The Democrats Suddenly Came to Life — And I Hate to Say It, But It’s a Bigger Deal Than You Think
A fire suddenly, it seems, lit. After months — years — of bickering and dithering, going nowhere, suddenly, it’s like watching a ward of geriatrics grow new legs and sprint into a marathon. First, the climate bill, and now debt relief. Could it be — miracle of miracles — that the Democrats are finally…making progress? And can all that maybe — just maybe — save American Democracy? From total collapse? From the imminent threat of Trumpist authoritarianism’s next coup, which is already openly, proudly cheered by millions?
Let’s take a moment to talk about it all.
Beginning with the mundane — which, as I’ll explain, isn’t. Debt relief. Why does it matter? How much does it matter? Very, very much, in fact. As soon as it was announced, the usual roll call of pundits and whatnot quickly scorned it. It was unfair! Regressive! Why, it’ll cause inflation!! It’s not “free money” said one economist, notably. America doesn’t have many good economists left — Stiglitz, Krugman, every now and then, the list is exceedingly short. But here’s what an actually good economist would tell you.
Here’s a secret. There is such a thing as “free money.” It’s called investment. When we invest in people — hold on, I’m going to use an odious word — their “human capital” grows. Forgiving student debt is a necessary and excellent step precisely because it transforms debt peonage into real investment. Now that poor young person who’s trapped working three dead end jobs just to pay off the interest on student debt for a decade or more — they’re freer. To do what? Anything else that matters. Go out and invent clean energy, write a great book, science, art, literature — doesn’t matter. That stuff is what really makes us all wealthier. Forgiving debt is a way to invest in people — and America’s never needed to invest in its own people more than right now.
This usual slew of pseudo-criticisms is deeply misplaced. Any time that anything vaguely good, decent, noble happens — these same pseudo-criticisms emerge from America’s pundits and intellectuals. They’re all painfully, well, forgive me for saying it, but well stupid. It’s “unfair” to…be fair…to some people? Do two wrongs make a right? What do you call columnists and economists who apparently didn’t go to kindergarten? Forgiving student debt is regressive? Hello, we have five generations and counting each more downwardly mobile than the last. Of course it’s not regressive to help entire generations of young people do something worthwhile with their lives, that goes on to benefit all of us. How could that possibly be the case?
(Let me cover one more, quickly. Forgiving student debt will be “inflationary.” My God, how foolish do you have to be to believe this? Inflation’s spiking right now because of climate change — see China shutting down power grids because of drought? Now think about the effects on the prices you pay at Amazon for all the stuff made there. How do we solve that problem, which is one that’ll last decades? We educate people. So they can solve tomorrow’s problems. If forgiving debt to invest in people was “inflationary,” guess what, the Stone Age would have higher living standards than right now, but it doesn’t, because only a rank fool would actually have the gall to believe — and then shout at you — that educating people, of all things, causes inflation, not, you know, prosperity for all of us. Fire. Candles. Light bulbs. Think about it.)
These “criticisms,” let me say it again, are frankly idiotic.
If we listened to all these pseudo-criticisms — if any other rich country did — you know what would happen? Nothing. Nothing would ever happen. Nobody would ever negotiate higher wages — oh no, that’s unfair to someone else! Government would be stuck dead in its tracks. No improvement in the social contract would ever be possible, because, well, in the real world of politics, no step is ever pure or perfect or immaculate. This is politics, guys, not the Virgin Birth. In the real world, unfortunately, this is how progress begins to happen. One painful step at a time.
And yet this isn’t just a “step” — in fact, it’s more of a giant leap. How so?
I highlight all that faux, foolish criticism for a reason. The Dems did good. They knew they were going to face this onslaught from The Establishment. And they went ahead and did it anyways. That matters. That counts. That tells us that the Dems are growing a pair — at least the tiny, tiny vestiges of some. Testiclecules, maybe, let’s call them. They’re not the real thing, yet. But they might become so.
Let’s put all this in context for a moment. The world right now? It’s an incredibly, incredibly regressive place. Take a moment to think with me about America’s dearest cousin and closest friend, Britain. There, collapse is happening at light speed, in ways that’d be shocking even to Americans. Britain’s government is hell-bent on plunging people back into the Victorian age — and Brits are cheering it all on. This winter, they’ve already announced blackouts. Amidst an energy crisis, the government’s lifting any real restriction on prices, and people are going to have choose between food and heating. 70% of the country’s expected to go into “fuel poverty.” And that’s just Britain. I could go on. About India’s democracy decaying into theocracy, China’s resurgent nationalism, Europe’s far right gaining ground swiftly and surely.
Context matters, and the context right now, at this juncture in history, is this: the world is going backwards, at light speed. So for America — of all countries — to take positive steps? The nation that’s long been renowned for being ultra-conservative, backwards, stiflingly indifferent to much of anything? That’s not just a small step: it’s a giant leap.
Yes, it’s equally true that America has a lot — a lot — of work to do to catch up to a nation like, for example, Canada. The starting line is different. But progress being made in America while the world is plunging backwards into a Dark Age is something remarkable, and credit should be given where it’s due. Did you ever think you’d see the day where a hyper-capitalist society like America would be…forgiving debt? Even Marx is smile-frowning in disbelief from his grave in Highgate.
