President Biden’s announcement that he will cancel up to $20,000 in student-loan debt for tens of millions of Americans would have seemed unimaginable a few years ago. But things change quickly in politics. Last year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said such a move was impossible because forgiving student-loan debt was outside the president’s power. Now it isn’t just possible, but fair and reasonable politics.
It is easy to see why this is happening. The Biden administration is deeply underwater in the polls, the midterms are approaching, and good, old-fashioned bribery remains an effective tool in politics. Here in Sweden, the Social Democrats, also fearing for their electoral future, introduced last year the concept of the “family week”: six days total of state-subsidized time off from work for every family with children. Whether the Social Democrats actually stand to gain much electorally from the family week isn’t clear. But the intention—to bribe voters who might otherwise drift toward more right-liberal pastures—is unmistakable.
Biden’s handout to educated voters is the most naked form of political patronage you can imagine. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if you happen to be a Democratic Party strategist. There is no confusion here about who ought to be rewarded and who punished. One will likely have to wait a long time before the Republicans counter with a similar sort of handout to their own putative constituents. Indeed, why not a family week? If the problem with “the libs,” as it were, is that they are all antisocial nihilists who refuse to have children in favor of pursuing hedonistic pleasures, then handing out state benefits to families with children, and making the childless pay for it, seems like a very sound way of rewarding one’s friends and punishing one’s enemies.
At the end of the day, though, the limitations of the right are illuminated fully in a moment of political controversy like this. The problem isn’t that the right is “stupid” while the left is “evil.” The problem is that the right has a contradictory and unworkable coalition, with various interest groups at odds with each other. On the left, by contrast, years of “cancel culture” haven’t just been an obnoxious social affair, but have cleared the deck politically, removing or marginalizing dissident political voices and ensuring that people pursue the same sort of politics.
Again, consider the archetypical neocon or establishment Republican today. He is no great enemy of spending. In fact, he might be the biggest friend of welfare payments in US politics today, as long as the welfare payments are going to people in Ukraine. Austerity at home and largesse abroad. Budget balancing for undeserving American moms, blank checks for deserving moms in Afghanistan. This program actually makes a lot of sense, but what doesn’t make sense is trying to combine it with nationalism, or a care for one’s own people. Unfortunately, for all the progress that has been made in trying to change the GOP after the dramatic rise of Donald Trump, there’s far too much confusion, as new, more nationalist factions and institutions try to work alongside old, compromised ones.
The contradictions hardly end there. Conservative activists, as opposed to conservative voters, are almost all college-educated, and many hold student loans. They might have an ideological or moral aversion to student-debt forgiveness, but at the end of the day, a large but morally wrong wad of cash is still a wad of cash. The alignment of ideology and material interests for Democratic activists and Democratic voters is more perfect than that of their opponents.
Hypocrisy is no flaw in politics. On a practical level, it may be closer to a virtue than a vice. A healthy dose of opportunistic hypocrisy, combined with a clear sense of who your friends and enemies are, will take you far in politics. But a combination of hypocrisy and misaligned interests—having actual or even potential beneficiaries of student-loan forgiveness hypocritically lead the charge against forgiving student loans—is a recipe for failure and impotence.
And so the Democrats pile on even more unsustainable debt to give out handouts to a social group that by and large doesn't need it, but that has significant overlap with the kinds of people who become pundits, consultants, and activists on the right. Is it really a mystery that the Democrats succeed in these sorts of battles? What is even the benefit of “winning” them, for the Republican activist class? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that however loudly they denounce this move, Republican pundits don’t mind losing this battle.