Why Conservatives Are Anxious About America

Rahmaan Mwongozi (@TheRocsWorld) recently had one of the few good-faith conversations I’ve heard in recent memory regarding the anxieties among those on the political right with Bo Winegard (@EPoe187) on his podcast.  Mwongozi is a talented interviewer, so I was very interested to hear this segment because I felt he would get real answers and he did not disappoint.  The segment is just 11 minutes, and well worth listening to in full.  I explore my take on the conversation below.
To summarize Winegard’s common thread, the angst stems from:
  • cultural domination of progressive views on race, sex, immigration and other topics in mainstream media and academia
  • the distortion or banishment of other views on those topics from those institutions
  • the prospect of irreversible cultural change
The first point is revealing in a number of ways:
  • It suggests that despite fairly broad, moderate conservative control of the country’s political institutions, conservatives want their views of race, sex, and immigration to control cultural institutions as well
  • it suggests that the ongoing, multi-decade project of building competing conservative institutions has failed to produce any prestigious ones
  • Note the absence of any explicit mention of economic issues in the list of topics driving conservative angst
Winegard’s argument that left-of-center views on race, sex, and immigration are more popular culturally seems broadly correct.  His argument that dissenting views are distorted or banished from mainstream institutions may be informed by his own experience (https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/03/12/assistant-professor-says-hes-been-fired-because-he-dared-talk-about-human-population), but there are plenty of counter-examples.  The opinion section of any major mainstream newspaper you can name has any number of right-of-center columnists and views on race, sex, immigration, and economics.  It’s true of the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal.  You can and do find conservative views from CNN, to MSNBC, to NPR, even PBS.  The prospect of irreversible cultural change is perhaps the most salient fear of conservatives–and as Winegard correctly says later in the interview culture is not merely about demographics but also norms.
Winegard mentions the Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965 later in the discussion.  This law made it easier for my parents to come to the United States (though there were Jamaicans in this country well before then, despite the patently racist Johnson-Reed Act of 1924).  The point he goes on to make regarding immigration is that it causes consternation to people (especially more conservative ones) because they are attached to a vision of a country that is more stable.  “They want stasis.”
One problem I have with this argument is that there are at least as many conservative voices advocating not for stasis (and definitely not for celebration of the country’s current diversity, as Winegard does), but for a return to the composition of the country as it was much earlier than 1965.  Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, spoke at length and in laudatory terms of the Johnson-Reed Act and was among the first to support Trump’s Muslim ban.  A second problem with this argument is the idea of hurt or injury to people more attached to the country as it was in 1980 or 1990, to use Winegard’s years.  It would be one thing if he were citing economic examples, but he doesn’t do that.  He doesn’t mention immigrants doing the sort of low-skilled labor formerly done by working class white people (or black people for that matter).  He doesn’t mention outsourcing.  Winegard provides no qualitative description of the harm caused by immigration either.  A third problem with the stasis argument is the idea that people can become attached to whatever the particular demographics of their area are.  Believing that argument would require you to ignore the entire history (and present) of this country when it comes to segregated schools, segregated housing, and the white flight from diversity in both spheres when the number of black and/or brown people exceeds the level of curation that the legacy of redlining still imposes to a degree.
Mwongozi draws an analogy between the response of black & brown communities to gentrification (in the specific case of Oakland) and the response of white communities to changing demographics.  I can see the argument, but gentrification is not about co-existence.  The end result of gentrification is usually to price out and push out those who were there before.  Black & brown people leave gentrified areas under duress.  Winegard and others might argue that immigration is doing the same to them, but that argument is weaker–and not a strictly economic one.
Winegard takes great pains to draw a distinction between “ethnotraditionalism” and white nationalism, and doesn’t want to be called a xenophobe for advocating in favor of preserving the current demographics of the country.  Unfortunately for him, louder voices to his political right are the ones that characterize the restrictionist position.  An additional project of many who advocate immigration restrictionism is the political disenfranchisement of black & brown citizens of the United States.  That’s what every post-election lawsuit was about.  That’s what the sabotage of the 2020 census was about.  That’s what the Supreme Court majority’s evisceration of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was about.  That’s what every resulting Voter ID law enabled by the Shelby County vs Holder ruling was about.  They do not want non-white citizens of the United States to have a say in the debates and conversations about the trajectory of the country.  It may not be fair to lump Winegard in with those who hold such extreme positions, but that background is why it happens–and will continue to happen until they are clear that they are pro-citizen, regardless of race or ethnicity.

Only a Little Forgiveness for Old Debts

I came across this parsimonious student loan forgiveness proposal in a tweet earlier today.  The author, Beth Akers, even had the nerve to call this stingy proposal a student-loan jubilee.  The $5000 (which isn’t even cash, but a 1-time tax credit), is just 1/6th the average total student debt for recent college graduates.  She ends her piece this way:

More than half of Americans have built their lives and made ends meet without a college degree.  Call universal student loan cancellation what it is: elitist.

The conservative think tank crowd never seems to have a problem with the government giving away money to businesses, and are quick to hand wave away any evidence of abuse of such programs by big businesses. But the moment there’s even a chance of the government doing something to help individuals, we get to hear a lot of concern about taxes and budgets, along with faux populism.

A cursory amount of digging reveals that the picture of who owes student loan debt is different than the stereotypical “whiny millennial” (some of whom are much closer to 40 than they are to 20).  A Forbes piece from February of this year is particularly enlightening.  The piece is worth reading in full but here are some of the facts I found most interesting:

  • Of the $1.6 trillion in student debt owed, Texas and Florida rank 2nd and 3rd in the number of borrowers and amounts owed (California and New York rank 1st and 4th).
  • Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan are also in the top 10 by number of borrowers and amounts owed
  • Arizona and Florida rank 1st and 3rd in the nation in average student loan debt per capita
  • Over $300 billion of that $1.6 trillion is owed by people aged 50 or older.
  • The 50+ cohort of student loan borrowers is about the same size as the 24 and younger cohort (a little over 8 million borrowers), but the amount they owe is nearly triple the size of their younger counterparts.

So not only is student loan debt not merely the province of the young, nor is it restricted to “coastal elites”.  You could be eligible for retirement and still owe Sallie Mae.  If the student loans you owe are private, there’s no guarantee that debt will be forgiven upon your death.

I am quite fortunate when it comes to student loan debt.  Graduating with a computer science degree from a state university with zero debt (thanks to parents who paid in full, and a state smart enough to subsidize in-state tuition) meant that I didn’t incur any student loan debt until I decided to go to grad school.  In the interim, I was able to buy a home.

Attending grad school part-time at night while working full-time (as my parents did for their undergraduate and graduate degrees, while raising my sister and I) and paying at least some tuition while in school mean that the amount I currently owe is well below the average for recent college graduates.  Even so, it will be another decade from now before I’ve finished paying off Sallie Mae.  I’ll be thinking seriously about higher education for my own children then, since my twins will be in high school 10 years from now.

What the green eyeshade crowd is missing is that the $1.6 trillion owed by students is preventing them from putting their earnings elsewhere in the economy, such as home ownership or investment.  That debt is almost certainly a factor in whether or not people choose to have children.  Akers harking back to an era where a college degree was not a necessity to live a middle class life does not change the facts about the type of globalized economy we live in today.  Nor does it change the fact that automation isn’t just changing “low-skilled” labor, but also some of the jobs that a college degree formerly provided a gateway to. If you actually want to grow the middle class in the United States in anything approaching a sustainable fashion, a solution to student loan debt (both the current amounts, and a mechanism to prevent forgiven debt from simply growing back to even higher amounts) is just one part of a larger conversation.