How Neo-Liberals Shattered the New Deal Coalition… and How Sunrise is Melding it Back Together

Guido Girgenti, Media director of Justice Democrats. Founding board member of Sunrise Movement.

Book Review: Winning the Green New Deal (Part 3 of 3)

Neo-liberalism, also known as “de-regulated capitalism,” has been the predominant ideology of both major U.S. political parties since the Reagan revolution four decades ago, according to the Sunrise Movement’s political advisers Guido Girgenti and Waleed Shahid. Their chapter, “The Next Era of American Politics,” cites Charles Peters’ seminal “Neo-liberal Manifesto” published in 1983 by Washington Monthly, then a nascent neo-liberal standard-bearer. Peters’ lengthy, erudite essay questioned many established Democratic Party doctrines such as support for labor unions, activist government and regulation of commerce that had bound together the New Deal coalition. Peters also urged Democrats to loosen their adherence to the civil rights principles and social programs of the Great Society era. Peters called on Democrats to co-opt much of what he viewed as Reagan’s common-sensical and politically-savvy ideology. Speaking for what became the “New Democrats,” Peters proclaimed, “We will no longer automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business.” Reagan (and alas, Clinton’s) dog-whistles added an even harsher note to neo-liberalism: strategic racism in order to sow distrust in government. Right-wing “think tanks” like the Heritage Foundation emerged to fan the flames of racism and anti-abortion fervor that serve as wedges to divide the middle class in order to advance “free-market” ideology and weaken government, benefiting entrenched fossil fuel interests and the wealthiest.

Waleed Shahid, communications director, Justice Democrats.

Girgenti and Shahid argue that President Clinton turned Reagan and Bush’s ideology into conventional political wisdom, for example by implementing fiscal austerity and deregulating financial markets. George W. Bush continued those trends, adding endless war to the neo-liberal portfolio by invading Iraq.[1] Confronting the 2008 financial crisis, Barack Obama ran on a more activist government, but his administration quickly hewed to the neo-liberal norm. Girgenti and Shahid make a strong case that even under Trump, American politics is “still playing out the Reagan era.” But they point out that our current convergence of economic, political, climate and now COVID-19 crises may — like the bleak conditions of the Great Depression that preceded FDR’s New Deal — offer a rare opportunity for organizing a political re-alignment. FDR’s election and key elements of the New Deal emerged only after U.S. industrial production had dropped from $949 million to $74 million in just three years. The pain was palpable to everyone. In practically every major city, unemployed, hungry people set up encampments known as “Hoovervilles,” named for the GOP president who steadfastly refused to intervene, claiming that government intervention would only distort markets and prolong the crisis. Girgenti and Shahid argue that in the same way the crushing conditions of the Great Depression loosened the grip of Herbert Hoover’s laissez-faire ideology, the current economic, public health and climate crises offer a chance to break the shackles of neo-liberalism that have held back effective government interventions for the past four decades.

In “People Power and Political Power,” Varshini Prakash recounts how in just two years, the Sunrise Movement has begun to build an intersectional alignment of civil rights, women’s rights, climate justice and economic justice activists who have been alienated, even oppressed by neo-liberalism. Prakash points out that while Speaker Pelosi intones that she “believes the science” of climate change, she is not advancing policies that seriously confront the climate crisis, perhaps because Pelosi’s career has been subsumed within four decades of neo-liberal dominance.[2] Prakash questions whether Pelosi, who maligned Sunrise’s proposal as the “Green Dream or whatever it’s called,” can see beyond the confines of the neo-liberal fog she has always inhabited.

In November 2018, by occupying Speaker Pelosi’s office, with the enthusiastic participation of newly-elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sunrise kicked off a movement that aims to re-align the Democratic Party into the party of the Green New Deal. In March 2019, Sunrise and other climate activists occupied Senator Feinstein’s office urging her to endorse the GND. In a confrontation that went viral, Feinstein rudely brushed off the young activists, telling them that she knew better what could pass the Senate. Last January, Sunrise endorsed GND advocate Bernie Sanders for president, adding their organizing firepower to his campaign, especially in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada and launching the GND into mainstream press coverage and the Democratic debates.

