Before becoming vice president, Joe Biden was known as “the senator from MBNA”. Biden represented Delaware: a state with a low population of people but a high density of corporate people, especially banks. Throughout his 36 years in the Senate, Biden remained a loyal servant of those banks, eager to change laws to make life harder for debtors.
So it’s a genuine twist that one of the signature achievements of the Biden presidency is an executive order providing student debt relief to millions of Americans. Like filmmaker Astra Taylor, co-founder of Debt Collective, who has stirred up 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 a senator helped expand the student loan industry and worked to strip student borrowers of bankruptcy protections, would one day be president and eliminate to hundreds of billions of dollars of student debt, I would have scoffed, even as I joined the movement that would doggedly fight to make this happen.”
While Biden’s policies fell far short of the full cancellation of existing student debt that activists were calling for, they still represent a massive improvement on the status quo. Most borrowers will see all of their outstanding student loans disappear.
Taylor is justified in doing a victory dance. She writes: “Make no mistake, this represents a historic victory for student debtors. Through years of tireless and often thankless organizing, borrowers and their allies pushed a reluctant administration to offer a broad-based cancellation of student debt, to bail out ordinary people, not big banks or corporations. Approximately 20 million people will lose their balances entirely, and many have been sharing emotional messages of shock and glee online.”
This narrative of activists forcing action on a foot-shuffling Biden is backed up by the report from The New York Timeswho published an extensive background paper under the headline “Biden bows to pressure on student debt relief after months of hesitation.”
Not surprisingly, some centrists believe in giving credit to activists, though perhaps more surprisingly, at least one prominent voice on the left shares this denigration of mass mobilization.
Responding to the Times articles, Stuart Stevens, while the Republican political consultant turned Never Trump activist, tweeted, “There has never been a single decision of a POTUS in which there were not different sides and varied opinions. To describe @POTUS ruling on student loans as ‘give in’ is like declaring that FDR finally gave in to seniors and created Social Security.
On the August 25 episode of the popular left wing podcast Chapo trap house, co-host Matt Christman also wanted to give Biden full credit, without so much as a nod to activism. “At the end of the day, we’re all waiting at the bottom of the ravine for Joe Biden to come break the waters and for us all to fill our cups until he does it again,” Christman snorted. “He’s in charge. We have no control. We’re not getting anything out of this. It is not any type of transaction. We just hope that the benefit will fall on us.”
Stevens and Christman have very different political histories. Stevens is a pre-Trump GOP figure, a conservative who is horrified by what his party has become, but remains an instinctive right-winger. Christman is supposedly a leftist, albeit one with a defeatist mentality that insists nothing can change, creating a political passivity that is functionally identical to conservatism. It’s fascinating to see both settle on a narrative in which the whims of the president determine history without regard to grassroots organization.
Stevens’ allusion 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 under the National Industrial Recovery Act. But as the Depression persisted and the problem of impoverished seniors who had wiped out their savings grew ever more acute, grassroots activism began to push for new solutions. Some of those solutions, like the Townsend Plan (named for activist Francis E. Townsend) were utopian: Townsend wanted to give every senior $200 a month, paid for with a 2 percent national sales tax. But the growing popularity of the Townsend Plan —Over 3,400 Townsend Clubs Across the country he began lobbying Congress, helped prod politicians like New York Sen. Richard Wagner to address the issue, eventually finding favor with the White House thanks to sympathizers like Labor Secretary Frances Perkins.
The political trajectories of Social Security and student debt relief are quite similar: In both cases, grassroots 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 helpful summary of how student debt relief happened: “1. Starts as a fringe idea 2. Relentlessly pushed by committed activists 3. Adopted by some politicians 4. Adopted by a broader section of party leaders 5. Signed into law by the president.” This is a more accurate description than the emphasis Stevens and Christman placed on Joe Biden’s alleged “benefit.” Against Christman, Biden is not fully “in charge.” Biden is a transactional politician who responds to pressures within the party. If leftist 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 is the advancing model for progress in national politics.