“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
— John F. Kennedy, 1962
This is a requiem for American vision.
That that quality has been lost is the unavoidable takeaway from three weeks of debate over the Green New Deal introduced in Congress by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Sen. Edward J. Markey. The GND is not a proposed law, but a non-binding resolution calling for a top-to-bottom restructuring of U.S. social, economic and environmental policy. It is, in other words, a list of goals.
Granted, they are very big goals, including: supplying all of America's power needs through clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources and retrofitting every building in the country for maximum energy efficiency within 10 years; providing universal access to higher education and health care; ending the oppression of people of color, the poor and other marginalized populations; guaranteeing a job with paid vacation and a livable wage to every American.
While many on the right have responded with predictable hysteria — calling it communism, fascism and the end of air travel — there's one criticism, coming from both left and right, that speaks volumes about what America is in this moment. It says the GND is simply too big an idea. As in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dubbing it, "the green dream;" columnist Jonah Goldberg ripping it as a "fantasy;" the Washington Times calling GND supporters "the unicorn caucus."
You will read no analysis of the resolution here. That's not the point. Yes, it is admittedly vague on how to achieve its goals. But the idea that those goals are too big to be achieved is what rankles. That was, you may recall, the same sentiment that pervaded the fight over the Affordable Care Act a decade ago.
Then, as now, the argument suggested that something vital has seeped out of us. Three generations ago, when President Kennedy committed America to reaching another planet within eight years, did Americans think we couldn't do it? Indeed, was anyone surprised when we got there with five months to spare?
No. Because big things were what America did. From carving highways out of corn fields and cyberspace, to airlifting hope to a starving city, to rebuilding a ravaged continent, to helping save the world from tyranny, to digging a 40-mile trench that united two oceans, to binding East and West with railroad tracks, to defeating the most powerful military on Earth with an army of farmers, when did "big" ever scare America? When did "impossible" ever stop us?
To the contrary, it has always been in the country's DNA to believe it had the power to transform destiny. Given the frightening state of our affairs and the planet's imminent meltdown, we could do a lot worse than to reclaim that conviction. Instead, we get dour pragmatism and lectures on limitations. Goldberg even chided Ocasio-Cortez and Markey's plan as "wildly ambitious." Like that's a bad thing.
You think the Green New Deal won't work? Fine. Then what's your idea? Whatever it is, make sure it takes into account the urgency of the moment, the fracturing of our social covenant, the peril of the planet.
Meantime, credit Ocasio-Cortez and Markey for at least having the audacity and faith to believe America can be America again. This, after all, was a country that never feared "big," never ran from "impossible."
This would be a really bad time to start.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. firstname.lastname@example.org