Jamaal Bowman, who won the primary for NY-16

One of Sunrise’s key tools is the same one used by the right-wing Tea Party: supporting primary challengers of incumbents. In just the few months since “Winning the Green New Deal” was written, Sunrise has put its activist boots on the ground with dramatic results in several key primaries. After Jamaal Bowman, a Bronx middle school principal endorsed the GND, Sunrise campaigned aggressively with him, defeating Eliot Engel, a 30-year incumbent who chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Sunrise co-founder Varshini Prakash with Senator Ed Markey

And just a month ago, Sunrise propelled GND supporter Senator Ed Markey to victory over challenger Joe Kennedy, whose family name recognition in Massachusetts had been considered an almost insurmountable advantage. Sunrise also supported Alex Morse, mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, who ran on a GND platform prodding Rep. Richard Neal, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee to address climate policy in his campaign. After state Rep. Charles Booker, the youngest black state lawmaker in Kentucky, endorsed the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, Sunrise pulled him within striking distance of Democratic Party favorite Amy McGrath who prevailed in the June primary and is now challenging Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for Senate his seat.

I strongly recommend “Winning the Green New Deal” for its diverse, inside look at a growing and hopeful youth-led movement that for the first time boldly advocates policies on a scale and in a time-frame commensurate with the accelerating climate crisis.

Thanks to the Sunrise Movement, the Green New Deal vision which Speaker Pelosi ridiculed and Senator Feinstein brusquely dismissed, can no longer be ignored. It remains to be seen whether Joe Biden and the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill can be pushed to move beyond the ideology and political habits that have hamstrung government action on climate and social justice for four decades. That portends a long but necessary struggle.


[1] Senator Joe Biden, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee in 2002, established the pretext for Bush’s invasion by calling witnesses who falsely claimed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and that Iraq was harboring Al Qaeda terrorists. Biden refused to call U.N. weapons inspectors and State Department experts who knew better. Biden’s leadership of the resolution authorizing Bush to invade Iraq is crisply documented by video of the Senate hearings in “Worth the Price,” a 19-minute mini-documentary by Mark Weisbrot.

[2] Similar to Sunrise’s effort to launch primary challenges to incumbents, peace activist Shahid Buttar launched a primary challenge to Speaker Pelosi. Confronting Pelosi’s continued authorization of military budgets funding endless war, Buttar won the right to run against Pelosi in the November general election, a ballot slot which California election law awards to the candidate with second-highest vote total in the primary.

See also:

Part 1: “How Strategic Racism Has Thwarted Climate Progress for Decades.”

Part 2: “Why We Can’t Afford NOT To Do the Green New Deal — NOW!

Author: James Handley

James Handley coordinates the Carbon Tax Network. From its inception in 2007 until 2016, James served as policy analyst and Washington representative of the Carbon Tax Center. In that capacity, he attended Congressional hearings, studied and digested climate economics and climate policy literature; providing timely reports, summaries and blog posts for CTC's website while building a network of activists, academics and policymakers to support and advance transparent taxes on carbon pollution. Prior to CTC, James represented environmental and citizen organizations, including Beyond Pesticides and the National Organic Consumers Association in public interest litigation. Prior to private law practice, he served 14 years at EPA, enforcing environmental law, where he also served as an officer in EPA's union, representing science and legal professionals, especially whistleblowers. Before law school, James specialized in environmental and energy-efficient design at Brown & Root, Inc. and Scott Paper Co. James holds degrees in Chemical Engineering (Economics minor), Law (JD), and Environmental Law (LLM, highest honors).

2 thoughts on “How Neo-Liberals Shattered the New Deal Coalition… and How Sunrise is Melding it Back Together”

  1. Thank you James, your thorough review pushed me to read the book (overdue!), which I found to be very re-energizing. I also learned a lot on the last century of US history. It packs a lot of complex subjects in a little book, and I think the ambition is well played out. Of course I/we need to follow up with more details on how to make it happen, and more lessons from history and sociology. I’m going to dig into the resources on the Sunrise web page (

    Liked by 1 person

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