Episode 169: How the Right Ventriloquizes “The Working Man” to Push Pro-Corporate Policy and Gut Welfare
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: “Yes, undocumented immigrants take jobs from Americans. Here’s the proof,” an opinion piece in The Washington Post tells us. “Save our truckers, not affluent students seeking a free ride,” pleads longtime Republican consultant Douglas MacKinnon in The Hill. “Biden’s Student Debt Cancellation Robs Hard-Working Americans, Will Make Inflation Even Worse,” proclaims a so-called Expert Statement from the Heritage Foundation.
Adam: There’s a warning we hear again and again, particularly from the right-wing: A policy that would actually help people must be stopped, because it’ll harm the Working Man. According to demagogues like Tucker Carlson and JD Vance — as well as many of their more liberal counterparts — immigration, labor organizing, protest rights, and student debt cancellation simply can’t be allowed, lest they harm hardworking, meat-and-potatoes plumbers and truckers.
Nima: But these cynical admonitions disguise some very important truths. Progressive policies serve the interests of many of these plumbers and truckers, many of whom might want to organize their workplaces too or have their debt relieved as well. And the supposed menaces of job-stealing immigrants or entitled lawyers who want others to pay off their loans aren’t actually responsible for depressed wages or plummeting standards of living — no, corporations bolstered by U.S. policy making are.
Adam: On today’s episode we’ll examine the right-wing trope of ventriloquizing an imaginary quote-unquote “Working Man” in order to divert attention from policies that serve the corporate bottom line, we’ll detail how this tactic obscures class dynamics between labor and capital, reinforces racist conceptions that harm workers of color, and ultimately suppresses the rights of all workers while absolving their employers of wrongdoing.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll speak with filmmaker, writer and political organizer Astra Taylor. She is co-founder of the Debt Collective, director of the film “What Is Democracy?” and author of the book, Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone.
Astra Taylor: And we’ve been in a narrative war over debt cancellation now for at least a decade, and I think those tropes are, they’re pretty predictable, and they’re actually pretty easy to debunk, and I think what’s striking is that, you know, a lot of people just aren’t buying them. I mean, what we saw immediately after cancellation was announced was a significant boost in the polls for the Democrats, you know, we knew this going into it that it actually is really popular with the Republican base. I mean, people like debt cancellation, it’s not really a big surprise.
Adam: This past August, when President Biden forgave, I guess, canceled, whatever term you prefer, $10,000 for the student loan debts for those who qualify, this led to a torrent of concern trolling by mostly Republicans and conservatives, that this would harm the working man, this was Ron DeSantis’ line, this was Tucker Carlson’s line, and then this is something we’ve talked about on the show, rather we’ve touched on it, we thought it was worthy of a full examination, which is this idea of, it’s not enough to say, I don’t like this policy because I’m conservative and I want to make sure that workers are frightened and precarious and debt is one mechanism to do that. You really can’t say that. So every single pro corporate policy has to have a faux populace framework, and so typically, and again, this is not something that’s new, as we’ll discuss, you get the sudden their hearts bleed for the Working Man, who they begin to ventriloquize by sticking their hand up their ass and saying, ‘Oh, actually, this working man over here that I’ve completely made up or I found one out of 100 or they’re, you know, secretly they work for some bullshit think tank, this guy, this sort of Joe the Plumber guy, he represents the working man and he thinks these highfalutin libs they don’t know what’s in your best interest.’
Nima: Real Americans work hard, they pay off their debts, Adam, and no relief is worth the suffering of the Working Man.
Adam: This ventriloquizing the Working Man very often works. It can be very effective. And so what we want to do is sort of show how it’s a trope, typically what we do in the show, by going back in history, looking at various examples of this and then we’re going to lead up to the present where this really reared its ugly head during the student debt cancellation debate, and then we’re going to pivot to our guests to discuss it in that context.
Nima: So, defenses of the Working Man and the weaponization of this trope have been used to launder corporate abuses for well over a century. Much of this can be traced to the Yellow Peril of the late 19th century, when Chinese immigrants were trafficked into the United States to work on railroads and in agricultural fields. Chinese immigrants were scapegoated as a threat to white workers, characterized as the cause of wage depression and other workplace abuses. This effectively absolved the industries themselves that committed these abuses of any wrongdoing.
So, for instance, there’s actually a striking visual example of this trope. There’s a political cartoon from 1878 that shows two side-by-side images. It’s entitled “A picture for employers.” On the left is shown at least a dozen Chinese men, rendered in grotesquely stylized caricature, piled upon one another in a dark, crowded opium den, they’re sitting on the floor eating rats. But on the right, a proud white father with broad shoulders, standing astride his threshold in the soft fading daylight, welcomed home from a hard day’s work to a nuclear family, a dutiful wife, three young doting children and comfortable surroundings. Above the door is a plaque that reads, “God bless our home.” The image is captioned, as I said, “A picture for employers: Why they can live on 40 cents a day [left]…and they can’t [right].”
Adam: Yeah, the idea is that Chinese immigrants are the reason why you’re poor. They’re suppressing your wages, not the boss. There’s also a pattern of framing strikes and other worker actions as quote-unquote “hurting the worker,” this goes back as far as the existence of labor actions. In these instances, strikes, not employers, are blamed for retaliatory actions of the employer like layoffs or other punitive measures. The risks incurred by striking workers are thus used to discourage any further action.
From the Kansas City Gazette from March of 1901, quote:
“‘Tis Time, and pity ’tis ’tis true,’ that strikes hurt the workers who engage in them; and often they lose if they win. About 200 girls employed in Swofford’s overall factory in Kansas City, Mo., were thrown out of employment Wednesday morning.”
September 11, 1958, The Windsor Star in Canada, quote, “Major Strikes Would Hurt Workers and Others Also.” Quote:
“A railroad strike would affect almost 150,000 workers directly and many more thousands indirectly. It would tie up this major form of transportation. That against the Nickel company would put 14,000 employees on the street, and could result in unemployment of others.”
Nima: Fifteen years later, we saw this from the Santa Rosa, California Press Democrat from May 1973, headlined, “Congressman: Don’t Let Farm Workers Strike.” This is a syndicated piece from United Press International datelined from Washington, says this, quote:
“A California congressman urged today Congress seek to improve the lot of farm workers by taking away their right to strike.
“Rep. Burt L. Talcott, a Republican whose congressional district includes many of California’s biggest growers, said strikes hurt the workers even more than they do the farmers. For that reason, he said, both the strike and the secondary boycott should be outlawed in agriculture.”
So you can see clearly here, what — I don’t know — might help workers, like striking, solidarity is deemed here to actually — you know what? — this is going to hurt them, and it’s also going to hurt the farmers whose land the workers labor on.
Adam: Since the beginning of strikes, we’ve been told that strikes hurt workers themselves by taking them out of work and then making them fired. Of course, that’s not the corporation’s fault, and has downstream effects where it hurts the average working man who’s out of whatever this particular service happens to be, right? And we saw this, which we’ll get to later with the railroad strike, there was tons of concern trolling on Fox News about how a railroad strike would hurt the average everyday American by disrupting our supply chains, again, suddenly the heart bleeds for the worker when it helps capital. So for years we’ve been wanting to do something on Right to Work. Right to Work is pretty much the propaganda verbiage manifestation of what we’re talking about where Right to Work sounds like you’re empowering the worker, it’s got to be all time top three, if not the all time greatest propaganda phrase.
