The implosion of the climate left
An excerpt from Ryan Grim's new book "The Squad: AOC and the Hope of a Political Revolution"
The passage below is adapted from journalist Ryan Grim’s new book “The Squad: AOC and the Hope of a Political Revolution.” The narrative arc runs from around the time of the Great Awokening through Bernie Sanders’ first presidential run, then the rise of the Squad, and ending with the midterms of 2022.
After their swearing-in, the new lefty lawmakers were trying to figure out how they fit in with the Democratic caucus, and whether they were there to burn the place down or win friends and influence people. That same dilemma was playing out within progressive organizations, with some staff questioning whether they ought to burn their own organizations down. It all collided amid the negotiations over Building Back Better/IRA, and the excerpt below is a window into that moment.
The book is available here, and if you’re in Washington, D.C., the author will be at Politics & Prose tonight at 7 p.m. signing books and giving a talk moderated by his Breaking Points colleague Krystal Ball. Admission is free for Slow Boring readers — and all readers.
With the American Rescue Plan signed into law in early March 2021, the White House turned its attention to drafting Biden’s American Jobs Plan and his American Families Plan. The latter was focused on social policy—support for parents raising children, affordable housing, more affordable health care, and so on. The former included labor protections, infrastructure spending, and an enormous investment in combating climate change. The earliest stages of the legislative drafting phase are arguably the most important, as that’s where the contours of a bill are defined. Afterward, everybody from the right to the left negotiates based on that starting point, trying to nudge the proposed legislation in their direction. Evan Weber, serving as Sunrise’s political director, found himself in the truly disorienting position of being listened to by the White House at the most important moment of its legislation-drafting phase. Sunrise had been a lead backer of Sanders and had even given Biden’s climate platform the grade of F, even though, by all accounts, it was quite a strong program. But Biden, sensing the growing energy on the party’s left, had invited Sunrise, as part of the unity task force project, to help draft a new climate policy agenda, and the new White House chief of staff, Ron Klain, had become enamored of the organization. But just as the drafting of the new plan got going, Sunrise, like so many other organizations, began to implode.
At the end of March 2021, Alex O’Keefe, among the first Black hires of the Sunrise Movement and a member of management, dropped a long manifesto, signed by three others, into the organization’s Slack account, indicting the leadership for a culture of white supremacy. It wasn’t the first internal brushfire the group had seen, but none during the presidential campaign had come this close to becoming public or had been drafted with such intensity. By posting the manifesto in the organization’s main Slack channel, it became visible to all the staff and many volunteers, a significant ratcheting up of pressure. “We are calling on Sunrise Movement organization to publicly reckon with the movement-wide crisis we are in; dismantle our white, owning-class culture: and to publicly commit to using the tens of millions of dollars we have to equip our base, and build multi-racial, crossclass community power for a Green New Deal,” the manifesto read, calling for “a public reckoning and public transfer of power.”
The entire organization began grappling with the memo. The political team tried to negotiate among rival factions. The communications team responded with its own manifesto. The organizers met in one-on-one sessions, hoping to organize their way back to functionality. Weber was pulled away from the White House. “The few weeks leading up to the rollout of the American Jobs Plan—a key moment, peak Sunrise access with the White House—I was spending over fifty percent of my time dealing with internal strife, trying to prevent our organization from im- or exploding, when I could have been extracting as much policy concessions as possible from the legislative document that would end up forming the basis for the reconciliation package, basically, and the infrastructure bill,” said Weber.
This meant that somebody else would be making inroads where Weber had been attempting them. “People like to sneer and cringe at access politics and things like that, but for the people who sneer and cringe at that, we’re the only group they even halfway like,” Weber said. “And with the access that we had at that time, if I wasn’t there in those conversations, fighting for environmental justice, fighting for workers’ rights, fighting for the most ambitious climate plan possible, it was gonna be left to the old stodgy legacy greens or business interests or whomever else.” It wasn’t just about him, Weber worried as the process dragged on. “I was representing millions of young people—it was my job to represent the voices, aspirations, and hopes of millions of young people in those conversations in the White House,” he reflected.