Now, it’s easy to lodge real criticisms, so let’s dispense with them quickly. Is $10K of debt relief “enough”? Of course not. Should much, much more debt — and more kinds of debt, too, from medical debt to credit card debt be forgiven? Of course it should. Should we go even further than just forgiving debt, and actually just…give…people…money…to invest in themselves, for education, to start businesses, to create things, for research… just for existing? Of course we should. Why?
From the right will emerge a chorus of “What? Are you crazy!! But that’s unfair” — wrong, actually what’s unfair is an entire being indebted for life to a tiny, tiny handful of billionaires and “hedge funds,” reduced to the state of Neo-serfdom, precisely because more or less all the gains in the economy for 50 years, half a century, were taken by a small few at the very top. Unfair? Let’s begin with real economics, not BS.
So. The Dems haven’t just taken a small step. They’ve taken a big one. Perhaps not quite a quantum leap, yet. But in the context of both America as an economy and a society — a ruthless, indifferent, cruel, hypercapitalist one — and of the world, which is plunging backwards towards the Victorian age or a Dark Age, take your pick, something like forgiving debt…really, really matters.
Now. Let’s talk about why they did it. Shortly on the heels, no less, of finally passing a climate bill. What do you think turned Joe Manchin around? The Dems got serious, at last. They stopped playing softball, and obviously turned the screws on Manchin, which tells us that they always had the screws. And they did all this — in remarkably short order — precisely because their political fortunes were plummeting.
Just a few short months ago, everyone was frustrated with the Dems. Enraged, even. Apart from maybe perpetually sunny centrists like my best friend Ezra Klein, everyone else — young people, old people, women, minorities…they’d all had enough. The Dems hadn’t delivered much of anything — instead, they’d dithered, and let their holdouts crater any agenda they’d had, time and again. Everything they’d promised to each of these constituencies? None of it had materialized. And then, thunderbolt. Roe was struck down by a Supreme Court packed with lunatics like Scalia and fanatics like Amy Coney Barrett, the former — literal — “handmaid.”
People’s frustration and disappointment turned to outright fury. Where were the Dems? Were they ever going to do anything? And — miracle of miracles — they did. They did begin to do stuff. Again, it’s easy to criticize — go ahead, read what I wrote about the climate bill. And yet doing anything positive right about now — anything at all, anywhere in the world, especially in America? Wonderful.
Astonishingly enough — I think many of us have forgotten, maybe — this is how democracy is supposed to work. When people end up furious, politicians are supposed to do something. America’s spent so long being politically paralyzed that it seems almost thunderous that something happened. In Britain, for example, nothing good ever happens anymore, and probably won’t for a generation or three, at the rate it’s going. Democracy is working right now in America, and that is a very, very good thing, in this age of democratic decline and backsliding and collapse.
Now. All this is going a long way to restoring the Democrats’ flagging, sagging political fortunes. People might not be “charged up” the way they were during the Obama years — but a kind of grudging respect is emerging.
And that’s important and necessary both. Why? For a very simple reason. The GOP was expected to sweep the house, not so long ago, when the Dems were about as popular as Harvey Weinstein. But now things are different. Even seasoned political forecasters are predicting that it won’t be a blowout for the GOP — maybe even there’s a good chance the Dems take key races. And that matters precisely because what’s on the line over the next two years is American democracy itself.
Enough Trumpists win? Bang, game over. We all know it. By now, even the former doubters will probably admit that it’s a neo-fascist movement inimical to democracy. Not a drill. The real thing.
But now the Dems have a chance. If they take two more Senate seats — which is eminently possible — then it’s game on. Then the holdouts Manchin and Sinema can’t use their power in such awful ways, forestalling whole agendas, delaying them for years. Then the Democrats can take on the meaningful goals of not just better policies, but structural and institutional reform. With two more Senate seats, they can begin to change supermajority rules that grind progress to a halt. They’re all but assured of being able to impeach…hmm…what about Supreme Court Justices who lie under oath? They can undertake a series of institutional reforms that American Democracy desperately needs, altering the House and Senate and even Executive to actually work again. Can — not will. Time will tell.
The most crucial thing, though? They’ll be far, far better able to stop the ongoing rise of Trumpism. Trumpism is already planning not one coup this time around, but 50, one in each state, from intimidation to false electors to lawsuits, right down to armed militants on the streets. Democrats winning in the midterms have a far, far better chance of stopping Trumpism’s next coup, dead in its tracks. Maybe they’ll even be able to convince Merrick Garland to file charges sometime before the sun dies because it ran out of nuclear fuel. I kid, but only a little bit.
Can the Democrats save American Democracy? I don’t know. It’s a loaded question. I know that cynics will respond to it badly, and take it as an opportunity to score points. Go right ahead — I’m not here to be to the Dems what Camille Vasquez was to Johnny Depp. I’m just here to tell it like it is. And right about now, the Dems have a fighting chance, and better yet, they’re clearing a path for more. That’s the good news. The bad news? The Dems are still…all we’ve got.
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