Hard as it may be to believe, the 2024 presidential election is now little more than a year away. Despite four criminal indictments, Donald Trump’s defiance of political gravity shows no signs of abating, even as he has defended the January 6 insurrection and vowed to lock up his political opponents. Given Trump’s penchant for authoritarianism and the threat his followers pose to our political system — especially in light of Democrats’ failure to pass desperately needed democratic reforms—President Biden’s temptation in the next year will likely be to deploy the same emotive, content-light “battle for the soul of the nation” argument that he used in 2022, ahead of the midterms. After all, there’s precedent for Democrats: Party strategists employed a similar framing tactic in 2016, when Hillary Clinton turned the election into a referendum on whether America is “better than Donald Trump” and claimed punningly that “love trumps hate.”
It is worth reminding voters of all the ways that Trumpism imperils our freedoms. If he becomes the Republican presidential nominee, Trump threatens to impose frightening changes like the revocation of birthright citizenship and instituting Schedule F, which would purge the federal bureaucracy of 50,000 career civil servants and replace them with far-right extremists and allies. He also promises to reverse progress on mitigating climate change while centralizing power and punishing his political enemies.
But if President Biden and the Democrats want to defeat Trump and his MAGA movement, along with highlighting the dangers of a vindictive demagogue winning in 2024, they will need to run on a positive platform which would improve the material lives of working people. Central to that program should be taking on the fight to eliminate student and medical debt.
We learned in 2016 that voting negatively, to defend against a bogeyman, is rarely as motivating as voting positively, for a concrete cause. A 2019 report found that “there is no evidence supporting common wisdom about negative campaigning representing an effective strategy for maximizing votes.” And there is considerable evidence that negative, personality-based attacks poison the political waters, motivating Democratic and Republican partisans to become more entrenched in their allegiances to corporate-dominated parties and candidacies, even as independent voters and the politically disenchanted sour further on the electoral system.
It may be justified, in the abstract, to wring our hands over the slow erosion of democratic norms and governmental structures. But framing our contemporary crisis in those terms — as if partisanship and “extremism” are the culprits, rather than an obscenely inegalitarian economy and a political system captured by hyper capitalists—obfuscates the problem. As Bernie Sanders articulated in his presidential campaigns, the root of our political crisis lies in the fact that the majority of Americans who care about having good jobs, healthcare, and education in a just society do not feel represented by our current politics.
While Biden’s presidency has improved certain aspects of American life, in a number of respects (immigration policy chief among them) his presidency has doubled down on Trump-era policies or has failed to live up to its boosters’ progressive promises. The state of inequality remains extreme: According to an Economic Policy Institute report, “The top 1% earned 14.6% of all wages in 2021 — twice as high as their 7.3% share in 1979. The bottom 90% received just 58.6% of all wages in 2021, the lowest share on record.” And as of March 2023, the top 10% of households hold 69% of total household wealth in comparison to the bottom half’s mere 2.4% of national wealth. The economic outlook appears to have improved in recent weeks, but many Americans are uneasy. Consumer confidence dropped in August in response to rising grocery and gasoline prices, and 69% of consumers anticipate a recession within the next year. In the lead-up to the 2022 midterms, 49% of voters identified the economy as “extremely important” to their vote, making it the top issue. A March 2023 NPR poll found that 31% of the electorate thought the economy was the most important issue today. And a recent Gallup poll shows that Republicans now lead Democrats on handling the economy, for the first time in three decades.
Some centrist Democrats arehaving trouble understanding where these economic fears come from. But looking beyond the unemployment rate and other superficial statistics which don’t say much qualitatively, it’s easy to see why people are concerned.Today, 37% of adults can’t cover an unexpected $400 expense, which marks an increase of 5% from 2021. This statistic rises to 57% for a $1,000 expense.
The savings cushion accrued by Americans during the pandemic is now nearly depleted, and Americans now hold a whopping $4.71 trillion of non-housing debt. Debt is an iron weight which threatens to drag down the entire American economy, with poor and working people paying the most exacting price.
To address this economic calamity, Biden and the Democrats should train their focus on promoting measures to relieve our debt epidemic. Debt gives the Democrats a readily understandable, resonant framing for discussing our private healthcare and higher education systems’ many failings. Focusing on debt would help motivate youth voters, many of whom suffer from outsized student debt loads. And as Sanders and other left-wing legislators have demonstrated at political rallies, Democrats can use an abundance of testimonials and stories to personalize politics, showing convincingly how debt warps our lives and makes us unfree.
