th Congress is the most diverse in history. The freshman class, especially, reflects the country’s demographic make-up more closely than has any prior crop of legislators, and it has already begun making news (not all of it positive, it should be noted).
The youngest House member—and among the poorest—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, commonly known by the moniker AOC, has been a leader in the making-noise department, especially as a prime sponsor of HR 109, a resolution proposing a “Green New Deal,” that combines an agenda for social and economic justice with an aggressive assault on climate change. Immediately, there was push back from President Trump, Republicans and old-line energy industry spokespersons.
Before rejecting these arguments, John Nichols, National Affairs Correspondent of The Nation, cites opponents’ cries of alarm about the Green New Deal: “‘As Democrats take a hard left turn, this radical proposal would take our growing economy off the cliff and our nation into bankruptcy,’ cried Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chair John Barrasso (R-WY). ‘It’s the first step down a dark path to socialism.’”
Commentators on both sides of the aisle have decried the bill as “overreach,” being unrealistic and too progressive for most Americans. They argue that supporting such advocacy plays right into the hands of Donald Trump by enabling him to portray all Democrats, including those who will run against him in 2020, as dangerous “socialists” out of touch with American voters. There are more urgent matters, the argument goes, like immigration reform, an unfair tax system, affordable health care, infrastructure upgrades and sensible gun control that demand immediate attention. If we divert our eyes from these issues, Trump will prevail.
I propose a different tack: Let’s celebrate the energy, imagination and courage behind this approach to legislating! Counterbalancing forces will surely emerge. The roll-out of HR 109 was not perfect; multiple documents circulated with contradictory claims, often inconsistent with the wording in the resolution itself. The new legislators will learn techniques of effective governing over time, but for now let’s welcome the conversation they have taken to a new level.
It is precisely the role of youthful, first-time legislators (the average age of an incoming House member is 47, a full decade lower than that of the 115th Congress) to address the ecological disaster that awaits us—and other deeply-rooted problems in our society—with innovative ideas and urgent solutions. Their task, in part, should be to think outside the box and beyond the grid, to stretch the electorate and open a space for debate on the truly substantive issues that confront us. Certainly, preserving a livable planet tops that list. For too long, elected officials have hesitated to take bold actions lest they risk being labeled as dreamers who alienate constituents. (Remember when Jerry Brown was first called Governor Moonbeam? In 1976, no less! How’d that work out?)
And this is just what AOC and her colleagues have done—they have started a discussion. We should be quick to participate. And as a country, we should be deeply grateful that this new crop of legislators is pushing the envelope and challenging us with new ideas, even if they ultimately prove unpopular or unworkable. We will all be better off if such an exercise becomes the new norm for social discourse instead of topics like scandalous behavior by White House officials or the construction design of the President’s border wall.