April 28, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
Cancel student loan debt for the right reason – to show the people that the United States government is on their side
Looking at the midterms is looking at the wrong reason.
The president said Tuesday he was considering doing more about student loan debt under his authority as president. He might push the moratorium for repayments to December. He might go bigger.
Joe Biden met with seven members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. California Congressman Tony Cardenas asked him about forgiving at least $10,000 for every debtor. (Biden promised that on the campaign trail.) In an interview, Cardenas told the AP the president said, “‘Yes, I’m exploring doing something on that front.’ And he also smiled and said, ‘You’re going to like what I do on that as well.’”
Democrats welcomed the news.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who favors debt forgiveness using executive powers that won’t require congressional approval, told the AP, “I think the president is moving in our direction. My talks with him and his staff have been very fruitful over the last little while.”
“Democracy in order to live must become a positive force in the daily lives of its people. It must make men and women whose devotion it seeks, feel that it really cares for the security of every individual; that it is tolerant enough to inspire an essential unity among its citizens; and that it is militant enough to maintain liberty against social oppression at home and against military aggression abroad.”President Franklin Roosevelt, 1938.
Conservatives (real ones) hated the news.
“Desperate polls call for desperate measures,” wrote US Senator Mitt Romney, of Utah, on Twitter. “Democrats consider forgiving trillions in student loans. Other bribe suggestions: Forgive auto loans? Forgive credit card debt? Forgive mortgages? And put a wealth tax on the super-rich to pay for it all. What could possibly go wrong?”
(Apparently, it wasn’t bribery when the federal government handed out forgivable, and forgiven, loans to businesses during the pandemic.)
Liberals were giddy.
“Canceling federal student debt could be a game changer ahead of the midterms,” wrote Mehdi Hasan, host of MSNBC’s The Mehdi Hasan Show. “Activists energized, base enthused, young people turning out again. And the best part: Joe Manchin wouldn’t be able to do a single damn thing to stop Joe Biden from doing it. Do it, POTUS, do it.”
The list of good and just reasons for canceling student debt is long. One thing, however, should not be on it. Supposing Biden does go big, would that mean you can expect to see “young people turning out again”? If you are, I’m sorry. You’re going to be sorely disappointed.
Young people don’t vote.
They vote less in midterms.
The presumption appears to be that canceling student loan debt will spark an immediate reaction from young votes – immediate enough to drive them to vote in November’s congressional elections. The Democrats are bracing for the historical trend of losing the House.
That presumption rests on the fact that young people – young Democrats – are very soft on Biden. They voted for him, but polls consistently show the president’s job approval is weakest among Americans under 30. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, though she’s not the only one, attributes that softness to the president’s failure to honor his promise to erase student debt.
(Point of fact: the president never promised to cancel all student debt, only a percentage under executive authority, though that’s contested. Some say he can wipe out all of it. The narrative, however, is out of his control. Ocasio-Cortez has rewritten what he promised to do.)
Again, young people don’t vote.
They vote less in midterms.
According to Pew, the gold standard, 15 percent of Americans 18-29 years of age voted in 2020. Only 11 percent voted in the 2018 midterms. Only 13 percent voted in 2016. Even in 2008, the acclaimed “Year of the Youth Vote, only 18 percent of these Americans turned out to vote.
Meanwhile, 30 percent of people 30-49 voted in 2020. Twenty-eight percent of people 50-64. Twenty-seven percent of people 65 and up. These numbers have not appreciably changed for two decades.
I don’t know why exactly, but the Washington press corps has been making a thing out of the youth vote at least since the 1972 presidential election, the first one after the ratification of the 26th Amendment, which set the voting age across the country at 18. George McGovern famously longed for a young angry turnout. You know how that went.
To be sure, 43 million Americans are burdened with student debt. A lot of them are over 30. That underscores my point. Those who vote already vote. Nixing some, or all, of the one and a half trillion dollars of outstanding debt isn’t going to drive out voters already driven out.
Forget about being rewarded for eradicating debt.
Think about being rewarded for empowering the people.
The week before the 1938 election, President Franklin Roosevelt defended New Deal legislation by explaining his vision of what a democracy is supposed to be. As you read this passage, think about the long effects of lifting debts off the shoulders of millions. He said:
We cannot carelessly assume that a nation is strong and great merely because it has a democratic form of government. We have learned that a democracy weakened by internal dissension, by mutual suspicion born of social injustice, is no match for autocracies which are ruthless enough to repress internal dissension.
Democracy in order to live must become a positive force in the daily lives of its people. It must make men and women whose devotion it seeks, feel that it really cares for the security of every individual; that it is tolerant enough to inspire an essential unity among its citizens; and that it is militant enough to maintain liberty against social oppression at home and against military aggression abroad.
The rest of the world is far closer to us in every way than in the days of democracy’s founders-Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln. Comparisons in this world are unavoidable. To disprove the pretenses of rival systems, democracy must be an affirmative, up-to-date conception. It can no longer be negative – no longer adopt a defeatist attitude. In these tense and dangerous situations in the world, democracy will save itself with the average man and woman by proving itself worth saving.
I will continue defending Biden’s record. Ditto for the congressional Democrats. But I understand why people under 30 might feel, for all the hype of 2020, that what needs doing, right now, isn’t being done.
I understand why “the average man and woman” might wonder if democracy is “worth saving” given it has not – perhaps cannot, from the cynic’s point of view – provide the people with what they need.
After all, the young are not thinking about midterms. They are thinking about the future they will live in long after the rest of us are dead.
I doubt canceling student debt will bear fruit in November.
But it would be a message millions desperately desire to hear.
The United States government is on your side.
As FDR said in 1938: “Our economic and social system cannot deny the paramount right of the millions who toil and the millions who wish to toil, to have it function smoothly and efficiently. After all, any such system must provide efficiently for distributing national resources and serving the welfare and happiness of all who live under it.”
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.