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Elections

The Green Army Now Marches with Uncle Bernie

The endorsement of the green activist movement Sunrise will boost Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary, but will sink the November ticket if he’s the nominee.


- January 15th, 2020
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As those who follow American politics closely know, winning nominations and elections is all about “building coalitions.” Or at least that’s what is said publicly, and generations of leaders—particularly in the Democratic Party—have gained momentum simply by being able to claim that they are uniquely positioned to build a winning coalition. In 1984 and 1988 Jesse Jackson created the “Rainbow Coalition” of minorities, gays, and the poor and was able for a time to pose a direct challenge to the party leadership.

As the years passed, however, it has become increasingly difficult to corner the market on representatives of each particular interest group. Institutionalized organizations like the NAACP and Planned Parenthood are too savvy to throw their lot in with one candidate too early. But new and more radical and ambitious groups always arise that seek to find an edge.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) this week gained the support of one such group. The Sunrise Movement will be able to inject new volunteer and communications resources into Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination. Long term, however, it will be a serious liability in the general election and can do little to earn him new voters.

The New Blood

The Sunrise Movement was formed in 2014 as a youth movement dedicated to changing the public conversation on climate change. Under Barack Obama’s administration, its impact was minimal since he entered the United States into the Paris Climate Accord in 2015 and media coverage was largely praising of that agreement. Many climate activists like Bill McKibben, however, were saying at the time that the agreement did not truly address climate change and that the actions agreed to would warm the Earth by 3.5 degrees Celcius.

The spark that ignited the current climate activism trend, ironically, was the victory of climate change skeptic Donald Trump in 2016. It is much easier to focus efforts on a person with an adversarial approach than on someone like Obama who had a sympathetic but soft pedaled attitude. Last May they received a $250 thousand grant from the Wallace Global Fund, a far-left non-profit founded by the family of former Vice President Henry A. Wallace who ran for president in 1948 as a left-wing opponent of Harry Truman. Sunrise Movement Education Fund, an affiliated non-profit, has also operated concurrently with the U.S. Climate Action Network from its F Street address in Washington, D.C. This network of groups receives generous grants from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Tides Foundation. Like most of the modern climate change movement, Sunrise mixes climate activism with calls for “racial and economic justice” and supports the Green New Deal.

Sunrise is also an offshoot of the Momentum Community, a Boston-based “movement incubator.” Four other groups are so-called sister movements of Momentum Community: the illegal immigration amnesty groups Cosecha and Never Again Action, anti-Israel Jewish organization IfNotNow, and the pro-impeachment group ByThePeople. Sunrise has by far the largest footprint with “hubs” (chapters) in every state except South Dakota and West Virginia.

In 2018 Sunrise’s profile was raised significantly when several of its endorsed candidates won seats in state and federal elections, including U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Deb Haaland (D, N.M.), and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). In February 2019 a swarm of Sunrise activists, some of them in elementary school, mobbed the office of Senator Dianne Feinstein in California to urge her to support the Green New Deal. In September, they joined in one of the periodic “climate strikes” where school children walk out of class to protest in favor of action on climate change. While 250,000 people turned out in New York City, no national figures are available.

Shredding the Game Plan

Last week, Sunrise announced the results of their endorsement ballot for the 2020 presidential election among their claimed 10,000 members. The overwhelming victor was Bernie Sanders (76 percent) with fellow Senator Elizabeth Warren (17.4 percent) coming in a distant second.

Sunrise founder Varshini Prakash released a video in response, citing the Australian wildfires as one of the elements of the crisis moving their decision.

The implications of this endorsement are direct. Since they declared their candidacies last year, Sanders and Warren have dueled over leadership of the progressive wing. Warren briefly led national polling aggregates in October before collapsing as her healthcare plan was torn apart by critics from across the spectrum. In New Hampshire and Iowa polling, however, with less than one month to go until Iowa’s first in the nation caucus, Sanders holds a narrow lead over national frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden.

The endorsement of the Sunrise Movement affords Sanders more than just brochure material. His fans are calling it a “youth firewall.” Activists for the movement represent a new fountain of free volunteers to canvass and get out the vote. They have 5 hubs in Iowa and Sanders himself apparently took the endorsement seriously enough to appear at their rally in Iowa City on January 11. With this injection of new and younger support into the campaign, Sanders could sap more voters from the floundering Warren campaign and force her to withdraw.

This would clearly distill the race into one between Sanders and the centrist candidate, Biden or South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, with some hangers-on like Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and self-funded campaigns such as those of billionaires Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg. Progressives would then find that their standard bearer is up against a divided field.

