This article is adapted from my forthcoming book Abolish Oil Now, comparing the fight against climate change to abolition, history’s most successful people’s movement.
“He grew up poor, made a fortune and from then on championed the weak and any other group who wasn’t able to fight equally,” wrote singer Bob Dylan about one of the figures from history he most admired, Civil War-era Congressman Thaddeus Stevens. “He got right in there, called his enemies a ‘feeble band of lowly reptiles who shun the light and who lurk in their own dens…’ [He] could have stepped out of a folk ballad.”
Stevens was the most radical of the Radical Republicans — not a demagogue who caters to QAnon, but the nineteenth-century equivalent of the Squad.
Back in the days of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the positions of the two American political parties on racial issues were reversed. The Democrats were the proslavery party, with big support among southern planters, and the Republicans were the antislavery party, or at least the party that opposed the extension of slavery into new areas.
As with political parties today, some members were moderate and interested in compromise to get things done. Other members of the same party were less willing to compromise and insisted on holding fast to their ideals. Thaddeus Stevens was in the second group. His deep-seated hatred of slavery and visionary support for equal rights for Black Americans put him on the far left of the left-leaning party of his day.
Nobody embodies the Radical archetype for climate solutions like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, firebrand congresswoman from New York, champion of the Green New Deal, and recruiter of young people to climate activism.
Some critics say that AOC should tone down her attacks on Republicans who oppose action to create a clean economy. But she’s right to stick to her guns and she’s right to insist that any action on climate be big, transformative and designed to build social equity. AOC and the Green New Deal will win not by compromise but by staying radical.
For proof, I offer the example of the most uncompromising of opponents to the most powerful political interest of the mid-nineteenth century. Just as Thaddeus Stevens helped beat King Cotton in Congress by refusing to settle for little changes, so AOC can beat Big Oil by resisting pressure to water down the Green New Deal.
The parallels between AOC and Stevens are striking:
- Both were targeted by violent insurrectionists opposing the U.S. government
- Both brought a strong moral commitment to transformative change against the most powerful special interest of their day
- Both started as outsiders who went on to redefine and then lead the political conversation
By standing firm for moral principles, Stevens went on to lead abolitionists to victory over slavery and white supremacy. With the same firmness, can AOC lead Americans to victory over climate disruption?
An Outsider who Couldn’t Resist Poking the Slave Power
Born in poverty with clubfoot that left him with a permanent limp, Stevens taught school and practiced law before getting involved in politics at the local and state levels as an advocate for free public education and abolition. As an attorney he defended Black clients accused of being fugitive slaves. In the Pennsylvania state legislature, Stevens fought against disenfranchising Black voters.
Like many abolitionist leaders, Stevens was a powerful public speaker with a strong moral appeal. His use of oratory inspired by sermons was captured perfectly by actor Tommy Lee Jones who portrayed Stevens as a moralizing curmudgeon who could play political hardball, when necessary, in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln.
In real life, Stevens wasn’t afraid to ham it up in the cause of abolition. “I wished that I were the owner of every southern slave, that I might cast off the shackles from their limbs and witness the rapture which would excite them in the first dance of their freedom,” he told Pennsylvania lawmakers in 1837.
A resident of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, located just north of the Mason-Dixon line, Stevens risked his standing in society and his ability to hold public office by breaking the law: He served as a volunteer stationmaster on the Underground Railroad, coordinating the movement of fugitive slaves and offering them refuge in a hidden cistern connected to his house by a secret passage.
When Stevens was elected to Congress in 1858, he joined the Senate’s most famous abolitionist, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, in opposing the expansion of slavery and fighting concessions by the federal government to the demands of slaveowners. Once fighting broke out in the Civil War, like Sumner, Stevens argued that slavery should not survive the war and was frustrated by the slowness of Lincoln to use his war powers to emancipate slaves in the South.
Our object should be not only to end this terrible war now, but to prevent its recurrence. All must admit that slavery is the cause of it. Without slavery we should this day be a united and happy people…The principles of our Republic are wholly incompatible with slavery.
But abolition wasn’t good enough for Stevens. He also wanted the federal government to confiscate land from rebellious planters and distribute it as small farms to newly freed slaves, a plan that became known as “40 acres and a mule.” Then he wanted Black men given the right to vote and federal troops to remain stationed in the South after the war to enforce that right by force.
Targeted for His Radicalism
During the Civil War, Stevens’s views were well known by white southerners, who hated him so much that Confederate troops crossing into Pennsylvania in the campaign culminating in the Battle of Gettysburg attempted to capture the abolitionist congressman, twice. When asked if would take Stevens to Libby Prison in Richmond, Confederate General Jubal Early, a brutal supporter of slavery and white supremacy who led the raids to capture Stevens, replied that he would have hanged Stevens and divided his bones among the Confederate states.