Moving back to the 1940s. Amid this anti-labor sentiment, the idea of Right to Work — a legal framework designed to weaken unions under the guise of giving workers a quote-unquote “choice” to reject unions and union dues — began to surface. The idea is attributed to a 1941 piece by Dallas Morning News editorial writer William Ruggles — which is pretty much the most quintessential 1940s Dallas news writer name you can come up with — that called for the prohibition of closed or union shops, meaning that workplaces couldn’t require hires to join unions. But the most prominent Right to Work evangelist was Texas lobbyist Vance Muse — again, another great Texas name that sounds evil — whose antipathy toward unions was rooted in a fear that they’d threaten the Jim Crow order, which of course they were. Ruggles reportedly coined the euphemism “right to work” and successfully pitched it to Muse.
Nima: Synergy, Adam, synergy.
Nima: Indeed, the racism was front and center in this decision and I do have to give a content or trigger warning before I read this Vance Muse quote, it is truly awful. Muse reportedly once stated, quote:
“From now on, white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.”
Muse’s own grandson described him as, quote, “a white supremacist, an anti-Semite, and a Communist-baiter, a man who beat on labor unions not on behalf of working people, as he said, but because he was paid to do so.” End quote. Over the course of his entire career, Muse was consistently anti-worker. He sought to defeat the constitutional amendment prohibiting child labor, he lobbied for high tariffs, and worked to repeal the eight-hour-day law for railroaders.
Adam: So the very origins of this term Right to Work, which exist in 28 states, which again is such a great term, Right to Work, you have the Right to Work, or not work, whatever you choose, which effectively makes the unionization well, very, very difficult, if not impossible. Its origins exist with explicitly racist Jim Crow terms by the people who coined the term because they didn’t want white people and Black people uniting as part of a union because that undermines the racial order of the South.
Someone cut from the same cloth, George Wallace, a couple decades later, engaged in similar type rhetoric. George Wallace, who was the long serving governor of Alabama, whose infamous quote:
George Wallace: And I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.
In his 1963 inaugural address after winning the Alabama governorship, courted what we now know as the mythical “White Working Class” in a series of political campaigns, suggesting that white workers bore the financial burdens of civil rights gains and welfare programs.
In a speech during his 1968 presidential campaign, Wallace claimed to speak to the anxieties of the, quote, “the average man in the street, the man in the textile mill, this man in the steel mill, this barber, this beautician, the policeman on the beat.”
As we’ll also see in some subsequent examples, this lumping together of the “average” worker and “the policeman on the beat” necessarily obscures the class conflicts between those two groups, as if the racialization of his concept of a worker, right? The white textile worker, so he defends not the Black textile worker. Wallace, too, was above all interested in pro-corporate legislating; as governor of Alabama, he made “industrial development” and low corporate taxes cornerstones of his policy. So again, you see this man who speaks in the affects and appeals to the racism of the so called white working class, to serve corporate interests in a very, very effective way, because he did have a lot of base support from the white working class. But of course, his actual policy prescriptions didn’t really do anything for them, and very much opposed unions, unionization, and high corporate taxes, all of which he viewed as some kind of Jewish-Black-Communist plot.
Nima: So, you see this consistency, right, of speaking on behalf of, this idea of, ‘It’s not in my interest object, you know, look, the people I know, the people I serve, the people in my community in my neighborhood,’ which necessarily for the people speaking, are not working class, are not anything other than white, and yet they are spoken for, the white working man is spoken for by politicians that want nothing but no unions, better tax breaks for corporations, and of course, a destruction of all kind of labor law.
Adam: Another topic that is extremely popular is immigration. Again, it sort of sounds bad to say I want to keep non whites out of this country because I’m a white supremacist and I want to maintain a white supremacist stranglehold in our politics, or I want to have white working class voters vote against their interests by appealing to their reptile fucking brain about race. So they pose immigration as an assault on the working class, which again, these are the same politicians funded by think tanks and foundations and organizations and political donors who all make up the fortune 100 of this country, plenty of mainline outlets have published studies debunking the age old myth that immigrants, which is usually coded as Mexican or Latino or Guatemalan, etcetera, are stealing our jobs that would otherwise go to capital W, capital W, capital C, “White Working Class” workers, working class immigrants, i,e., those who are the targets of white nationalist rhetoric are often forced into grueling, severely low wage jobs. Still, the stealing jobs argument continues to arise among major right-wing media outlets and demagogues.
Nima: So, for instance, George J. Borjas, a Harvard economist who regularly sang the praises of, and in fact influenced in turn, Trump’s immigration policy during Trump’s presidential term, is continually published in major outlets. Here are just a couple of examples:
From Politico in the Fall of 2016, Borjas wrote an article headlines, “Yes, Immigration Hurts American Workers,” in which he writes, in part, quote, “We’re worrying about the wrong things, with policy fights focused on how many and which immigrants to accept, and not enough on how to mitigate the harm they create along the way.
Here’s another from late February 2017, this in The New York Times Opinion section, headlined, “The Immigration Debate We Need,” this is another anti-immigrant screed masked with populist rhetoric.
These pieces make a pretty bog-standard anti-immigrant claim: that workers in jobs sought by quote-unquote “low-skill” immigrants are suffering from wage depression. Borjas cites his own work for the extremely right-wing Center for Immigration Studies to support most of his claims. Borjas also makes a faux-populist appeal, acknowledging that businesses take advantage of immigrants in the form of lower pay and other abuses, but places the blame, not on the employers, but on immigrant workers themselves.
Adam: Key difference we will keep re-emphasizing during this episode. So rather than telling workers they need to unionize with immigrant workers and create a more powerful working class, we’re told that the immigrants who are, again, have a different language, have different cultural customs, they look different, they’re scary, got to get rid of them, we get rid of them, your wages are going to go up. Rather, why don’t you increase the scope of the working base through unionization and through organization. So it’s a classic kind of divide and conquer strategy. Tom Cotton, again, whose entire career is based on promoting tax cuts for the rich and doesn’t support ProAct, doesn’t support any pro labor legislation, said the following in December of 2017, quote:
“I joined my colleagues yesterday in introducing legislation to protect and provide certainty to DACA recipients, improve the lawful immigration system by targeting illegal immigration and criminal aliens, and protect the American worker.”
Tom Cotton speaks often of his love of the American worker, but again, it’s only when he wants to push pro corporate racist policies. Otherwise, he doesn’t support a higher minimum wage, he doesn’t support unionization. So I think he gestured towards one of these like, Oren Cass, fake collective bargaining things that no union support. He doesn’t support, again, the PRO Act and other federal legislation that will protect the right to organize, but his heart bleeds for the worker when it comes to pushing his agenda because again, nobody wants to look like some country club Republican, right? We all want to look like salt of the earth, beer swilling, football watching every guy so everything has to take on this puppeteering of the working man.
Nima: And so you see this from Washington Post opinion writer Henry Olsen, who in August of 2019, wrote the piece, “Yes, undocumented immigrants take jobs from Americans. Here’s the proof,” in which Olson cites multiple instances of chicken processing plants paying undocumented workers less than US born workers. In Olsen’s mind, just like in George Borjas’, it’s the immigrants who should be punished for this, not the companies making these decisions.
