What If Activism Actually Works?

President Joe Biden announces his student loan relief plan with Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona by his side.

Joe Biden’s announcement last week about student loan relief certainly got people to write and say lots of words.

Some thought it was not enough, although in fairness many of them also said this was a good first step. And some lost their mind, seemingly more enraged about helping people than they were about all the awful things that has happened since 2015.

Pro tip: Not a good look, and whining that you had to labor hard to pay back your student loans so everyone has to comes off as petty, especially if people point out to you that you are lying. See Very Sensible Centrist Pundit Megan McArdle’s long-winded Twitter thread where she cried poverty and people noted that she went to an exclusive private high school and her parents paid off her bachelor’s degree (her complaints were about paying off her graduate degree, which the student loan relief does not cover anyway). Not to mention if you are over 50 like me, probably should keep quiet because college was much cheaper for us.

A side note: I will probably hear cries of “AGE TRAITOR!” but I have noticed that once one turns 40, the odds of that person being increasingly full of shit as they age is rather high. Do not snicker, Millennials who are nearing 40, because it will happen to you as well. It happens to all generations.

Anyway, the point of all this is many of the same people who are screaming “UNFAIR” about student loans were the same people who have spent a lot of time over the last decade or so dunking on activists. The standard line of thinking is that activists are unrealistic and unreasonable, and therefore they should be ignored. A lot of digital ink was spilled by the likes of Matt Yglesias and Nate Silver scolding activists in this way. If you are a popularist, like David Shor, you view activists with a special sort of contempt. Often, they are viewed as over-privileged problems within the Democratic party, such as this snarky piece in Politico last October.

However, that is a rather bad read of activists and their effectiveness. Often, activists are considered wild-eyed maniacs for their ideas, but over time, their ideas can turn into actual policy. Jeff Stein of the Washington Post outlines the process here.

Another good example of this that parallels the student loan effort is Social Security. Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not have Social Security as part of his platform. However, a sort of burr in his saddle was the Townsend Plan.

Dr. Francis Townsend, an MD and political activist, was alarmed by the growing problem of the elderly living in complete poverty. He wrote a letter to the editor to a Long Beach, California, newspaper about it and was surprised that it had such a massive reaction. This launched activism and a formal plan was written up. In reaction to it, FDR at first said it was unreasonable and undoable. Eventually, FDR came around somewhat, and introduced Social Security (SS).

Townsend and the activists found SS to be not enough, however, their activism enabled SS to be created as a program that most of us cannot imagine not being in existence.

Let’s face it: As much as you may or may not like Biden, there is zero in his history that would suggest any sympathy of debtors, given he was the senator for a credit card company safe haven, Delaware. Yet, he listened to activists. Biden is often labeled a moderate but I think that’s less accurate than saying he’s a Party Man who will go along with wherever the party is heading.

That may sound like he is spineless, but I tend to see it as a mark of a listener. I have a hard time imagining 2008 Biden, or 2008 Democratic Party, making this move. But I also could not imagine a 2008 Biden pushing the original Build Back Better bill and have almost all of the party supporting it (with a few exceptions, of course).

None of the good stuff happening this summer would have happened without climate activists, civil rights activists, student debt activists, etc. pushing the envelope and getting politicians to move. It is, after all, how things have happened for much of American history and is a key part of democracy.

The last word goes to the wonderful Lake Street Dive.

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