The Republican Governors Association released an ad over the summer attacking Stacey Abrams — the Democrat who is running against Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brian Kemp, in an effort to become the country’s first black female governor — for deferring $54,000 in payments to the IRS to fund her run.
“She’s pushing a radical agenda to raise your taxes while delaying what she owes to fund her political campaign,” the narrator warns voters before calling Abrams “self-serving” and “fiscally irresponsible.”
This sort of debt-shaming often backfires. It’s not hard to see why: The vast majority of Americans have some type of debt. A 2017 report from credit reporting agency Experian found that 73 percent of 220 million American consumers were in debt when they died. But class warfare is the engine that turns the conservative political machine. The RGA ad, which neatly weaves together stereotypes on race and poverty, is a particularly blatant example of the GOP’s larger assault on the poor, people of color, and people of color who are poor, to the benefit of the GOP donor class.
The way Americans think about poverty and debt has allowed Republican candidates to win over and over with the same sectarian playbook. Candidates and their allies produce these sorts of ads because they send a specific and politically useful message about who should and shouldn’t be allowed to participate in democracy. In order to reimagine the world we live in, we need to reconceptualize debt — whose debt matters, and whose debts deserve to be forgiven. It’s not just a question of what the wealthy owe to society; but of what the rest of us are willing to do to get what is owed to those who need it most.
“We tend to forget that the rich have debt, too; it’s just that the debts of the wealthy are more abstract, and therefore easier to overlook.”
We too often talk about debt as a one-way relationship that pits rich creditors against poor debtors. We tend to forget that the rich have debt, too; it’s just that the debts of the wealthy are more abstract, and therefore easier to overlook.
An overdue car or credit card payment feels more tangible than Jared Kushner’s family’s impending $1.2 billion debt on a 41-story Manhattan office building. Although the poor routinely go to jail for being unable to pay court fines and fees — a modern-day form of debtors’ prison — a New York millionaire with a history of deceptive business practices, predatory bankruptcy and outright tax fraud is able to ascend to the presidency, allowing him to shape policies that will continue to enrich himself, his family and his peers from the highest levels of government.
Debt is the invisible cord that ties the rich and poor together, anthropologist David Graeber argues in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years.
“For thousands of years,” Graeber writes, “the struggle between rich and poor has largely taken the form of conflicts between creditors and debtors — of arguments about the rights and wrongs of interest payments, debt peonage, amnesty, repossession, restitution, the sequestering of sheep, the seizing of vineyards, and the selling of debtors’ children into slavery,”
In the minds of the 1 percent — who now own 40 percent of the wealth in the U.S. — the virtue of their own riches absolves them of any societal debt.
“You didn’t build that,” then-President Barack Obama said in 2012.
Despite the poor phrasing, Obama’s point — that corporations and the wealthy benefit from public goods, and as a result owe a public debt — was accurate. (That didn’t stop those four words from fueling Fox News segments and Republican ads for months.) We aren’t taught to think of taxes as a means for the wealthy to repay the society that allowed them to become wealthy in the first place. In the minds of many, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ tax evasion is eminently defensible (“business as usual!”) while a working-class parent losing their home is considered not just irresponsible, but a moral stain.
Class warfare in service of the rich takes many forms: tax cuts that benefit millionaires rather than the middle class, cuts in funds for public education, efforts to limit the bargaining power of unions, restrictions that curb access to government benefits and affordable health care and prevent minorities to vote.
Kemp, in his capacity as Georgia state secretary, is currently blocking more than 53,000 voter registration applications ― 70 percent of which were filed by black people. As a result, tens of thousands of black voters in the state will likely be denied the right to choose their next governor.
Poverty and race are inextricably linked in the U.S.; think of the infamous Willie Horton ad, or the more recent GOP ads stoking anti-immigrant hatred. Racism and classism are the twin antennae Republicans use to transmit fear and resentment to their supporters. And in a country where a disproportionate share of the working class is made up of people of color, this sort of class warfare is inseparable from racial warfare. The Ohio counties exempt from food stamp work requirements are 97 percent white, according to a recent report from the Center for Community Solutions. The 95 percent of Ohio’s black families living outside of these areas must meet work requirements to qualify for food stamp benefits.
There are solutions. Strengthening the IRS to crack down on the criminally wealthy is one, The Week’s Ryan Cooper writes. Creating a Department of Justice that actually enforces white-collar crime and holds big banks accountable is another. Overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision is yet another. It always helps to vote for people who couldn’t be described as “if the Hamburglar went to Yale.”
All of these options may seem impossible right now. But they do exist. We can pay our debts.