Famous for his acerbic wit, Stevens was not afraid to provoke slaveowners and their northern enablers, which made Stevens eminently quotable. Campaigning for the Republicans in Lancaster in 1856, Stevens attacked the Democratic presidential nominee, a pro-slavery northerner from Stevens’ own hometown of Lancaster:
There is a wrong impression about one of the candidates. There is no such person running as James Buchanan. He is dead of lockjaw. Nothing remains but a platform and a bloated mass of political putridity.
A few years later, after the armed attack on Harper’s Ferry that made him famous in the North and infamous in the South, Stevens insulted southern honor when he quipped that “John Brown deserves to be hung for being a hopeless fool! He attempted to capture Virginia with seventeen men when he ought to know that it would require at least twenty-five.”
In his first speech in Congress, Stevens showed that he came not to persuade, but to challenge. On the House floor, Stevens dared southern whites who claimed that slavery was benign to make it voluntary. Then, if slavery was so attractive, planters should just sit back and watch their enslaved workforce grow. Southern leaders, who banned “incendiary” abolitionist literature from the U.S. Mail in southern states for inciting slave insurrection, must have been especially insulted by Stevens’s sarcasm:
Gentlemen on this floor and in the Senate, had repeatedly, during this discussion, asserted that slavery was a moral, political, and personal blessing; that the slave was free from care, contented, happy, fat, and sleek. Comparisons have been instituted between slaves and laboring freemen, much to the advantage of the condition of slavery. Instances are cited where the slave, having tried freedom, had voluntarily returned to resume his yoke.
Well, if this be so, let us give all a chance to enjoy this blessing. Let the slaves, who choose, go free; and the free, who choose, become slaves. If these gentlemen believe there is a word of truth in what they preach, the slaveholder need be under no apprehension that he will ever lack bondsmen. Their slaves would remain, and many freemen would seek admission into this happy condition…Nor will we rob the mails to search for incendiary publications in favor of slavery, even if they contain seductive pictures, and cuts of those implements of happiness, hand-cuffs, iron yokes, and cat-o’-nine-tails.
Stevens was ahead of his time. His plan for full civil rights guaranteed by strong federal enforcement was considered too extreme by most white Americans in his day, including most of his fellow Republicans. The kind of racial equality that Stevens preached would have to wait nearly a century until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was able to win the same demands.
One of the fieriest abolitionists to ever achieve public office, Stevens spared no zeal in pushing not only for emancipation but for full racial equality, no matter how unpopular his ideas were to most northerners at the time. “There can be no fanatics in the cause of genuine liberty,” as he put it.
AOC Brings a New Kind of Abolitionism to Congress
Like Thaddeus Stevens, she came from a marginalized background. In her case, both her parents were immigrants from Puerto Rico. Her father became an architect, which made her family more prosperous, but his death in 2008 brought financial worries. After graduating cum laude from Boston University, she moved back home to the Bronx and took a job as a bartender to help her mom who cleaned houses and drove school buses.
Ocasio-Cortez got into politics with Bernie Sanders’s presidential primary campaign in 2016. After the presidential election, she took a cross-country road trip with stops to give speeches and meet with activists about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota.
Impressed by the determination of anti-pipeline activists assembled from across the country, Ocasio-Cortez changed her views about what it took to succeed in politics. “I felt like the only way to effectively run for office is if you had access to a lot of wealth, high social influence, a lot of dynastic power, and I knew that I didn’t have any of those things.”
The day after her visit to Standing Rock, based on a nomination submitted by her brother after the Sanders campaign, she got a call from a group called Brand New Congress which was recruiting more diverse and progressive candidates.
It was as a bartender that Ocasio-Cortez first ran for Congress, also sharing with Thaddeus Stevens a background outside of professional politics. With grassroots mobilization and support from the left, in the Democratic primary election she defeated a powerful ten-term incumbent, Joe Crowley, and then went on to handily win the general election to enter Congress at age 29 as the youngest member of the House.
Even before she was sworn in, Ocasio-Cortez took up the mantle of Congressional Radical. Just like Thaddeus Stevens, who criticized Lincoln for moving too slowly on emancipation, Ocasio-Cortez clashed with leaders of her own party. On the first day of orientation for new representatives, she staged a sit-in for climate action outside the office of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. Backed up by 200 young activists from the Sunrise Movement, Ocasio-Cortez said that the action was not about conflict but friendly persuasion, meant to encourage Pelosi to put climate action front-and-center in the coming session of Congress.
Word had gotten around that Democratic leaders in Congress had compiled a list of a half dozen or more issues they planned to focus on when they took over the House of Representatives as the new majority after triumphing in the 2018 midterm elections, but that climate change was not on the list. In response, AOC and Sunrise took preemptive action to convince Pelosi that climate should not be ignored as Democratic leadership had done in the past. “This is not about me, this is not about the dynamics of any personalities,” she told reporters outside Pelosi’s office. “But this is about uplifting the voice and the message of the fact that we need a Green New Deal, and we need to get to 100 percent renewables because our lives depend on it.”
