The Weekly | Young Climate Activists Push Democrats to the Left

Episode 8: ‘Hard Left’

Producer/Director Samantha Stark

[Read Astead W. Herndon’s article on how the young activists of the Sunrise Movement have become political power players in the 2020 presidential race.]

Many Democrats want their 2020 presidential nominee to do two things above all: Defeat Donald Trump and protect the planet from imminent environmental disaster. But liberal activists, party officials and even some of the candidates themselves disagree on how far left the party should go to successfully accomplish both tasks. How they settle their differences over proposals like the Green New Deal, a groundbreaking climate-change plan, will likely influence the party’s — and the country’s — future.

“The Weekly” embeds with the young, liberal activists of the Sunrise Movement for three months as they aggressively press their case for revolutionary measures alongside Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders. And we catch up with the Democratic frontrunner, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., and other party loyalists, some of whom warn that radical policies may jeopardize their chances of beating Trump, who has mocked the threat of climate change in the past.

[Join the conversation about @theweekly on Twitter and Instagram. #TheWeeklyNYT.]

Featured Reporter

Astead W. Herndon has been a national political reporter for The New York Times since he joined the paper in 2018. Before that, he was a reporter in The Boston Globe’s Washington bureau covering the Trump White House and covered City Hall for the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWesley.

Astead’s Top 3 Takeaways

The Democratic Party’s leftward shift since the 2016 presidential election is undeniable. The 2018 midterm election results and the tenor of the early stages of the 2020 presidential race show that, in most areas, progressives have pushed Democrats left on a number of issues. Candidates are discussing Supreme Court expansion, reparations, single-payer health care, and free college — in addition to the Green New Deal. Even Biden’s seemingly moderate campaign is more liberal than any of his previous runs for office in his 50-year political career.

The establishment is nervous. Older, more moderate Democrats say the way back to the White House is to reclaim many people who voted for President Trump in 2016, and they point to wins by moderate Democrats in 2018 congressional races and Midwestern gubernatorial contests as proof of their strategy. The more candidates who embrace far-left positions like the Green New Deal, the more unsettled many moderates become.

Democrats of all stripes are up against the Trump campaign juggernaut. The president’s re-election campaign, as you can see from his campaign rallies, has largely been about energizing his base with sweeping and incendiary attacks against his opponents. Democrats, despite the infighting, have largely kept the primary debate focused on policy. They must ultimately come together around their nominee if they are to defeat an incumbent who has united the Republican base.

Show Notes

Behind-the-scenes commentary about the episode from Samantha Stark.

Varshini Prakash, the 25-year-old executive director of the Sunrise Movement, has led the climate activists on a nationwide tour to build support for their cause. “Six months ago just a handful of politicians were talking about climate change. Now there are over 100 co-sponsors on a Green New Deal resolution in the House and the Senate,” she tells a packed crowd in Detroit in April. “That is because of what we did.”

From left to right, Jeremy Ornstein, Ksusha Karnoup, Jesse Meinsenhelter and Dyanna Jaye of the Sunrise Movement. They drive a van loaded with the group’s yellow banners and other set pieces to 10 cities on their national tour to rally supporters of the Green New Deal.

“Hub leaders” from Sunrise chapters around the country have regular video chats to strategize and plan their activities. The group’s leaders say they’ve grown from 15 hubs to more than 200 since a highly publicized sit-in last fall at Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Capitol Hill office. Sometimes more than 100 people participate in the video chat.

Sunrise members Sally Morton, left, Phillip Dupree, center, and Mukta Kelkar attend the California State Democratic Convention in the spring, when they followed presidential candidates — cellphone cameras at the ready — to press them to sign a pledge not to take donations from the oil, gas and coal industries. 


Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas invokes the words of another Texas Democrat, President Lyndon B. Johnson, when Cuellar met with Astead in his Capitol Hill office to discuss the leftward push by some party activists. “What’s the difference between a liberal and a cannibal?” Cuellar quotes Johnson. “Cannibals don’t eat their own.” 


Trump supporters chant  “Socialism sucks!” outside the first Democratic presidential primary debate in Miami in June. Some opponents of the Green New Deal have tried to characterize it as an attempt to undermine the country’s democracy, using the climate proposal as a political cudgel against Democrats.

Outside a rally for President Trump in Greenville, N.C., in July, his supporters sell gag gifts poking fun at Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for some of her climate positions. A fact sheet published by her office last month, and later withdrawn, said it would be hard to “get rid of farting cows,” a source of methane, a powerful planet-warming gas.

Where Are They Now?

Varshini Prakash, the co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, is still the group’s executive director. The group helped bring more than 1,000 young people to Detroit for the second Democratic presidential debate, where they tried to push candidates to further commit to the Green New Deal.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright, the policy director for New Consensus, lives in Washington, where she works with progressive groups to win broad support for the Green New Deal and other progressive policies.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York continues to gather supporters for her climate initiative. She’s faced pushback from party leaders, who introduced their own climate proposal that stops short of the Green New Deal’s most ambitious goals, but goes further than previous policies put forward by Democrats.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is running for president a second time. Though he’s stalled in the polls in recent weeks, he remains a leading contender for the Democratic nomination and has maintained a fundraising edge over his rivals. He’s a vigorous supporter of the Green New Deal.

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.’s strategy of projecting unity with the other Democratic candidates was rattled in the first primary debate, when Senator Kamala Harris of California challenged his record and personal views. Biden, who leads the Democratic primary field in national polls, is more vocally highlighting his differences with other candidates and leaning in to the moderate label more explicitly.

Complete coverage

In the days before the presidential candidates met in Detroit for the second round of debates, Democrats grappled with a central question: Is beating Trump enough? Or should they “shake the political system like a snow globe,” embracing liberal policies like some outlined in the Green New Deal?

The Green New Deal has been touted as lifesaving by its supporters and criticized as an absurd socialist conspiracy by critics. Our climate reporter Lisa Friedman explains the proposal.

Representative Ocasio-Cortez has rallied to shore up support for the Green New Deal, but some of her missteps have invited even more criticism from conservatives.

After fierce criticism from his Democratic rivals for president, Biden defended his environmental record and pledged to pursue a “green revolution” that is “rational” and affordable.

As the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, Biden’s record has come under renewed scrutiny. Astead discussed the candidate’s past positions on race for The Daily podcast.

Producer Lizzie Blenk
Director of Photography Andreas Burgess and Vanessa Carr
Video Editor Geoff O’Brien and Sean Frechette
Senior Story Editors Dan Barry, Liz O. Baylen and Liz Day
Co-Producer Lora Moftah

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