Since Trump won the Presidency, there have been many attempts to characterize the failures of liberalism. Thomas Frank wrote that the Democratic party itself is the “expression of an enlightened professional class [whose] core economic interests simply do not align with those of working people.” What does party liberalism look and feel like to those whose needs and concerns it has been accused of ignoring? We can draw some conclusions by reviewing how Democrat officials behaved when faced with an urgent economic demand from an aggrieved group of working-class people in the last days of the Obama administration.
In 2014 I co-founded the Debt Collective, a group organizing to demand debt relief from creditors. Such organizing complements the work of the labor movement and is aimed at building class power in the age of finance. For our inaugural project, we collaborated with a group of people who had attended Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit chain with more than one hundred campuses around the country. At a cost of two to three times higher than public schools, for-profit colleges emerged from the liberal commitment to give everyone the opportunity to earn a degree. For-profit education grew to a multi-billion dollar industry within a neoliberal framework that treats college as an investment that individuals make to improve their market position relative to others against whom they must compete for access to scarce resources.
Corinthian sold the dream of a better life to working-class people who enrolled to earn precious credentials for higher paying careers. Once the largest for-profit college chain in the nation, the company took in more than one billion dollars per year in federal funding, only a fraction of which was spent on instruction. Profits rolled in to the well connected, including Senator Diane Feinstein’s husband and former Corinthian investor, Richard Blum, and President Clinton’s former chief of staff, Leon Panetta, who served on the board of Corinthian. Students who attended the colleges that proved so profitable to elites ended up with little more than a worthless piece of paper and lifetime of debt.