Adam: Yeah, so J.D. Vance, a favorite of the show, who sort of mastered this total smarmy rhetoric, when responding to Biden formerly ending Trump’s Remain in Mexico immigration program — which he sort of brought back anyway — he said, quote:
“Just idiotic. ‘Remain in Mexico’ was one of the smartest immigration policies of the last 30 years. A president who cares about his own people dying of fentanyl overdoses doesn’t do this.”
So suddenly, J.D. Vance is really concerned with white working class fentanyl overdoses. Only in the context, again, someone who doesn’t support the PRO Act, doesn’t support unionization, doesn’t support a higher minimum wage, who doesn’t support higher taxes on corporations, higher taxes on the wealthy, suddenly, when it comes to pushing racist policy prescriptions, his heart bleeds for the working man, and there was nowhere recently where we’ve seen this worse than over the student debt quote-unquote “cancellation.”
Nima: Yeah, which we teased a little earlier, but really does hammer home this entire point, the idea of who is deserving, who needs to be protected, and the idea that there is not one kind of working class that should be unified, that should all support each other ,that should all get, you know, whatever benefits and solidarity they can, but no, they are divided into there are these kinds of workers over there and there are these kinds of moochers over here.
Adam: Yeah, in the Spring of 2022, word began circulating that the Biden administration would quote-unquote “relax” certain student debt repayment plans with plenty of strings attached. Bill Maher, a favorite punching bag on this show, of course had opinions about this on his HBO show Real Time — where he talks about how he constantly is getting silenced and canceled, his prime time show on HBO — Bill Maher characterized student debt cancellation as an elite issue affecting only a very small percentage of people, most of whom are destined for high salaries anyway. Here’s a clip from a May 2022 episode of Real Time in which Maher is speaking with DNC hack and CNN contributor Paul Begala, complete with his patented soulless smile.
Bill Maher: A lot of people were saying this is a loser issue. I’ll give you some brief numbers here why that is. 13 percent of Americans have college debt, federal college debt. So that’s not a lot of people you’re working to. 65 percent don’t go to college at all. 50 percent of the college debt goes to people going to grad school, which come on, a lot of that is just bullshitting around. They don’t know what to do, and you can keep going to school for free. So it just looks like a loser issue for the party that is trying to win back the working class, that we’re going to subsidize, we who didn’t go to college, and didn’t benefit from that are going to subsidize you to get your degree in gender studies and sports marketing and all the other bullshit that they take. I think it’s a loser issue for Biden. What do you think?
Paul Begala: Yeah, well, and this is revealing a big secret so don’t tell anybody. We Democrats have a lab, two labs actually, secret labs, one in Berkeley and one in Brooklyn, where we come up with ideas to completely piss off the working class and it’s working wonderfully.
Bill Maher: Labs you say, actual labs.
Paul Begala: Oh, yes, and they all have Ph.D.s
Bill Maher: Right.
Paul Begala: In pissing off the working class. Somehow, in my lifetime, the Democrats have gone from being the party of the factory floor to being the party of the faculty lounge. I went last week, I spent Wednesday last week in Chicago with the machinist union. Hung out with the machinists all day, great guys, not one of them came up to me and said, ‘Gee, I really hope you take my tax dollars to pay off the debt of somebody who went to Stanford.’
Adam: So again, this is all the tropes, gender studies, your degree is gay and stupid and feminine and gay and feminine and gays, gender studies, super gay, super feminine.
Nima: Mostly, it’s gay, because you’re not working in coal and oil and copper mines.
Adam: Yeah. Bill Maher, who presumably just entered the studio wiping the coal dust off his face, understands the working man more than you and I. Of course, none of this is true. The very obvious point being is that from day one, Biden was always going to means test student loan forgiveness, which was a huge criticism that people had, but this is only for people whose income is below a certain level. So that part is just obviously not true. It is not true that rich people have student loan debt for the very, very obvious reason, Nima, that if you’re rich, you pay for school with your black American Express card, you don’t take out loans, by definition.
Nima: You don’t need to have those loans. Also, I love the idea that he, you know, cites a percentage that he says is low, 13 percent of Americans. Okay, first off, he’s talking about all Americans. So that includes like toddlers, and elderly people, so 13 percent of all Americans, he says that incredibly low number, avoiding the fact that what we’re talking about is federal student loan debt that exceeds one and a half trillion dollars, that these cancellation policies can change the lives of 45 million people. But he just laughs it off as being a tiny number, an insignificant number.
Adam: Months later, in August of 2022, when news broke that the Biden administration would implement a means tested student debt quote-unquote “forgiveness” plan, the plan was chock full of caveats and asterisks that would cancel up to $10,000 for non-Pell Grant recipients and $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients, but only those who earn less than $125,000 per year. Meanwhile, there were still hoops to jump through like an application process and the pause of federal student loan repayment, according to the administration, would resume in 2023. So there were caveats. Still, of course, the media engaged in a full blown, apoplectic meltdown over what was perceived as a handout for rich kids, arguing that it would hurt workers who are somehow, through some mysterious force that’s never quite explained, like all welfare fraud complaints, it’s not clear how they’re paying for it, I guess with their tax dollars, even though it’s not how this works at all, and of course, again, as we’ve talked about elsewhere, with the fare evasion story, is not a standard that exists for the trillions of dollars that just go missing in the Pentagon every year or the hundreds of millions of dollars we spend on overtime for police officers or other these kinds of —
Nima: Not important.
Adam: Not important. Or the interest free loans to banks or whatever it is right. But suddenly, if we help working people, everyone becomes very concerned about taxpayers, the sort of mysterious taxpayer being burdened with this, and that the average hard working put upon taxpayer who’s a waitress or a auto mechanic is going to have to pay for some rich bisexual DJ at NYU to go explore themselves and this is the sin of sins, and this was the trope we heard over and over and over again.
Nima: So for instance, there’s this campaign ad run by Florida’s own Rick Scott, this is from late August 2022.
Rick Scott: How do you destroy America’s economy? Look around, Joe Biden and the woke Democrats are doing it, driving up debt, spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need. Now Biden wants to cancel all college loans, forcing a plumber, who decided not to go to college, to pay off loans for a lawyer who did. It’s crazy. I’m Rick Scott, I’ve got a plan, read it at rescueamerica.com. I approve this message.
Nima: Now, this kind of framing made its way across media most often in the form of opinion pieces. There was, for instance, this Politico opinion piece from late August of 2022, written by none other than Oren Cass, the executive director of American Compass and also the author of the book, The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America — we don’t work anymore, Adam, Oren is going to set us straight. So he put out a piece headlined, “Biden’s Student Loan Forgiveness is Wrong. Here’s How to Handle College Debt Instead.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board chimed in just the very next day August 25, 2022, with their take, quote, “Biden’s Half-Trillion-Dollar Student-Loan Forgiveness Coup.” The subheadline of which read quote, “His student-loan write-off is an abuse of power that favors college grads at the expense of plumbers and FedEx drivers,” end quote.
Adam: And here’s a clip of J.D. Vance talking about the debt quote-unquote “forgiveness” on Tucker Carlson, again, a friend of the working man, Tucker Carlson, from August 25 of this year.