Once she took office, Ocasio-Cortez, like Bernie Sanders a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, pushed quickly for radical action on both climate solutions and populist economic stimulus. Describing climate change as “the single biggest national security threat for the United States and the single biggest threat to worldwide industrialized civilization,” in February 2018, she teamed up with Senator Ed Markey to introduce a resolution in both houses of Congress supporting a Green New Deal.
By recruiting new supporters among young people, AOC gave new life to a concept that had been kicking around progressive circles for more than a decade to entwine aggressive action to cut climate pollution with serious government spending to boost the economy and promote fairness for working Americans and people of color.
Calling for trillions of dollars of investment by the federal government over a ten-year period, the GND would decarbonize the economy, create and guarantee jobs across a new clean economy, and ensure a just transition that would avoid the racial inequities of the original New Deal, that left Black Americans out of many programs. The GND should offer workforce development and job guarantees, along with strong labor, environmental, and nondiscrimination standards for “low-income communities, communities of color, indigenous communities, [and] the front-line communities most affected by climate change, pollution, and other environmental harm,” in the words of Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution.
In the 1860s, Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens pushed to transform American aims in the Civil War from saving the Union to ending slavery, both for moral reasons and for a very practical reason, to prevent future sectional conflict between the North and the South. Today, Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is also pushing to make the fight to save the climate about ending poverty and pollution for both moral and practical reasons.
Not only is it a moral question to ensure fair access to all Americans regardless of race or wealth to a clean environment and the chance to prosper. It’s practical too. Making it impossible for any group of people to suffer more than anyone else is also the best way to make sure the problem of climate is permanently solved. If there are no sacrifice zones, no communities where it’s OK to dump coal ash or build gas pipelines through, then it will be much harder, if not impossible, to keep digging up, pumping, and burning fossil fuels.
Just like Thaddeus Stevens, AOC’s willingness to confront the opposition has made her bitter enemies among reactionaries. Though a junior member of Congress, Ocasio-Cortez has gotten more attention in the media than most presidential candidates, becoming one of the most recognizable faces of her party and the climate movement.
Targeted by Fox News and MAGA Insurrectionists
As Thaddeus Stevens was public enemy number one for slaveholders before and during the Civil War, so recently AOC has become the leading target of a right-wing largely financed by Big Oil and stoked by Fox News.
A study of a single six-week period in 2019 found that Fox and its sister station Fox Business mentioned Ocasio-Cortez 3,181 times, an average of 76 times a day. Attacking her advocacy for a Green New Deal, Fox personalities have denounced AOC as a hypocrite for using cars while belittling her for having worked as a bartender and dismissing her for being young.
Sean Hannity called her “the real speaker of the House,” instead of Nancy Pelosi. Tucker Carlson has called her an “idiot wind bag,” a “pompous little twit,” a “fake revolutionary,” ”self-involved and dumb,” a “moron and nasty and more self-righteous than any televangelist.” Apparently, Carlson was immune to the irony of how these terms might apply more to himself than anyone else.
Such invective certainly has stoked anger on the right and may have encouraged pro-Trump rioters who attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, to specifically seek out AOC, hoping to kidnap and possibly kill her. During the riot, insurrectionists loudly banged on the doors to her office shouting “Where is she? Where is She?” Ocasio-Cortez recalled her reaction: “This was the moment where I thought everything was over. I thought I was going to die.”
Fortunately, AOC escaped the MAGA mob unharmed, no thanks to Fox News and those on the right who had stoked right-wing ire against her—including prominent climate deniers, as we saw—largely for her work to raise the alarm on climate breakdown and promote the Green New Deal. The archetype of the Radical is no stranger to death threats. What happened to AOC in 2021 is eerily reminiscent of the violence by Confederate raiders in 1863 directed at Thaddeus Stevens because of his strong stance for abolition. Serving as the Radical is a test of courage whether your mission was to abolish slavery in the nineteenth century or is to abolish oil today.
AOC is still at the beginning of what anyone who cares about the climate must hope will be a long and productive political career. Thaddeus Stevens, who was born in 1792 while George Washington was president, got a late start in national politics, first winning election to Congress at age 57. Yet, Stevens still managed to remain in Congress, on and off, for the better part of two decades, pushing hard for abolition and equal rights the whole time.
Perhaps because she’s young and obviously has bright prospects in politics is why Fox News has attacked her AOC so vociferously, in an attempt to preemptively destroy her political advancement, just as the conservative network focused on Hillary Clinton for decades before she ran for president.
But attacks from the right will only make AOC more popular with most of the public that supports climate action, just as targeting by Confederates bolstered support during the Civil War and Reconstruction for Thaddeus Stevens.
Ocasio-Cortez got a head start of nearly 30 years on Stevens and she could serve in national office for decades to come. So far, she has managed to pack a massive amount of hard fighting for climate solutions and social equity into a brief career in Congress. If AOC can keep up the momentum, she’s sure to play as a heroic a role in abolishing oil as Stevens did in abolishing slavery.