Last week, Joe Biden announced an executive order to cancel up to $10,000 of federal student loan debt for borrowers making $125,000 or less a year and up to $20,000 for couples making $250,000 or less. (Borrowers who received Pell Grants can have up to $20,000 forgiven.)
To no one’s surprise, the right-wing outrage machine immediately kicked into high gear. Tucker Carlson, in a hardly coherent rant, acknowledged that student debt “is hurting young people and there’s really no good reason for it” and that “the obvious response [to Biden’s executive order] would be to celebrate the announcement” — before attempting to convince his viewers that the forgiveness was a giveaway to college administrators and “lawyers or gender studies majors” that hardworking taxpayers would be paying for. In a similar vein, Carlson’s Fox News colleague Sean Hannity blasted debt cancellation as a “reverse Robin Hood” measure that will benefit “elites” and will be paid for by “the hardworking American people.”
Both pundits argued that the policy was a ploy by Biden and the Democrats to shore up their voting base, with Hannity calling the cancellation the “Biden Bribery and Vote Buying Act of 2022.” Donald Trump Jr offered the most entertaining version of this take on Instagram, posting an image that implied, in no uncertain terms, that student debt forgiveness was an effective ploy to get “millennial voters” to support Biden in 2024.
Republican legislators lined up to bash the policy, too. Republican representative Kevin Brady of Texas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, called debt cancellation a “giveaway to highly educated college grads.” Congressman Tom Rice of South Carolina invoked the hoary “moral hazard” argument, claiming that canceling debt today would encourage more people to take out loans in the future with the expectation that they won’t have to repay.
The arguments are bad on their merits. But they are also likely to be unconvincing to the majority of Americans who support student loan cancellation. That’s not to mention the tens of millions ordinary Americans receiving a substantial material improvement in their lives as a result of Biden’s order, who will know firsthand that the policy is not a handout to elites.
In fact, the Right’s charge that debt cancellation is a way of “buying votes” gives away the desperation of their position. A person who receives $10,000 from a Democratic president is, of course, more likely to vote for that president and his party. But far from being a symbol of “corruption,” as the Tucker Carlsons of the world would have it, delivering material gains to ordinary people is exactly what politicians should be doing to build popular majorities with an interest in defending democracy and building a more equal, solidaristic society.
As Robbie Nelson wrote in Jacobin in 2017:
Solidarity doesn’t burst, Athena-like, from the minds of the enlightened. It is actively produced, both through political struggle and through policies that materially unify the working classes. Medicare for All, free college tuition, free child care, direct debt relief, a massive green jobs measure — these are the kind of broad, easy-to-understand social programs that can build a progressive majority against Trumpism.
Biden’s debt cancellation plan is far from sufficient, and it is at best one plank in the kind of ambitious redistributive agenda championed by democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But debt cancellation will offer substantial material benefit to tens of millions of people — the political implications of which the Right clearly understands. That’s why right-wingers’ best move here is to try to obfuscate what’s really happening, by painting recipients of forgiveness as irresponsible or elite (or both) and claiming that nonborrowing Americans will foot the bill in the form of higher taxes. The Democrats can and should point out that this is nonsense.
More important, they should recognize debt cancellation for the clear moral and political winner that it is and push through other policies that offer significant, easy-to-understand material benefits to the masses. Combining student debt relief with other redistributive measures like free college for all and medical debt cancellation can stave off the sense that student borrowers are being singled out for special benefits and undermine the Right’s attempts to divide and conquer.
Given the class character and dominant ideology of the Democratic Party, they probably won’t do this. But only a party with this kind of program stands a chance of consolidating a popular base that can beat the Right.