J.D. Vance: If you want to give student debt relief, you should penalize the people who have benefited from this very corrupt system, not ask plumbers in Ohio to subsidize the life decisions of college educated young people, primarily young people who are going to make a lot of money over the course of their lifetime anyway.
Nima: It’s always the plumbers. Somehow, all of this also, incidentally Adam, nods to this idea from Republicans that plumbers are just uneducated idiots, which is also not true, and also the plumbers somehow don’t make any money, which is also not true.
Adam: Also, a lot of plumbers do go to technical school and other people have similar kinds of, what we typically associate with working class jobs, they themselves also can have student debts and a lot of plumbers went to college. Plumbers aren’t just sitting around swilling Miller Lite and watching football like they’re stereotypes.
Nima: ‘I chose not to go to college because I’m a plumber just like my daddy and his daddy and his daddy and his daddy.’
Adam: Yeah, there’s and again, it’s like plumbers, because we sort of intuitively understand that a plumber is someone who does something valuable for society, right?
Nima: But also is somehow lowlier than you.
Adam: Right. And of course, is going to be paying off this sort of gender studies-LGBT-communication-theater-underwater basket weaving, blah, blah, blah. It’s all this anti-intellectual posturing dogshit.
Nima: Yeah, exactly. Why would the guy come home on the, you know, commuter train with his briefcase and hand, walk into his expensive house, and the guy who’s stuck under the sink has to pay off that guy’s loans. That’s the image that is constantly put in front of us.
Adam: You don’t know this, but every plumber has to personally write a check to every high status, because it’s weird, because at the same time to have these frivolous degrees, we’re told, like gender studies, but they’re also rich lawyers. So which one is it? Are they barista underwater lesbian basket weaving or are they high powered? Rich? It’s not clear. I guess the woke economy has given them a place to go.
Nima: That’s right.
Adam: So their degree is both useless and they’re super rich. And Ron DeSantis, of course, jumped on this bandwagon, couldn’t help, again, gender studies, right, everything has to be coded as feminine and gay and and therefore frivolous and so let’s listen to that here.
Ron DeSantis: It’s very unfair to have a truck driver have to pay back a loan from somebody that got a PhD in gender studies. That’s not fair. That’s not right.
Adam: Oh, wow. No one’s ever heard that one before.Gender studies.
Nima: Good one. Solid, Ron.
Adam: Good stuff.
Nima: Yeah. Meanwhile, is just one example to show how much contempt all of these commentators actually have for workers. Of course, Tucker Carlson and Ron DeSantis have both been on anti-teachers union crusades for years.
Adam: Yeah, you know, they keep talking about these frivolous degrees, but you know, philosophy majors are the highest paid majors of any major. Philosophy majors make more money than business majors, economics majors, or computer science majors. So it’s like even their sort of go to punching bag is not, it’s not really how undergraduate degrees work.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, blue collar workers and student debt are not mutually exclusive things, right, like many truckers, plumbers, other embodiments of the right-wing working man, right, have their own student debt. As we’ve said, community college, training programs, everyone would benefit from the cancellation of student debt. Also, this idea of just because someone else can maybe not be in debt for the rest of their lives doesn’t need to negatively affect you. That’s okay.
Adam: Yeah, so some philosophy major can go backpack around Europe or whatever bullshit they come up with. I mean, obviously, this is all seething with anti intellectualism, which we’ll get to with our guest, but you know, the thing that makes all this mugging so frustrating is that like, literally every single one of these people we’ve been quoting today, literally every one of them got a bullshit degree. They went to law school, they were history, you know, undergrad majors or communications majors. The thing is, all these actors on the stage of politics, whether it’s Bill Maher or Ron DeSantis, all these people either had their education paid for them in the case of Ron DeSantis, is that they themselves get the same degrees that they mock. I mean, they get degrees that are not, you know, sort of the manly plumber degree or the STEM degree or the kind of thing that’s seen as practical.
Nima: Yeah, Tucker Carlson has a degree in history from Trinity College in Connecticut.
Adam: Right. And so like, this whole thing is literally just posturing. It’s liberal arts education for me, but not for thee, and if you do have it, you deserve to be saddled in debt for the better part of your adult years. And of course, when all these people went to school, college was 1/5 of the cost that is today. And that’s the huge, you know, this is something our guest is going to talk about, who has talked about many times, is that there’s nothing natural or organic about the obscene amount of debt the average person takes on, and again, I know we’re pandering here, because our average listener is overly educated and downwardly mobile. So I’m well aware of that. But this is not a law of nature. This is a new phenomenon, it’s creating new problems for our society, and it’s one that the Democrats are addressing even a very, very little amount, because they know it’s popular, and they know people want this and they know that all these cartoon caricatures of the average hard working plumber, construction worker, farmer, who’s bitter about having to pay this is almost entirely manufactured. Now, if they repeated enough over a longer period of time without proper pushback by Democrats, people will begin to believe it. But there’s not a ton of organic base to oppose this. It’s kind of a political loser, and that’s why they have to keep ventriloquizing the working man because they can’t find a real one anywhere who believes this shit.
Nima: To discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by Astra Taylor, filmmaker, writer and political organizer and co-founder of the Debt Collective. Astra is also the director of the film “What Is Democracy?” and author of the book, Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone. Astra will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Astra Taylor. Astra, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Astra Taylor: Thanks for having me.
Adam: So you’ve discussed this quite a bit at great length. It’s something that you’re very passionate about, very deeply important to you. So if you’ll indulge us, I want to talk about some of the bigger media narratives that you’ve encountered, I’m sure from your years of advocacy, we want to kind of expand upon those. So let’s begin immediately after the Biden White House announced forgiveness for $10,000 worth of federal student loans, terms or conditions apply.
Nima: Not sold separately.
Adam: The narrative war kind of began right away, right-wing media quickly settled on, I think somewhat coordinatedly, on a standard argument that debt forgiveness kind of harms the working man who we are told and has played by the rules, that debt forgiveness was effectively a wealth transfer from nurses and plumbers and whatever kind of job they kind of clearly, just quickly Wikipedia’d to this very sort of gendered, racialized, queer-barista-Starbucks-sociology-gender-studies-major, right? And that the Republicans were the true defender of the working man and that Democrats were simply doing a giveaway to over-educated elites, right? Okay. So aside from the sort of sexism and anti intellectualism buried in all these kinds of DeSantis, Tucker Carlson talking points, what is wrong with that narrative starting off with the kind of big picture?
Astra Taylor: I mean, it’s empirically wrong. That’s the main problem. It’s also politically and morally wrong. You know, the narrative war didn’t start that day. I mean, these are old tropes. They’re just kind of leaning into them, and we’ve been in a narrative war over debt cancellation, you know, now for at least a decade. I’m a veteran in this long war for sure, and I think those tropes are pretty predictable, and they’re actually pretty easy to debunk, and I think what’s striking is that, you know, a lot of people just aren’t buying them. I mean, what we saw immediately after cancellation was announced was a significant boost in the polls for the Democrats. You know, we knew going into it that it actually is really popular with the Republican base. I mean, people like debt cancellation, it’s not really a big surprise. So, one of my favorite media clips was this long CNN 10-minute segment, where they were obviously hunting for anti debt cancellation commentary. So they went to, you know, a real American community in rural Pennsylvania and stood around at this, you know, farmers market.
