Members Only | August 30, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Why the Republicans hate Biden’s college debt plan
It threatens the social hierarchy and established order.
Last week, Joe Biden announced executive action to forgive up to $20,000 of debt and end predatory interest for millions of Americans.
In response, many Republican leaders, like Tate Reeves, the governor of Mississippi, attacked gender studies majors.
Today Biden will announce that welders, plumbers, laborers, and other Mississippians (Black, white, Hispanic, etc.) [sic] will be forced to pay off the debts of Harvard doctorate degree gender studies majors living in California.
Governor Reeves and other Republican leaders pretend they are outraged on behalf of good, solid, responsible workers. As his tweet makes clear, they especially like to talk about welders.
But the obsession with gender studies gives the game away.
Racial and class equity
Republicans are embracing the rightwing populist playbook that calls for undermining class solidarity by attacking marginalized people.
Contra all the Republican propaganda, student debt forgiveness is not a policy aimed at elites. People who are truly wealthy simply pay for college. They do not have to take on a great deal of debt.
Biden’s program has an income cap; individual borrowers making $125,000 a year or more ($250,000 for households) are not eligible for relief. The Department of Education estimates 90 percent of relief dollars will go to those making less than $75,000 a year.
They embrace tax cuts for billionaires because billionaires are powerful. They oppose student debt forgiveness because it helps people who aren’t powerful.
Education debt hits Black families especially hard. Because of generations of racism and exploitation, Black people have far less generational wealth than white people. Their families cannot contribute much to college expenses. That means more debt.
Average debt for Black students four years after graduation is $53,000. That’s twice as much as white student debt.
This is why Biden targeted Pell Grant recipients for aid. Where most borrowers can receive up to $10,000 in relief, Pell grant recipients can receive $20,000. Black borrowers are especially reliant on Pell grants and twice as likely to have received them as white peers.
Pell grants are also specifically provided to low-income borrowers. Giving more relief to them advances racial equity and class equity.
“Financially responsible people”?
The program will cap monthly payments on federal loans at 5 percent of a borrower’s discretionary income (down from 10 percent). It raises the level of what is considered discretionary income. And it will stop interest from accruing as long as borrowers make payments.
The White House believes annual loan payments will be lowered by $1,000 or more for most borrowers. Low-income borrowers will be helped most.
Right-wing critics do not talk about these provisions. They don’t dig down and try to empirically figure out who is and isn’t helped.
Instead, they make sweeping vibes-based appeals to what-the-working-class-would-think-about-this.
Robby Soave of Reason, for example, insists that “Biden is saying fuck you to every financially responsible person in the country.”
Who are these financially responsible people?
Well, it turns out that they are defined less by responsible behavior and more by dogwhistles that link certain identities to virtue.
Donald Trump, Jr., as usual, exemplifies the reactionary id.
On social media, the extremely wealthy heir to a real estate fortune posted that, “Student debt cancellation is a tax on the most responsible people in the country who either saved, didn’t take on debt for useless majors or went right to work.”
Useless majors like “gender studies.”
Social mobility is … bad
These attacks on foolish college students learning about gender fit in with the broader rightwing moral panic about supposedly liberal, intolerant and evil college campuses where “the woke mob” torments and suppresses brave virtuous conservative truth-tellers.
It’s the right that’s suppressing speech on campus.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is pushing almost certainly unconstitutional laws to prevent Florida public university teachers from discussing racism in the classroom or from discussing the historical context of white privilege or white power.
Florida’s bills outlawing discussion of LGBT people in elementary school also has ominous repercussions for public universities.
Student loan relief will benefit teachers, nurses, social workers and the 39 million people who went to college and didn’t finish a degree.
But the right doesn’t associate higher education with normal, everyday working people, pursuing dreams and careers.
Instead the right sees higher education as a threat precisely because it offers the possibility of social mobility, and the promise that some of those at the bottom — like women or queer people who the right associates with gender studies — might gain stability or authority.
Just more deflection
Republicans defend social hierarchy. They embrace tax cuts for billionaires because billionaires are powerful. They oppose student debt forgiveness because it helps people who aren’t powerful.
But as long as we retain remnants of democracy, the optics of telling voters that you hate working people remains problematic. So, like rightwing populists throughout history, Republicans deflect.
They claim the issue is not billionaires vs. working people. Rather, the issue is hard-working welders — able-bodied, 93.9 percent men, 68.1 percent white — versus suspiciously feminine gender studies majors.
The issue is nefarious professors teaching critical race theory vs. virtuous white people.
Our current educational system uses massive debt to limit social mobility. It tells those of moderate means that they are immoral when they pursue their dreams.
They’re not supposed to think about gender or justice or philosophy or ethics. They’re supposed to work all the time for people like Donald Trump, Jr. and Tate Reeves.
Forgiving student debt is a step towards making the US a more equitable place where more people have the skills and knowledge they need not just to advance, but to question those in power.
That’s why Republicans hate it.
Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.