The role of a movement is to build outside pressure that reshapes what is considered doable by insiders, but a movement needs allies on the inside to move the policy the final few inches over the finish line. Wording or decimal point tweaks at the last moment can have profound long-term implications, and Sunrise was positioned to be in the room to make sure the bill was as strong as possible. Unless the group’s people don’t make it into the room because they’re occupied elsewhere. “There were definitely meetings that I missed, that I had to show up to some other internal shit for instead,” Weber told me. “Most of the work doesn’t happen in the big group meetings that are formal and on the record. Most of the work actually happens through one-on-one meetings and the relationships. And so, you have to be proactive about that. At every moment that I wasn’t doing that, I was letting other people have that access instead, or just letting the White House do their own thing.” Given the Biden administration’s unexpected desire to play nice with the party’s left flank, private meetings with key White House officials routinely led to concessions being made. Meetings that didn’t happen left policy wins on the table.
Instead, Weber was facilitating Zoom sessions to sort through his organization’s culture. “That’s what the political director of arguably, somehow, the most powerful climate organization in the country—certainly the most powerful climate organization on the left—was doing in the lead-up to the rollout of that piece of legislation. It’s hard to look back and be, like, ‘I shouldn’t have been doing that.’ I certainly wish I wasn’t doing that.”
There were times, he added, when he pushed the internal strife aside to focus instead on strengthening the legislation. “You’ve got to try to keep your organization from imploding, because the stakes of that are pretty freakin’ high. But, you know, if I thought that it was all inevitable, yeah, maybe I would have just said, ‘Fuck this, this is our only moment,’ and certainly there were times where I made those [prioritization decisions] as well.”
Many other climate groups were sidelined during the later negotiations, too. Before Sunrise, the most effective youth climate group was 350.org, which organized civil disobedience against pipeline projects and pressured universities to divest from fossil fuel investments. But by 2021, it had completely collapsed into internal ruckus.
A climate leader at a different organization reached out to 350 in May 2021, to collaborate on a climate messaging campaign related to Build Back Better that was right up the group’s alley. It didn’t go well. He was told that 350.org was “taking ‘an eight week pause to focus on internal issues’ right at the moment mobilization was actually most needed. Devastating.” “Just stunning,” he said. “Please do your jobs and not whatever that is.” One senior progressive congressional aide said the Sierra Club infighting that led to Michael Brune’s departure was evident from the outside. “It caused so much internal churn that they stopped being engaged in any serious way at a really critical moment during Build Back Better,” the aide said.
As the year went on, and various compromises narrowed down the scope of the legislation, many of the groups responded not by working to salvage as much as possible, but by abandoning the entire project to focus on bills that had no chance of going anywhere. It made no sense from the outside but had an internal logic to it. “I’ve noticed a real erosion of the number of groups who are effective at leveraging progressive power in Congress. Some of that is these groups have these organizational culture things that are affecting them,” the staffer said. “Because of the organizational culture of some of the real movement groups that have lots of chapters, what they’re lobbying on isn’t relevant to the actual fights in Congress. Some of these groups are in Overton mode when we have a trifecta,” he said, referring to the Overton window. The idea, in theory, is that pushing their public policy demands farther and farther left widens what’s considered possible, thereby facilitating the future passage of ambitious legislation.
Those maximalist political demands can also be a by-product of internal strife, as organization leaders fend off charges of not embodying progressive values inside their organization by pushing external rhetoric farther left. But, the aide pointed out, there was legislative potential being lost. “There are wins to be had between now and the next couple months that could change the country forever, and folks are focused on stuff that has no theory of change for even getting to the House floor for a vote,” the aide said about two months before Build Back Better ended up passing as the slimmed-down Inflation Reduction Act. There’s a universe where people are on the outside, focused on power and leveraging power for progressives in Congress. Instead, they’re spending resources on stuff that is totally unrelated to governing. Nobody says, ‘Hey guys, could you maybe come and maybe focus on this?’”
The book is “The Squad: AOC and the Hope of a Political Revolution.”