Adam: Farmers market. Right.
Astra Taylor: Yes. But it wasn’t a Brooklyn farmers market, right? There was no cashew cheese, and they couldn’t find anybody who was against debt cancellation, they actually had to go off site to find somebody, an interview they’d obviously lined up. All these Republicans, all these old white guys saying, ‘Yeah, you know, I don’t really like welfare, but I like student debt cancellation, you know, I need it, I have student debt, my daughter needs it, my friend needs it.’ So there’s something this is why material, like sort of pocketbook issues are actually really, really powerful. But obviously we’re seeing a lot of bullshit tropes out there. I mean, you have to be really out of touch with the working class to say things like working class people don’t want student debt cancellation. I mean, there’s basically not a job out there where you don’t need to go to some kind of trade school or college. I mean, truckers have student debt, nurses definitely have student debt, you know, plumbers have student debt, working people have student debt, because in the United States labor policy for the last whatever three or four decades has been, hey, the fact you aren’t making a living wage is your fault, go get credentialed up, go get skilled up. This is a place where some of the BS, right-wing talking points don’t have as much traction. But I think it really is about those subtexts that you alluded to, right? These are, you know, they’re playing into the kind of anti intellectual, anti college frame. There’s a lot of racism in that, right? You know, college is where people learn to be woke and all this stuff, they learn about history, that’s obviously a problem. But the narrative war, I think it’s one that we on the left can win, I actually think we’re winning it, which is why now what they’re leaning into is, you know, a bunch of specious lawsuits to try to block it just using their unjust, unfortunately, possibly powerful legal mechanisms, you know, and the courts aren’t fair, the courts aren’t just, and so we’ll see what happens.
Adam: Yeah, you’re right. Anyone who knows anything about Vox Pop knows that if you go around with a camera, you can interview more than, statistically more than 20 people you’ll get any opinion. So the fact that they had to go off site from a market in rural America.
Nima: Even Real America.
Adam: Right, e.g. white America, because you touched on it when you talked about, I mean, because several of the people in the CNN segment, which we talked about at the top of the show, they say, ‘Oh, well, my son has, I’m paying off my son or daughter’s debt, or someone, you know, my sister had to move into my apartment to help pay for her daughter.’ You know, it touches everybody, even if they themselves don’t have debt. It’s one thing I think the pundits kind of missed, even the kind of concern trolls like Matt Yglesias, they always show these stats about who doesn’t doesn’t have debt, it’s like, yeah, but it touches every facet of people’s life, that even if it’s not personally affected them, everybody’s at least one or two degrees removed from this problem.
Astra Taylor: Yeah, 100 percent, and I think there’s an interesting conversation that we had about why the Matt Yglesias’ of the world are so anti debt cancellation, you know, what are they actually invested in? Because he certainly didn’t have to take on student debt to go to college. Many of the neoliberal economists who have been so angry about student debt cancellation, you definitely didn’t have it, but one would presume they’ve met people in their lives who have student debt, you know. So there’s also, I think, on the liberal side, right, I mean, to flip over from discussing the right, there is also a psychic investment in debt, and especially in regards to higher education, and it touches on their illusions of meritocracy, I think, and their sense that somehow, you know, they deserve their place at the top of it all.
Nima: Well, yeah, I actually really want to talk about that aspect of it, this kind of psychology of debt, and you’ve written Astra about how conversations and then narratives about debt are never just about money, right? It’s not just about economics. But there are elements of, you know, as you just said, deservingness, fairness, pride, power, shame, morality of this kind of, you know, we work for everything we have, and if you take out a loan, well, then you gotta pay it back, right? Can you talk a little bit about how this deeply embedded narrative of kind of anti-social welfare, but also just like, once you do something, you are locked into that and any other alternative, even if it is, you know, moral, reasonable, right? Helps people live their lives, as opposed to corporations or creditors just making money hand over fist, why is this so deeply ingrained in us, and is this do you think mostly an American phenomenon that’s been with us for decades, if not now, centuries?
Astra Taylor: It’s interesting. I mean, the oppressive morality you’re talking about was actually in your first question, because you referred to loan forgiveness. And you know, that’s a term that we at the Debt Collective really take issue with and constantly push back on because that phrase is loaded. Why do debtors need to be forgiven? They didn’t do anything wrong. You know, and especially if you are of the mindset, you know, as I am, as I know, both of you are too, you know, we should publicly provide the necessities of life education, healthcare, there should be beautiful green social housing, right? People deserve to live. And so when you are forced, because of the way the economy is structured, to finance the necessities of life, there should be no shame in that, and there should certainly be no shame in debt abolition and the abolition of those debts. So, you know, we are pointing towards a bigger restructuring of the political economy, and the reason I organize with my comrades that the Debt Collective is not because I’m fixated on student debt, or even on college, per se. I mean, I’m actually, you know, I’ve spent a lot of my life in the university compared to the average person, but it reveals something very fundamental about the way our economy is structured. I mean, capitalism runs on debt, and part of the erosion of those public goods, the denial of those essential public goods is the individual debt financing that we use instead, right? And so by organizing around debt, you really get people to jump pretty quickly to the need for these public goods, right? So hey, you have student debt, because there’s no free college, hey, you have medical debt, because there’s no universal health care, you can’t pay your rent, right? Because housing is not a right. It’s not something that you actually, you know, can be secure in, in this society. So I just need to say that is the bigger picture that we’re aiming at, and why I’m so, so passionate about this. But yeah, I mean, these questions of economics are always also emotional questions, you know, I mean, political economy is also psychological, and debt has a very unique way of making people feel bad, and that has to do with this frame, right, this frame of the debtor is guilty. As my old friend, the late and great anthropologist David Graeber liked to point out, the word schuld in German means both debt and sin or guilt. And that’s actually, it’s not just an American thing. That’s actually the case in a lot of languages. I mean, there’s a lot of religions where you can argue that actually, in Christianity, it’s not debtors who need to be punished, but actually creditors. But at the same time, there’s also a long history of that some reverse where it, you know, debtors are viewed as shameful, and that was something that was really deep at the founding of this country, the founding fathers. It’s not talked about much, but part of what they were acting against was a kind of populist revolt against landlords and lenders, and so you can go back and read your Federalist Papers, and Madison is like, ‘Oh, my God, we need to block the wicked project of debt abolition,’ right? Or they’d be warning that if democracy got too powerful, if the country was too representative in its political structures, then what would happen? Well, people would want their debts canceled. So, I mean, this is really foundational stuff.
Nima: Heaven forfend.
