Ppolitics is not like ordinary life; It’s worse. Things that are considered valuable virtues in the normal world are often political responsibilities. We’ve all just been served with a shining example of how reflexive moderation — which is good for estimating revenue metrics or having a drink at a work party — becomes a political fool’s bet. The welfare of countless Americans has long been sacrificed on the altar of moderation by the Democratic Party, and all Democrats win because it is the utmost disgust.
This week, Joe Biden announced he would forgive $10,000 of federal student loan debt (or $20,000 for Pell grant recipients) for people earning less than $125,000 a year. This policy is both unquestionably wise and unquestionably a half measure. There has long been a movement on the left to cancel all student debt, and even Democratic stalwarts like Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren were pushing for the cancellation of $50,000 in debt. Joe Biden was drawn to this action, in large part, by his failure to push other, more important economic policies through Congress. But even in taking unilateral action, he succumbed to the overwhelming tendency of Clintonian Democrats to halve any good political idea and call it political wisdom.
And what did Biden gain for his personal, unforced decision to keep this program much smaller than it could have been? Within a day, mainstream Republican pundits and politicians called the policy an executive branch “coup,” “abuse of the law,” “quite revolting“, and a” fuck you all financially responsible the person”. Congressional Republicans shouted that it would lead to wild and unchecked borrowing, and Mitch McConnell, predictably, called it “socialism”.
In other words, Republicans – whose party has spent the past 50 years crushing workers’ power and funneling all of our nation’s income to the wealthy – suddenly became very concerned that this policy might be regressive in its advantages. The party that blocked broader measures that could have alleviated not just student debt but also housing and health care costs and poverty wages, is now alarmed that this policy does not solve not all these other problems. Republicans took the day off to try to eradicate unions, destroy public education and put the poor in jail to theatrically complain about how unfair this is to all the hard workers who didn’t go at University. No matter.
Here’s the very simple lesson to take from this episode: you’ll get all the backlash whether you do a little or a lot. So do a lot. What does this loan cancellation policy really lead to? It is essentially a small step toward a world in which America has free, high-quality public higher education for all. We don’t dream of a world in which student loan debt is a little smaller, but rather a world in which student loan debt doesn’t need to exist. This is the goal we must achieve. When, after many years of struggle, we are lucky enough to take a step in this direction, take a big step. To do otherwise is stupid. By cutting the number of debt relief far from what it could have been, Biden acts like a man who is forced to rush into a burning building to save two kittens, and decides to split it into two trips so that his arms do not. get tired. Hey, buddy: let’s do this all at once.
Incredibly, this fundamental truth about how politics works seems to elude Democrats forever. The issue of health care is an obvious parallel here. Free public health care – Medicare for all – is the intuitive, compassionate, and eminently achievable goal that all of our peers in the affluent Western world have already built. So naturally, this objective is considered a marginal position within the Democratic Party. Instead, Democrats spent decades in the excruciating process of building and defending Obamacare, an insufficient half-measure that cost the same amount of political capital and sparked the same amount of political opposition as the Medicare for All would have, while leaving in place most of the ruinous loopholes of our broken system. This dogged determination never to offer complete solutions to our problems is proudly embraced by Democratic leaders and touted in campaign ads as “reasonableness” and “moderation.”
Of all the perversities of American politics, the most frustrating is its belief that idealism is a weakness. The conflation of defeatism and wisdom means that expressing the belief that we should simply do what needs to be done to make the world a just place is enough to convince the political world that the speaker is a ruby. It’s ironic, because just the opposite is true, as anyone who has ever accomplished anything ambitious can tell you. There is nothing more stupid than negotiating against yourself. This dismal quality has long been a hallmark of Democrats, who are like shy children yearning to speak out but too scared to walk away from the lukewarm crowd.
What do we need? Public ownership of public goods for the public good. Public education, public health, public transport, public art. We are all the public, and helping the public is good. It’s called socialism, folks. Republicans will blame Democrats for it no matter what. Might as well stop dragging your feet and get straight to the point.