If someone in your life is urging you to sign up for Twitter and you have resisted their efforts thus far, you have made a provably healthy decision. Twitter is not the complete and total cesspool many too online folks like myself dramatize it to be, and the reason we’re all addicted to it is because it’s the greatest breaking news service in human history that provides you access to experts around the world that most folks wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach—but like anything on the internet—its culture has become imbued with its most vitriolic power users, and not being on Twitter is an objectively good thing for your brain. While all of you so-called normies were enjoying your Thanksgiving meals with your families, you may have noticed some of the younger crowd getting sucked into our phones. It could have been due to a lot of things given how intrinsic these pieces of de facto 2007 magic and wizardry are to our current reality, but if your family is active on Twitter, the odds are very good that their deteriorating psyche around Thanksgiving night was thanks to this bullshit.
This drew out an honest to goodness ideological war in the Democratic Party, wrapped in a turducken of good old fashioned resentment politics. It is not unimportant to draw these ideological lines in the sand, and Chuck Schumer's potential 2022 primary opponent (too soon?) helpfully explained why this argument should carry very little weight in the Democratic Party if we are to live up to our stated egalitarian ideals.
There are firm policy reasons why paying for college is different from paying for K-12 education, but the spirit of both is the same: tax everyone—especially the rich in a progressive taxation system in order to pay for everyone’s education. Pete Buttigieg isn’t just making the case against paying for everyone’s college, but the spirit of his attack is a traditional Republican-style assault on the very concept of public goods.
The Democrats are a fairly conservative liberal party on a global scale, and they moved aggressively right in the age of Clinton. President Obama jerked the party back to the left a little, but it’s hard to call him a progressive hero when “got more customers for health insurers in a bill they wrote” is perhaps his biggest positive achievement, while “effectively continuing George W. Bush’s foreign policy, minus the nation building” is one of his enduring negative legacies. He no-doubt moved the ball forward, but he did not get us in the endzone, or even the redzone. He just helped get us out of the shadow of our own endzone.
On the whole, Millennials and Gen Z are openly rejecting the party’s politics forged in the trauma of McGovern’s 1972 humiliation, and we are driving the center of the party back to its 1960s and 1930s roots. This is an ideological battle between the left and right flanks, and their diametrically opposed ideologies are exposed for all to see in this fight.
Support for public schools is the highest it’s been in years, and if you were to take Pete Buttigieg’s argument to the K-12 level and assert that “millionaires” and “billionaires” should not be sharing common space with us commoners, a pretty good chunk of America would revolt against it. Which gets to the heart of the issue here: Democrats generally love to talk a big game about our “big tent” party, but rarely are many up for the fights that reality entails.
This weekend’s digital conflagration exposed the ideological underpinnings of the war between the “old guard” (who espouses newer, more conservative Democratic Party ideals) and the “new guard” (who backs older, more liberal Democratic Party ideals). Pete Buttigieg dipped his toe in the progressive waters at the start of the 2020 race and found there was no enthusiasm for anyone but two candidates who had actually earned that moniker, and he decided to sprint to the center and try to capture all the inevitable falling Biden support. If Mayor Pete were to make the exact same argument, but swapped out K-12 schools for college, his poll numbers would surely fall.
The way all governments generally work is that the young pay for the old. That was how we successfully sold Medicare and Social Security to the public and got millions of seniors off the streets. Simply taxing those producing for society and directing it towards those who our economic system has less use for can create a lot of prosperity, plus it is an effective tool to create wealth that can be handed down through generations. Over the past forty years or so, Republican “cut everything and pay for nothing” governance has become the norm in a Very Serious country who is Very Serious about our economic discipline and will definitely get Very Serious after this next election, maybe the one after it at the very latest. But we promise you, we are Very Serious about this.
The ugly truth of American politics that Trump made unimpeachable is that you can deliver a lot of angry seniors to the polls who don’t want to pay for any of us young whippersnappers’ “free” stuff. You see, they earned theirs (no sarcasm here, they really did). They paid into Medicare and Social Security for their entire lives, and now they are ready to reap the spoils of government competence. Us youths have quite literally not paid our dues yet, and so we are not entitled to any benefits from the now-incompetent system that all of a sudden cannot do anything right. Like the Millennial Speaker of the House said above: what Pete Buttigieg is pushing is just standard GOP talking points designed for a GOP electorate.
The thrust of Buttigieg’s case is certainly not the economics—it’s just a clumsy ripoff of Bernie’s genuine millionaires and billionaires bit—despite most of free college’s opponents citing that reason as to why we cannot enact this policy before quickly changing the subject. You know why you rarely hear anyone get into the financial details when they claim free college to be some pie-in-the sky dream that no Very Serious people can afford? Because properly contextualized, those details don’t aid the argument that free college is too expensive and something that our $20 trillion per year economy (wholly dependent on a college-educated labor force) cannot afford.
So let’s do the math on this. It’ll only take a second.
Senator Bernie Sanders claims he can pay for free college tuition to all 4-year public colleges and universities in America at a price of $70 billion. But let’s take his opponents’ criticism and face value and say he’s off. Way off. Let’s say his projection falls short by 100%, and the real figure to pay for anyone to get a free college education is $140 billion per year.
To put that number in United States Federal Government context, recently the Department of Defense found $125 billion in pure waste (and tried to hide it). No one can juxtapose both those figures and say “we can’t afford free college” with a straight face. Sure, that five-year figure cannot pay for annual costs of $70 billion per year, but it’s an example of the kind of federal government fat that bureaucrats are just tripping over at this point. Simply doing what almost all Americans agree—cutting the blatantly obvious waste and corruption in government—produces returns on the scale of free college. The program is expensive, but it’s nowhere near as expensive as its detractors make it out to be. That’s why Pete Buttigieg didn’t even bother getting into the monetary specifics of his opposition to this plan that is generally popular among young people and not popular amongst older folks. It’s not about actually opposing public goods because that’s not popular. He instead tried to hit a bank shot off “millionaires” to draw out the (thin) affordability case, and get to the real grievance resting at the base of the word “afford,”—a word which is defined by its user. Trump’s election proved the efficacy of generational warfare as a political strategy beyond a shadow of a doubt. It’s not that all folks over the age of 65 are resentful of younger generations and can have their politics manipulated around that pulsating ball of hatred, but historically, winning just enough of these angry folks has been just enough to win given the low turnout rates by young people of all generations.
The collapse of the Clinton coalition is submerging the Democratic Party in chaos, and the liberal conservative ruling coalition of the last forty years has lost a tremendous amount of legitimacy in the eyes of the two largest and most liberal generations in American history. Humans are shaped by their experiences, and the fact that a majority of us born in the Reagan realignment are rejecting the capitalist consensus which has driven us to the precipice of the end of the world as we know it should say something about the environment which molded us.
The reason why 2020 feels so different is because we may have passed a truly historic rubicon in 2018, and the candidates are all scrambling to figure out the new rules in a rapidly shifting political landscape.
What Pete Buttigieg did is very in-step with his ever-changing policy platform: he smashed two competing political ideologies together to hide his very basic and technocratic center-right/center-left policy that’s been disproven by the dystopia of our 21st century—all in the hopes that it could create enough buzzwords in order to harvest real votes from it in a party currently fighting between two competing ideologies—and it may pay off. Paying for college is a fairly divisive subject in America. Our society is filled with anger—as this column clearly demonstrates—and so long as we keep taking it out on each other, the oligarchy who benefits the most from our division will maintain their grip on power no matter who we vote into office in 11 months.
Jacob Weindling is a writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.