After a much needed, three-and-a-half-year hiatus on student loan payments, the approximately 44 million Americans with student debt saw interest begin accruing again on September 1, with repayment slated to resume in October. Until the Republican-dominated Supreme Court shot it down, Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan was one of his administration’s principal achievements, even if it was insufficient to fully address the crisis. This policy win came after years of dedicated organizing by movement groups including the Debt Collective that put pressure on the Biden White House to follow through on promises to cancel student debt. It would have granted up to $20,000 of relief from federal student loans for some debtors.
Though the administration has since introduced a new, pared-down plan which may soften the blow, tens of millions of people will pay a literal price—$430 billion of now nonexistent relief — a year before the presidential elections because of Republicans’ unwillingness to help workers. Democrats couldn’t ask for a better issue to dramatize the real consequences of Republicans’ cruel stance towards the working class.
The issue of debt cuts across demographic lines, creating a multiracial, multigenerational coalition of tens of millions. The $1.75 trillion of total student debt is held by 45.7 million Americans, 22.5 million of whom are under 35. One hundred million people in America―41% of adults — hold at least some medical debt, which now totals an estimated $195 billion. A full 57% of adults have owed money from medical or dental bills at some point over the last five years. And Americans owe $1.03 trillion in credit card debt, an amount which recently exceeded $1 trillion for the first time.
Like generational wealth, debt is intersectional. It is a class issue, a racial justice issue, and a question of gender equity. People of color are more likely to hold student debt and to have difficulty repaying their loans, and women are also more likely to have outstanding student debt. A recent report on medical debt found that 48% of women have medical debt compared to 34% of men, and 56% of Black adults and 50% of Hispanic adults have medical debt, while only 37% of white adults said the same. Meanwhile, 47% of people without a college degree and 57% of adults with household incomes below $40,000 reported current medical debt, in contrast to only 31% of college grads. And it’s worth underscoring that, because we still don’t have Medicare for All, we live in a country where even people who have health insurance are often saddled with medical debt and some sick people become gravely ill and die because their fear of medical bills discourages them from seeking care.
Not only is addressing debt just and fundamental to the struggle against racism, sexism and class inequality, but it would also be popular electorally. One of the elements of Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 policy platforms which electrified crowds was the concept of debt forgiveness. A recent study by the Center for Working Class Politics which examined different candidate profiles to see which were electorally attractive to the working class found that “the strongest candidates in our sample made bread-and-butter issues their top priorities — jobs and the economy” and framed these issues using “universalist” rhetoric.
When candidates in the study did so, they were especially attractive to the “working-class voters that Democrats and progressives have struggled most to reach, including rural and small-town voters and voters in blue-collar jobs.” Canceling student debt enjoys wide popularity: over 60% of voters support at least some debt cancellation. Canceling medical debt is even more popular, receiving over 70% support. A debt jubilee would be an enormous relief for millions and a welcome economic stimulus, particularly in these uncertain financial times.
Using debt as an electoral platform would also allow Democrats to discuss other pressing issues. Climate change action is a debt that we owe to future generations. The fossil fuel corporations which are reaping record profits off of the destruction of the planet owe a tremendous debt to society. And the mega-rich who avoid $1 trillion in taxes each year and stash trillions in assets in offshore and domestic tax havens in efforts to evade taxation — as has been extensively and shockingly documented in the Pandora Papers, Panama Papers and Paradise Papers—owe us all an immense debt.
Margaret Atwood once wrote that “what we owe and how we pay is a feature of all human societies, and profoundly shapes our shared values and our cultures.” If Democrats play their cards right in the upcoming election, perhaps we will look back on 2024 as a moment when we wiped the slate clean and reshaped our culture, instituting a debt jubilee and ensuring once and for all that no one risks bankruptcy to receive a college degree or life-saving healthcare. But that will require a political reset — and a commitment to making progressive change a political reality, not just a campaign slogan.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Scott Remer received a master’s degree in political thought and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge, with a specialization in the political philosophy of the Frankfurt School. He graduated Yale University summa cum laude in Ethics, Politics, and Economics and wrote his thesis on Occupy Wall Street and the history of American social movements. He blogs at soulofsocialism.wordpress.com.