Remember, Sanders swept the New Hampshire primary in 2016 with 60 percent of the vote, beating Hillary Clinton in every county. This is the largest vote share of any candidate in the state primary since Lyndon Johnson. Sanders also won unexpectedly in Wisconsin and Michigan. In 2020, his main challenge will be to break through in the southern states where Clinton swept him and was able to build up massive leads in delegate counts.

L-Shapes in the Clouds

What could be an advantage in the primaries, however, is likely to be a major albatross in November. The United States is likely to follow in the footsteps of Australian and British elections that were permeated with climate change activism. Australia Labor Party leader Bill Shorten ran on a strong climate agenda that included $7 billion of funding (in U.S. dollars) for clean energy and cuts to carbon emissions.

Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn of the British Labour Party declared a climate emergency on May 1, 2019. It was surely not a coincidence that he chose the most important holiday for the international socialist movements to make the announcement. Both of them were bracketed on the Left by smaller but significant green parties that were represented in their respective parliaments. And they were both abject failures at the polls.

Shorten’s ALP lost an “unlosable election,” in which they were expected to win up to 86 seats in the 150 member House of Representatives that chooses the prime minister. Instead, the party only won 68 seats, a net loss from the 2016 election. Shockingly the ruling center-right Liberal/National Coalition was able to gain three seats and conservative incumbent Scott Morrison now has a majority. Media pundits including the state-owned ABC were flabbergasted.

In the UK, Corbyn’s pandering on climate change, which he called “the biggest issue facing the whole world,” received snorts and jeers from a debate audience during the country’s snap election. It was hardly the biggest issue for the voters. YouGov released a poll in November that found the environment was a concern in the minds of 30 percent voters surveyed, up from less than 10 percent. But the most important issue for voters by far was Brexit, with 70 percent of Britons surveyed citing it as their primary issue. Healthcare came in second.

On December 12, the electorate returned a Tory government with a majority of 365 seats, while Corbyn’s Labour received its worst result since 1935, with only 203.

Sanders Has Learned Nothing

Bernie Sanders is already making the same mistake as Shorten and Corbyn. Supporting a strong climate change agenda is largely the domain of Democratic voters in the liberal progressive mold.

In September the liberal-leaning politics and polling analysis site 538.com released data showing that climate change placed a distant fifth among Democratic voters following that month’s debate. The main issue was the ability to defeat Trump, followed by healthcare, the economy, and wealth and income inequality.

Climate change actually interested fewer respondents after the debate than it did before the spectacle. Earlier in the year, the Green New Deal suffered steep declines in polling among both moderate and conservative Republicans but also lost ground with moderate Democrats. The only group that showed increased support for it was the “Solid Dems.” Bear in mind, too, that the earliest polling was taken in December 2018, before details of the Green New Deal were published and voters got to see how much of it was just fantastic dream-weaving.

Labor of Snub

The real pain that the Democrats could suffer should Bernie be nominated and remain tight with Sunrise and the Green New Deal would probably be with union members.

In August, Aviva Chomsky of The Nation claimed that unions do support the Green New Deal, despite media reports to the contrary. She alleged that reports to the contrary were only part of a conservative narrative. In reality, the Associated Press reported that the AFL-CIO had condemned the proposal, and that the five member unions of the AFL-CIO’s Energy Committee that had strongly criticized it are deeply connected to the fossil fuel industry.

Be that as it may, the AFL-CIO had around 12 million members as of 2014. Of the unions represented, North America’s Building Trades Unions aggregate several massive unions, including the Laborers’ International Union of North America (500,000 members), the Teamsters (1.3 million), the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (750,000), the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing, Pipefitting and Sprinkler Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada (around 330,000) and more. Calling these unions “fossil fuel puppets” is an admission that the building trades are overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels.

Chomsky also cited the United Steelworkers in her article positively, even though it had signed on to the AFL-CIO letter. Of course, some of the unions did support the Green New Deal, including the Service Employees International Union (which consists largely of government employees these days) and the Association of Flight Attendants. But the majority of the groups included on the list she cited are random SEIU locals in California and Oregon. This cannot be encouraging to the Green New Deal’s supporters.

Suffice to say, organized labor, still a major (if declining) resource for Democratic support, would likely see plenty of supporters defecting from a Sanders ticket if he pushes the Green New Deal.

The union response to Donald Trump has been confusing. CNBC reported in September that the United Auto Workers wanted him to stay out of its dispute with General Motors, but by October 5 apparently some members were wondering why he was nowhere to be found.

Trump had narrowed the margin in 2016 among union voters by 16 points. He has earned accolades from many union members for canceling U.S. support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, renegotiating NAFTA and playing tough with China on trade. Does Bernie’s outreach to the green extreme do anything to recoup the losses he should expect among the labor voting block? Basic logic would say no, and it may already be too late for him to correct this mistake.

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