Expertise and the Never-Ending Election
The 2020 election season is upon us — and by “upon us,” I mean we will face another 18 months of relentless and, perhaps, existential nausea about American politics and What The People Prefer and Deserve. Fueling some of that churning collective angst is the prospect of spending at least another year deciding who the Democratic nominee will be. Currently, there are 21 people angling for that position, a figure that almost certainly will grow before the election season’s first primary and caucus.
As has been well-noted among the punditry, this Democratic peloton includes more than one woman contender. The New Republic has pointed out that one can choose this cycle among four women attorneys-turned-senators, each of whom offer a differing vision for leading the country. On the surface, the presence of Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Kirsten Gillibrand seems to signify that the era of “the one” seems to be giving way to “which one”?
But the presence of several women in this pack is not in itself proof of a more feminist Democratic party race. Rather, many of the breakaway candidates seem to be men who offer more style than substance, and who traffic in the image of electability over any substantive feminist policy commitments. Image matters in politics, not only as a way to energize voters but as a visual and rhetorical shorthand for foundational commitments. But in a party race that may ultimately have two dozen competitors, anchoring big ideas to possible methods early on is a meaningful way to distinguish capability from empty imagery. Policy proposals are a way to see who is an expert and who is only pandering for a vote; who wants to stake substantive feminist social change and who is a shill tied to big-donors interests.
To see a candidate driving their campaign through policy, take Senator Elizabeth Warren’s recent plan to eliminate a tremendous amount of student debt and create universal free public college. In an essay published on Medium, Warren spelled out the terms for this educational policy: $50,000 in student loan debt cancellation with household incomes below $100,000, with graduated partial cancellation for households making between $100-$250,000; a public option for tuition-free and debt-free undergraduate education, funded through a 2 percent tax on the astronomically wealthy; robust federal funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities while shutting the pipeline on predatory for-profit enterprises. These measures would benefit the vast majority of student debt holders and the change the access pipeline for higher education.
Warren’s policy proposal should also be seen as a feminist measure. Women accumulate more student loan debt than men and often have a harder time paying it back because of the workforce pay discrimination. The differences between accumulated college debt and average weekly earnings are even more severe when accounting for both race and gender — black and Hispanic women are at an even greater disadvantage than their white counterparts. As the women profiled in Lena Felton’s piece for The Lily make clear, student debt is a life-changing event. It’s difficult to own a home, purchase a vehicle, have children, travel, replace old technology and clothing, or invest in long-term savings when a quarter or more of one’s take-home pay goes back to paying off student debt.
Because women remain at an economic disadvantage, tax deductions on student loan interest payments and income-based repayment plans often extend immiseration rather than forge a clear pathway out. Further, women who have chosen to pursue graduate studies since 2012 have also been burdened with the extra indignity of unsubsidized graduate loans, a policy change that has turned even modest loans into considerable debts over the course of an MA or PhD program. For those who simply don’t make enough to substantially knock out their student debt immediately upon graduation or, more realistically, those who didn’t walk in with enough economic and institutional advantages, existing policies offer little genuine relief.
Student loan debt is also notoriously difficult to discharge in bankruptcy proceedings, and it has only become more difficult over the past four decades — thanks in no small part to the current Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden. Biden’s role championing the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA) was part of a decades-long effort on the then-senator’s part to exempt student debt from the protections offered other debt. Biden’s efforts over several terms in the Senate ushered in a “certainty of hopelessness” standard for discharging student debt — a criterion both so vague and so extreme that it is nearly impossible to find anyone who qualifies for it. Ironically, one major critic of BAPCPA and Biden’s other bankruptcy laws and the numerous ways they would punish women was the law professor and bankruptcy expert Liz Warren.
Warren’s ideas for tackling student debt are part of her much larger and ongoing policy proposal rollout, including plans for revolutionizing childcare, breaking up tech behemoths, and addressing racial inequity in homeownership, among others. Both bold and thoughtful, these proposals have catapulted her back among the frontrunners. Yet, at this moment, she still remains behind several white men, Biden included, who have offered nothing as substantial or feminist-oriented in terms of policy.
This gap raises several questions about the matter of expertise: At what point was it necessary for Warren to stake a bold policy position in order to separate herself from roughly 20 competitors — and at what point is it simply because women candidates have to demonstrate far more technical know-how than male counterparts to be considered worthwhile? Will Beto or Mayor Pete ever need to spell out education policies before Super Tuesday? Could Warren ever have such nickname as “Mayor Pete” or “Beto” and ever be regarded as an expert? Why are we still hearing about her drinking that goddamn beer? Will knowing Norwegian help Mayor Pete articulate any policy proposal ever? Could Liz Warren — or Kamala Harris, or Kirsten Gillibrand — score the cover of Vanity Fair with the quote “Man, I’m just born to be in it” and not be laughed off every stage? Can a woman ever be so sweaty in public and be considered a presidential candidate? Can Joe Biden square his campaign kickoff claiming to be a working-class guy with his record on bankruptcy law? Can he square his work on the Violence Against Women Act with its concomitant creation with Clinton Crime Bill? Can he square it with what he did to Anita Hill? Why can’t he just apologize? Will he call himself a feminist? Will America believe anything?
Warren may not be your candidate of choice — she has several marks on her record that may reasonably disqualify her as your pick. What I wonder, though, is whether Warren’s work this far out to articulate numerous proposals with the potential for vast social change will lead voters to commit to expertise and feminist policy — or stick with the blank non-promises of smiling white men.