Astra Taylor: And I’m like, you know, it’s a wonderful thing to be, you know, Madison’s worst nightmare, right? Like, yes, here we are with your wicked project, and because they saw, they saw it was tied to working class power, they saw that it was about small ‘d’ democracy, and so what did they do? Well, first, they set up all the rules and laws so that they favorite creditors, and then they add on this ideology of shame, ‘Hey, it’s actually your fault you’re poor, hey, it’s actually your fault you’re in debt,’ and so the thing is, though, again, there’s power in this because a our debts are somebody’s assets, like it’s actual money that creditors are depending on and sometimes under neoliberalism, the creditor is the state because these things are so intermingled the private sector and the public sector. So there’s actual power there. But also, the second point is that when you give people this opportunity to reframe their self understanding, if we band together and fight, we may or may not win material debt abolition, and if we win it, because as we’re seeing they still might fight us on it, and try to deny it, but we can reduce some of that psychic burden, right? So that, hey, you might still be in debt but you don’t have to beat yourself up about it, right? Because actually, the people who are to blame are them, the people who are profiting from your poverty, you know, and this is not your fault, and that’s the path to solidarity.
Adam: You touched on an important point, which is that all debt, by definition, is a failure of the social state, and that one thing you write a lot about, and you’ve talked about in other interviews, is that you note that a ton of student debt, a ton of medical debt, these are all sort of recent phenomenon. There are political phenomena, they don’t exist in other countries to a great extent, many other countries, with obvious exceptions. And so, you know, that which is created by people can be destroyed by people. And there’s this sense that the system we were born into, I think, is this kind of static state that it’s always been that way that there’s some natural law to that, and one thing I think your work does a really good job of doing is saying, no, no, no, this is all new, right? It’s sort of like the pledge of allegiance has only been around for 60 years. It’s not, you know, been around since time immemorial. And I think that that really does show that debt is political, again, this is not a new idea, right? Something you’ve talked about, others talked about, but debt has a very specific political purpose, which is to say one of the things it does is it makes people, like you said, shameful and scared and compliant. And one of the, you know, the sort of Mike Rowe of the world and the other kind of right-wing demagogues, they always give this line about, ‘Well, in my day you had a debt you paid it, simple as that. I’m not one of these complicated guys who believes in a free lunch.’ And it’s like, but there was no debt in your fucking day.
Astra Taylor: Because you had a free lunch, you had a publicly subsidized education and a government subsidized mortgage at 3 percent.
Nima: College was $15.
Astra Taylor: Yeah.
Adam: But there is something I think genuinely appealing about that line to a lot of people and I want to talk about that, and one thing you do is try to fundamentally rewire people’s brains, which I think is really important around this because I think you can do it in a fairly short period of time. But I want you to comment, if you can, about how you think maybe Democrats can do a better job framing this issue. Obviously, you’ve done it yourself, and you’ve done it in this interview, what are some of the weak spots about how liberals have kind of framed this issue? I know, it’s a little bit disjointed, because even within Democrats, there’s all kinds of disagreements, but how do you think that one can appeal to that kind of innate sense of responsibility and fairness, while saying like, ‘Hey, by the way, this is all a fucking scam.’
Astra Taylor: Yeah. So one, and this is a challenge, but it’s always worth trying to do is give them that sense of historical perspective. Hey, you know that things used to not cost so much. I mean, people know that the ticket price of college has skyrocketed, and to articulate the fact that that is unfair, right? I mean, their kids and grandkids are paying through the nose for something that was generally accessible, that didn’t leave people saddled with a lifetime of debt. I think people can get that. I think that’s why there’s Republicans at that all American farmers market were sympathetic to the idea of debt cancellation. I mean, a lot of them were old enough to remember when you could take a part time job and pay for college or maybe it was free. So I think that sense of historical perspective, and then there’s also the kind of quip, but I think it’s a legitimate one, which is, look, maybe you paid off your debt, but just because you suffered doesn’t mean other people should have to suffer. If I die of cancer, I’m not going to come back from the grave like a zombie and be like, ‘Oh, my god, future generations don’t have to die when I did,’ you know, because there’s, like, some accessible treatment. So it’s a sense of, I think, appealing to people’s better angels that, you know, we actually want progress, we actually want people to be better off. And there’s also appealing to people’s basic economic sense. I mean, it’s like, hey, do you actually want all of this money, month after month going to the federal government so that people can pay back these loans, which are structured in such a way that people are stuck in a debt trap, right? It’s not like they’re just paying their principal off the way interest works they’re paying much more than they originally borrowed in most cases, hey, when that money could be circulating in your community, you know, it could be going to local businesses, it could be freeing people up to start their own businesses so they can be more entrepreneurial, like you actually will be richer if this money stays in the community instead of going to the Department of Education, which should not be acting as a bank in any case. The problem, though, is that a lot of the misunderstanding, a lot of the misinformation, you know, comes from Democrats themselves, and I will actually call out both camps. I mean, look, Bernie Sanders is great, and says, cancel it all, you know, make college free again, and there are a lot of folks in Congress who agree with him, not enough other people in the Senate. Elizabeth Warren has been a big ally in many ways, and good, really good on some of the nitty gritty of policies and the legal authority. But by digging into $50,000 as the threshold of cancellation, I think she actually harmed the movement. Why? First up, that number was settled upon because it was supposedly the number at which you would narrow the racial wealth gap, even then that was under debate from other economists. But the people who came up with that number, it was from 2016, updated it two years ago, and were like, oh, actually, student debt has grown so much, we need to cancel $75,000. So the math was always wrong. I think the morality of it was wrong, because the real question is, like, why does anyone have to go into debt at all, you know, we shouldn’t be engineering semi equality through student debt cancellation, we should be treating education as a public good and canceling this damn debt. But anyway, I think politically, strategically, you don’t meet people halfway before you need to, we would have been a stronger coalition if everybody and not just the Debt Collective and a couple other groups were arguing to cancel it all. So that was one problem. And then, you know, Joe Biden was really leaning into the stereotypes of the Ivy League debtor, until the last minute, I mean, until like last week, basically. And, again, that’s just so off base. I mean, something like 99.7 percent of people who attend the Ivy League graduate debt free. Why? Because either their parents are rich, or they get the subsidy from those huge endowments, those hedge funds that have universities attached have to offer them. So some of the most damaging and misleading stereotypes that we have to debunk came from people who ostensibly are on our side and who we did eventually remove through organizing, and ultimately, you know, I’m less concerned with trying to correct them as individuals and get them to get the details right than I am with talking to the broader public, building a base of people who understand that it’s a lot of hogwash, and actually it all needs to go.
Adam: Well, yeah, one thing they did is they did the why don’t you cancel this instead? It’s like, but you don’t support that either.
Astra Taylor: Oh, yeah, we have a file at the Debt Collective that’s like right-wingers who are allies on medical debt, you know, right? But it will be like, yeah, Mitt Romney will name the medical debt cancellation bill in your Honor because obviously you support it.
Adam: Why have you not done this other really great thing that I don’t support?
Astra Taylor: Yes.
Adam: That must have been a frustrating few days.
Astra Taylor: Well, I know. So I mean, it was political because the point, I mean, it was a political strategic decision because medical debt is there are ways to cancel it, but we have a piecemeal patchwork system, it’s held by hospitals, insurers, debt collectors, that brokers, right. The Department of Education has unique authority over the vast majority of student loans, which are federally secured. So it was like one target, you know, we knew that the legal authority to cancel it was there, and so that’s where we begin.
