Editor’s Note: Joseph J. Ellis is an American historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for “Founding Brothers.” He is the author of the new book “American Dialogue: The Founding Fathers and Us.” The views expressed here are the author’s. View more opinion on CNN.
The Green New Deal is a bold and controversial legislative initiative proposed by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, designed to address four pressing challenges facing American society that have thus far eluded solution.
They are: reforming our extremely expensive and inefficient health care system; reducing our currently unprecedented levels of economic inequality; rebuilding our aging infrastructure; and recovering our global leadership role to combat the existential threat posed by climate change. If we fail to address and resolve these problems, all talk of America as a “city on a hill” needs to cease.
The great advantage of the Green New Deal initiative is that it forces and focuses a much-needed debate about the role of government in defining our agenda as a people and a nation. At present, however, critics on the right are attempting to short-circuit that debate by arguing that the Green New Deal is socialism, a loaded label with potent un-American associations for many.
Whatever you might think about the Green New Deal, it is not socialism. As Casey Stengel loved to say, you can look it up. Pick your dictionary: the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Random House. They all say the same thing. Socialism is a political theory based on the principle of government ownership of the means of production; in short, the abolition of private property.
Advocates of the Green New Deal are not proposing anything of that sort. Far from being un-American, what they are proposing is a collective response to our common problems with deep roots in American history, all the way back to the American founding. The operative word then was not “socialism” but – members of the GOP might wish to sit down to hear this – “republicanism.”
The framers of the Constitution did not believe they were creating a democracy, a word that in the late 18th century still carried tainted implications of mob rule. They were, instead, creating the first nation-sized republic in modern history, an updated version of the Roman Republic in the classical era. The Latin “res publica” means “public things.”
A republic located sovereignty in the people-at-large rather than monarchs claiming divine right, so power flowed upward from below rather than downward from above. In this republican framework, government became “us” rather than “them” (though at the time the original version of “us” did not include women, African-Americans, Native Americans, or adult males without property).
From the very beginning, there were critics who challenged the claim that “We the people” referred to a collective or public interest shared by all American citizens. This is what the most vocal opponents of the Green New Deal get wrong when they call the plan “socialist” – they fail to realize that pursuit of a collective good is the very essence of the Founding Fathers’ vision for America. There is an alternative vision. It includes: the Antifederalists, who lost the debate over the Constitution in 1787-88; the leaders of the Confederate States of America; the captains of industry who dominated the first Gilded Age; the Southern defenders of Jim Crow and enemies of the civil rights movement; and the current corporate leaders of our second Gilded Age. What ties all these apparently different groups together is an anti-government ethos with libertarian implications and deep-seated reluctance to share resources with multiple versions of “them.”
If we were to compose a list of spokesmen for “us,” it would include the following: from the founding era, George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, John Marshall, Gouverneur Morris and the younger James Madison; from American presidents, the two greatest Republicans, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, and the greatest Democrat, Franklin Roosevelt; among unelected leaders, virtually all the advocates for women’s rights, and Martin Luther King Jr. It is a list whose monuments dominate the landscape of the National Mall, though the opponents of the Green New Deal can legitimately claim the Tidal Basin and Thomas Jefferson, the chief prophet of “self-government.”
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All this helps explain why the Green New Deal affords an opportunity to engage in an argument that we in America need to have. It is, in fact, our occasion to participate in the longest ongoing argument in American history. It is not an argument between socialism and capitalism. It is an argument about what we mean in the Pledge of Allegiance when we mumble the words “and to the republic for which it stands.” It is an argument about what we mean, really mean in these troubled times, by “We the people.” In our Trumpian moment, that is a volatile but vital question that we need to face squarely.