Generations ago, the Democratic Party knew a thing or two about power. The great New Deal politicians understood that the people want strength, vision and courage. Those noble liberal principles—generosity, compassion, love for the common man—were inherently good and should be fought for with vigor.
When the country was faced with a problem of inequality and injustice, they believed, the proper thing to do was to solve it at once.
For example, once upon a time poor kids couldn’t attend college, because private banks refused to lend them money. Well, Lyndon Johnson had a problem with that. To let a child’s genius go to waste, simply because his parents didn’t make a good living, was an abomination that could not be tolerated in the richest country on earth.
So he passed the Higher Education Act of 1965, which established our modern student loan system, and gave every young person in this country the means to finance as much education as they needed to unlock their potential.
After that measure, a college education became a right for all Americans, instead of a privilege.
It was bold, progressive, uncompromising, easy to understand — that’s how you use power. When you know you’re on the side of the angels, and trying to accomplish something that will transform millions of lives, there’s no reason not to act this way.
Unfortunately, today’s Democrats are much different. We have become the party of dorks, timid, feckless, uncertain, who insist on over-complicating our programs to the point where they come off like lukewarm oatmeal, instead of something solid and nutritious.
Take the current debate over student loan cancellation. Now, on the merits, Democrats have a strong case for eliminating young people’s student loans. Unlike the baby boom generation, which was able to finance their college education cheaply through low tuition rates, today’s 20-somethings have been forced to take out crippling debt to get their degrees.
According to data from the Department of Education, the average student loan balance is $37,013, which, for someone just starting their career, is a serious impediment to launching their adult life. Kids are forced to delay key milestones like buying their first car and house, and starting families.
It is especially cruel to impose this burden on the young, when after all, we were told all our lives that going to college was essential for achieving success, much in the same way graduating high school was generations ago.
If President Joe Biden were acting like the old, principled Democrats, he’d seize this moral issue at once and cancel at least $50,000 worth of debt through executive order, as he is legally entitled to do through the Higher Education Act. This would be a New Deal for America’s young people, and allow them a meaningful chance to acquire the kind of financial security their parents did.
Instead, he’s taking the dork approach, and according to news reports, preparing to cancel just $10,000 worth of debt, and limiting this forgiveness only to those making under $150,000 a year. That’s enough to somewhat chip away at the problem, but not make any real meaningful progress.
As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez noted in a Tweet, “$10k means tested forgiveness is just enough to anger the people against it *and* the people who need forgiveness the most. $10k relieves most the people who owe the least. What relief is there for the most desperate? For them, interest will undo that $10k fast. We can do better.”
Biden has clearly been impacted by the conservative criticism of student loan cancellation — that it’s a handout to the undeserving young and therefore an unnecessary expense. Instead of moving with boldness and progressive conviction, he’s letting his political opponents hedge his ambitions.
There seems to be the implicit assumption with this sort of policy making that if liberals act moderate enough, the right won’t get as angry in response, which will help Democrats politically. Instead of being smeared as out-of-control Marxists, the GOP will recognize our mature, sensible approach and applaud us for it.
But that’s pure naïveté. Republicans hate everything liberals propose, whether it’s pure socialism or something more centrist. That’s simply the conservative style of politics — demonize the left as an apocalyptic threat to America’s values, in order to score partisan points and win at the next election. The goal is to gain power, not make rational criticisms of progressive policies.
Therefore, Democrats gain nothing by softening their approach. Since the Republicans are going to respond with outrage no matter what, we might as well boldly fight for our vision. After all, what is there to lose?
Far too often we give in on our agenda — even though we’re on the right side of history — and appear weak to the public. It seems to be the eternal flaw of the tender-hearted, a certain lack of force and backbone. As Yeats wrote long ago, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
But as presidents like Lyndon Johnson proved, this need not be so. We have had great leaders in our past, who were soft and humanitarian like Grandma but with the power and strength of a bull.
It is incumbent on Democrats to remember the example of such men, and use their legacy as a compass for charting our country’s course in the future.
Joshua Heath is a Santa Clarita resident. “Democratic Voices” appears Tuesdays and rotates among local Democrats.