Nima: When you talk about that Democrats are definitely not always allies in this, and always is doing a lot of heavy lifting there, the idea that the kind of typical Democratic Party opening gambit to any debate or discussion or negotiation is actually like, starting from, oh, we’re going to meet you more than halfway to start, right? I know we’re here to talk about debt cancellation, but we love debt, you know us, we love debt, but here’s the thing, and then they kind of go from there. But in your work, Astra, you’re talking about these overarching frameworks, right? You earlier were talking about specific messaging, specific words, language that’s used to really frame all of these discussions, right? You talked about avoiding saying debt forgiveness because of the narrative that that really plays into. What are other kinds of frameworks like that either negative or positive that you at the Debt Collective are working on, either to challenge and shift, bury forever, or possibly introduce into the way that we understand this, lift up, really kind of embed a new way of understanding this? What are some of those frameworks that you want folks to really understand?
Astra Taylor: Yeah, well, one that is sort of flipside of debt, and I think is ultimately what, you know, both the right-wingers and the corporate Democrats are afraid of is, you know, we don’t want people to see themselves as debtors who are guilty, who need forgiveness, we want people to see themselves as creditors, as entitled to collect, what do we owe each other as a society? You know, what are our true debts? And how do we pay those? I mean, I would argue that it’s by taking care of each other, by paying reparations, by paying climate debt, and so I think that’s also a pivot is yes, an entitlement society is good. Yes, we are entitled, and we’re coming to collect. Another frame that we endlessly have to push back on, and we’re not unique in this, and it happens every time you’re trying to push for progressive reform and legislation is, you know, ‘how are we going to pay for it?’ Of course, we have money for the military, and of course, Joe Biden’s up there going, like ‘we have to fund the police,’ you know, but we are constantly having to say, no, debt cancellation doesn’t have to cost you anything, and no, the government’s finances are not analogous to the households finances. Yes, you have to balance your budget as an individual, and states have to balance their budgets to a degree, but the federal government has the unique ability to deficit finance things and the question around debt for the government —
Nima: Yeah, they get to print money.
Astra Taylor: They can print money, and deficits are about power, and the question is, what is that deficit being used for? Is it being spent on public goods that will make us all richer, that will make us secure as the climate destabilizes? Or are we deficit financing ways that just enrich the private sector and these private contractors and elites? And so that is, I think, something we’re constantly pushing back on is like, no, your budget and the government’s budget are not the same, in many ways they’re actually mirror images of each other. They’re opposites. This idea that debt cancellation is a ridiculous idea, that it’s pie in the sky, that it’s idealistic, we often go back to the early media response to an action we had in 2012 that was called 1T Day, it was the day student debt surpassed $1 trillion. So you know, almost 10 years ago, exactly. And NPR and Reuters and various other outlets were like, can you believe these freaks that Occupy Wall Street are saying the government should cancel student debt like that will never happen? You know, and it’s happened. And we’ve made that real to the point where now, to me, one of the biggest signs of our successes and movement was like, how angry a lot of people were that Joe Biden was only canceling $10K or $20K. You know, five years ago, those people did not know debt cancellation existed, and if they heard about it, they would have been like, okay, that’s ridiculous, or good luck, folks. And now they’re out there on Twitter or on Facebook, wherever, you know, at the dinner table saying, ‘God, can you believe this guy’s only canceling $10k or $20k? I deserve more, I want more,’ and so that is, I think, a real sign of a shift in public consciousness and to me as an organizer, that’s something we can work With this increasing sense of entitlement, so yeah, it will be Madison’s worst nightmare and Joe Manchin;s worst nightmare too, you know, it’s like, yes, we’re trying to organize to win an entitlement society, where people are like, you know what? Yeah, I want to study and maybe I shouldn’t have to destroy my life for that.
Adam: I want to circle back in about this right-wing caricature of the American worker, like you talked about. It’s obviously, there’s real manly men who work and then there’s things that are kind of eggheads or gay or feminine. There’s an article every week about other Republicans that now represent the worker somehow, even though it’s the same recycled like Bircher bullshit. I want you to talk about what the actual worker who benefits from debt relief, whether it be student or medical, like what do they look like? What does the worker look like? Versus this Joe the Plumber character, even though of course, Joe the Plumber was a small business owner.
Astra Taylor: His name wasn’t even Joe, I don’t think, right?
Adam: What was his name?
Nima: It was Samuel. Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, obviously.
Adam: Oh. I wasn’t sure if he studied drama at Cambridge or something. But yeah, so talk about what the sort of median worker looks like, and how it kind of undermines this somewhat cheesy narrative that, you know, has like, that a seeped into even liberal or even kind of centrist are seen in discourse.
Astra Taylor: Yeah. I mean, it’s not only reactionary right-wingers who are saying that, you know, this is not fair to the working class. I mean, it’s Jason Furman, the Obama Era economist. It’s Larry Summers, as though he’s on the side of the working class. So it’s a total trope. I mean, I think what’s so interesting about organizing, and again, you know, why I stick with it, I don’t have student debt. I’m not in this for debt relief for myself. I mean, I think it would be fine if I was, I think self interest can actually be a really good catalyst for social change. But you know, it’s because I want to help build power for the working class. I mean, I don’t think we can afford to leave any kind of power on the table and organizing debtors is complementary to the labor movement, because a lot of workers are debtors, complimentary to racial justice organizing, because that has long been a tool of racial domination. It’s complimentary to housing organizing, we are working really closely with various tenant unions right now on some rent debt strategies. So I see it as something that can just sort of augment things that the left is doing overall. But in our actual work, I see the diversity of people impacted by this. Our members are from all over the country, they are young, they’re old. I mean, in terms of student debt, you know, most people are kind of hit by the tragedy of the debt they’ve taken on a few years out of college. So people tend to find us when they’re sort of in their mid 20s when they’re like, oh, this isn’t going to go exactly how I thought it would. But our members have all sorts of debt, you know, they have medical debt, again, they have rent debt, they have carceral debt. They’re young, they’re old, they’re Black, they’re white. I mean, they have all kinds of jobs. They are educators, they work at gas stations, they’re physical therapists, some work at nonprofits, I mean, it’s a portrait of the American population, we have a growing debt strike of people who are over 50. So older debtors are the fastest growing demographic of student debtors in particular. So contrary to stereotypes, student debt is not a young person issue. I mean, that’s a frame that the media really pushes that we’re trying to debunk, and there are truck drivers in that, there’s substitute teachers, there are people, I mean, you know, my mind is almost going blank because people just have all the kinds of jobs, people work in coffee shops, yes, we have some baristas, I don’t know if they’re slackers —
Adam: Oh no.
Astra Taylor: Being a barista is actually a tough job. So there’s a real diversity, because that doesn’t impact everybody the same. I mean, debt has very stark racial and gender dimensions. And obviously, as a class dimension, I mean, rich people, when they have debt are using it strategically, more often than not, but it binds all kinds of people, and we’re trying to build the kind of economic solidarity out of that, and so this is why I think the Republicans are playing with fire when they tried to block student debt cancellation, and certainly we’re digging more into medical debt if they try to get in the way of that too I think it’s going to be a deeply unpopular move, because this affects all kinds of people, and it’s something that has the potential to short circuit those ideological and cultural divides that were otherwise so locked into in this country. I mean, there’s a kind of populist current to it, and I use populist in a good sense, right? I like that word. It’s popular, it actually touches people, and these technocrats in Washington don’t get it, and what we’re going to have to do is, you know, force them, force them to get it, and I think we can build the people power to do that.
