Before he ascended to the position of vice president, Joe Biden was known as “the senator from MBNA.” Biden represented Delaware: a state with a low population of human persons but a high density of corporate persons, especially banks. Through his 36 years in the Senate, Biden remained a faithful servant to those banks, eager to rewire laws to make life harder for debtors.
So it is a genuine twist that one of the signature achievements of Biden’s presidency will be an executive order providing student debt relief to millions of Americans. As filmmaker Astra Taylor, cofounder of the Debt Collective, which has agitated on the issue since 2012, wrote in The New Republic, “A decade ago, if you had told me that Joe Biden, a man who during his long career as senator helped expand the student lending industry and worked to strip student borrowers of bankruptcy protections, would one day be president and eliminate hundreds of billions of dollars of student debt, I would have scoffed—even as I was throwing my lot in with the movement that would fight doggedly to make this happen.”
While Biden’s policies fell far short of the complete write-off of existing student debt that activists called for, it still represents a massive improvement from the status quo. A majority of debtors will see all their outstanding student loans disappear.
Taylor is justified in doing a victory dance. She writes, “Make no mistake, this represents a landmark victory for student debtors. Through years of tireless and often thankless organizing, borrowers and their allies pushed a reluctant administration to deliver broad-based student debt cancellation—to bail out regular people, not big banks or businesses. Approximately 20 million people will have their balances completely wiped out, and many have been sharing emotional messages of shock and jubilation online.”
This narrative of activists forcing action from a foot-dragging Biden is supported by the reporting of The New York Times, which published an extensive backgrounder under the headline “Biden Gave In to Pressure on Student Debt Relief After Months of Doubt.”
It’s not surprising that some centrists begrudge giving credit to activists, although it is perhaps more eyebrow-raising that at least one prominent left-wing voice shares this denigration of mass mobilization.
Responding to the Times articles, Stuart Stevens, erstwhile Republican political consultant turned Never Trump activist, tweeted, “There’s never been a single decision by a POTUS on which there were not different sides & varying opinions. To describe @POTUS decision on student loans as ‘giving in’ is like declaring that FDR finally gave in to old people & created Social Security.”
On the August 25 episode of the popular left-wing podcast Chapo Trap House, cohost Matt Christman also wanted to give Biden full credit, with not even a nod to activism. “At the end of the day we are all waiting at the bottom of the ravine for Joe Biden to come to unleash the waters and for us all to gather our cups full until he does it again,” Christman snorted. “He’s in charge. We have no control. We’re not getting anything out of this. It’s not any kind of transaction. We’re just hoping for the beneficence to fall on us.”
Stevens and Christman have widely different political histories. Stevens is a figure of the pre-Trump GOP, a conservative who is horrified by what his party has become but is still an instinctive rightist. Christman is putatively a leftist, although one with a defeatist mentality that insists nothing can ever change, creating a political passivity that is functionally identical with conservativism. It’s fascinating to see both of them settle on a narrative where presidential whims determine history with no regard to grassroots organizing.
The allusion Stevens makes to Franklin Roosevelt and Social Security actually teaches a different lesson. When Roosevelt ran in 1932, he had no intention of creating anything like Social Security. Roosevelt’s preferred solution to the Great Depression was a corporatist alliance of government, capital, and labor unions under the National Industrial Recovery Act. But as the Depression persisted and the problem of impoverished senior citizens who had their savings wiped out grew steadily more acute, grassroots activism started pushing for new solutions. Some of those solutions, like the Townsend Plan (named after activist Francis E. Townsend) were utopian: Townsend wanted to give each senior citizen $200 a month, paid for by a 2 percent national sales tax. But the exploding popularity of the Townsend Plan—over 3400 Townsend Clubs across the country started lobbying Congress—helped push politicians like New York Senator Richard Wagner to take up the problem, which eventually found favor with the White House thanks to sympathetic insiders like Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins.
The political trajectories of Social Security and student debt relief are quite similar: In both cases, popular organizing helped create the political environment that made change possible, even in the face of an indifferent or hostile administration. In the current instance, the role of Robert Wagner was played by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Washington Post reporter Jeff Stein provided a useful rundown of how student debt relief happened: “1. Starts out as a fringe idea 2. Pushed relentlessly by committed activists 3. Taken up by some politicians 4. Embraced by a broader section of party leadership 5. Enacted by the president.” This is a more accurate overview than the emphasis Stevens and Christman gave to Joe Biden’s alleged “beneficence.” Contra Christman, Biden is not completely “in charge.” Biden is a transactional politician responsive to pressures from within the party. If left-wing activists can organize to pressure the party, they can change presidential behavior. This is a lesson that applies to more than just debt relief. It’s the model going forward for progress in national politics.