Adam: Are you suggesting that when you materially and significantly impact people’s lives, they will reward you politically?
Astra Taylor: I think I just like this idea that if you do popular things that people like, that helps them —
Adam: Telling them good things are impossible and to vote harder.
Astra Taylor: Yeah. But I think one thing about student debt cancellation, sets it apart, for example, from the Child Tax Credit, there wasn’t a movement fighting for that Child Tax Credit for 10 years, and there wasn’t a movement to fight to have it extended. We forced them to extend the student loan payment pause seven times and we have galvanized a base of people and also organized a coalition so groups like the NAACP, and a lot of labor unions are also in this, and that’s important. It’s not enough, I think, for politicians to just kind of spontaneously do something that seems good because the public’s not invested in it. They’re like, ‘Oh, the people who run things gave me something nice, and now they took it away,’ you know, you have to organize people so that they’re like, ‘You did that because of us, and we’re not gonna let you back down,’ and that’s why it’s so important to have social movements and to have organization.
Nima: Well, yeah, because I think so often, there’s this idea that some economist wrote an op-ed, and it was really compelling, and Joe Biden changed his mind, and then the next day made an announcement, as opposed to, these are long standing movements of all sectors of society, all these different kinds of people that you’ve been describing, and I think that is often missing from the way that these stories are told.
Astra Taylor: In fact, there was a story about how Larry Summers went to the White House and spoke privately with Joe Biden, and I mean, I’m absolutely certain that he was saying, do not cancel student debt, do not cancel student debt, because that’s all he has been saying for the last few months, and then Joe Biden, the same day canceled student debt, and so I think that’s also, you know, the way to overcome those stupid economists and they’re stupid op-eds, and their incredible access to the people who have power is to out organize them. That’s all because otherwise those op-eds work, and that’s a tragedy.
Nima: Well, I think the tragic efficacy of certain op-eds written by certain people is a great place to leave this. This has been fantastic. We’ve been speaking with Astra Taylor, documentary filmmaker, writer and political organizer. She is co-founder of the Debt Collective, director of the film “What Is Democracy?” and author of the book, Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone. Astra, thank you so much, again, for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Astra Taylor: Cool. Thanks for having me.
Adam: Yeah, I mean, generally, you know, it’s something we talked about on the show, we’ll talk about the future, but it’s like, people can’t just say, I believe X, they have to say, on behalf of this party, I think X. Just say what you want.
Nima: Right. Stop laundering your thoughts.
Adam: Yeah, it happens all the time. Again, I’ve written about it in different, we’ll have new episodes about different ways in which these things are laundered, because it’s sort of seen as unseemly or didactic or preachy to have an opinion. So people constantly have to say, ‘Well, I’m an objective neutral observer, but you know, the working plumbers don’t want these gender studies degrees’ and it’s like, okay, well, clearly, you just hate women and hate gay people and hate people with educations because you view them as a threat or view them as non compliant. And so this is why we get this schlock every five seconds, and you know, one of the things that Astra brings up is that when you actually do real retail politics, door to door politics, which of course we never do, I never leave my recording studio. I’ve never met another human in my life. I don’t know what they look like. I’m just the Cheeto dust, right?
Nima: Organizing scares me.
Adam: Yeah, organizing scares me, I have to talk to people? Can’t stand them. No, so when you actually do these real kind of interpersonal organizing and retail politics, you realize that people don’t believe this shit, like working people, to the extent they have any kind of uniform view, don’t really buy this, or they have more complex or nuanced views of it, or often times contradictory views of it. And it’s a fight that can be won, which is the point she’s making, and it’s a fight that they did win. I mean, again, it’s not like, you know, we don’t need to spike the football here. It’s very qualified. It’s only $10,000. But that was unimaginable 5, 10 years ago.
Nima: I would say maybe two years ago even.
Adam: Yeah, and it just goes to show you that the quote-unquote “working man” can have his mind changed. They can be convinced of something. I mean, CNN.
Nima: That’s right.
Adam: CNN went around what they thought was going to be like Cletusville, USA at a farmers market —
Nima: And they were like, “Oh yeah, this sounds really great. My daughter has a lot of loans.”
Adam: Yeah. And they’re like, oh, yeah, you know, I personally don’t have loans. But then again, school was cheaper for me. But you know, my grandson, he’s, you know, he’s going to University of Iowa and is like, well, wait a second. Oh, right. Because this doesn’t matter just to people that directly affects it matters to people who know people, who were friends with people or loved ones, and so it just goes to show you that these caricatures have no basis in reality and don’t really, they kind of break down when you start doing real person to person politics, again, something you and I have never even thought about doing.
Nima: I like how you’re ascribing me to that.
Adam: I’m bringing you in with me on this one baby.
Nima: Okay, cool. I mean, yeah, it really has so much to do with the stories that we are told so often, and then replacing those stories with more accurate stories, right? There are deep deep narratives that are reinforced about paying debts and don’t take out a debt if you can’t pay it back and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, having nothing to do with the systems that are in place to actually keep people in debt, or the fact that we’re actually not even ever talking about paying off a principal and that it’s all about interest and that capitalism is born of interest. But like, there’s all that kind of garbage, but we just keep hearing again and again, and we’ve heard for so many decades, how could you quote-unquote “forgive,” right, “forgive” people’s debt when, you know, well, my debt didn’t get forgiven, like bah, bah, bah, bah. But once you start replacing those stories with more common, more relatable, more accurate stories, and change the number of stories, just one story that has a counter narrative against all the dominant narrative stories isn’t going to do much but once that weight is shifted, that’s when the media doesn’t know what to do. They’re like, what?
Adam: It’s also because people’s self impression is always kind of bullshit right? It’s like what they teach you in sociology 101 where in terms of how to do research where they ask people like what radio station do you listen to? And you know, 40 percent of people say NPR but then they go into used cars, the same scientist going to used cars and they look at what’s on the preset radio stations and it’s like pop music. Yeah, it’s like everyone’s going to say if you poll them like what do you think about, ‘I believe you should pay off your debt, man’s got to pay off his debt as a man of honor, you know, man, manly man, man, man paying off many many debts,’ and it’s like in reality do you want $10,000 removed from debt? It’s like, yeah, yeah.
Nima: Yeah if you want to live your life and not have to do that as much anymore, and they’re like, ‘Yeah I’m going to do that.’
Adam: Yeah. Who’s going to be like,’ No, no, I’m good,’ which is what the White House has been saying, because they couldn’t find anyone who had any standing because the White House is like, ‘Well, look, if you don’t want to pay off your loans, don’t pay them off, you don’t have to fill out the form.’
Nima: Right. Feel free not to do that.
Adam: That’s, I think, part of what’s going on here. I think, and this is why I think when you really get past the slogans because, again, if you ask people in the abstract, they always give you these very lofty, very self righteous answers, but when you get down to it, it’s like, ‘Well, yeah, clearly I don’t want to pay, I don’t want to flush $10,000 in the toilet for no reason so yeah, fuck yeah, where do I sign up?’ And that begins to kind of erode that posture.
Nima: Well, I think that’s actually a great place to leave it Adam. Thank you everyone for listening to this episode of Citations Needed. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we really are 100 percent listener funded. And as always a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, November 2, 2022.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.