Kamala Harris' record shows she's far from the radical change that people want, argues Yonas Makoni
Following Tuesday’s announcement that Joe Biden had picked Kamala Harris as his running mate, the liberal commentariat joined together in an eruption of collective ecstasy. Not only was the nomination historic twice over (Harris being a mixed race black and Asian woman), it also demonstrated the Biden campaign’s seriousness in choosing a ‘safe’ moderate candidate over a ‘hard-line ideologue’ like Elizabeth Warren. Harris’ ‘hawkish’ record as public prosecutor immunises her to Trump’s inevitable attack that Democrats are soft on crime and if she has struggled to make her mind up about questions such as healthcare and police violence, it only serves as an indication of her broad-minded pragmatism and flexibility.
Harris first rose to prominence in 2003 when she was elected the District Attorney of San Francisco, ousting left-winger Terence Hallinan whom she portrayed as being incompetent and “soft on crime”. Her record as public prosecutor, first in San Francisco and then as the Attorney General of California where she took on the title "top cop", belies her recent “progressive” branding.
Indeed, Harris’ record is characterised primarily by excessive caution on some potentially controversial issues and inexplicable cruelty on others. For example, under her 2011 truancy bill, parents could be prosecuted if their children missed more than 10% of school days. When a judge reversed the conviction of Daniel Larsen who, under California’s three-strikes law, had been wrongfully sentenced to 27 years in prison for concealed weapons possession, Harris appealed and blocked his release, on the grounds that he had filed his paperwork too late. Even while introducing police training to address racist bias in the wake of Black Lives Matter, she fought to keep prisoners in jail against a Supreme Court ruling that California’s prisons were dangerously overcrowded.
Coming to her defence, pundits would remind us that Harris rose to prominence in a very different political environment, one far less accommodating of progressive approaches to criminal justice. In recent years, however, she has rebranded herself as a criminal justice reformer, backing progressive bills in the Senate. Does it really matter if this support is inauthentic, guided by opportunistic calculation rather than genuine conviction, as long as it gets results? Harris is not perfect, of course, but as the argument goes, her record is positively spotless compared to her opponent’s. And, most of all, she is electable. Is now not the time for ‘naïve leftists’ to grow up, take seriously the threat posed by Trump and his cronies and give their full support to the Biden-Harris dream team?
This argument contains an element of truth and should be taken seriously. The left has done too little to counter the idea that they can only criticise others for not living up to an 'arbitrary standard', while themselves being unwilling to make the hard choices necessary to succeed. Harris’ record, while not perfect, largely conforms with her brand as a moderate gradualist with progressive views on key liberal issues, such as abortion and immigration. In this context, the dominant leftist line of attack, which criticises her for not being a socialist, makes little sense; Harris might respond that this is her greatest strength! Nonetheless,this narrative distorts the truth in several ways.
Firstly, it fails to appreciate that the differences between moderate and left Democrats are qualitative rather than quantitative and can’t be easily transcended through compromise, based on a shared commitment to progressive values. Sanders, more than simply presenting a concrete policy platform, represented the possibility of a bottom-up approach to politics, guided by the needs and demands of working people. In this respect, his distinction from Harris couldn’t be clearer. This is why her attempts to reach out to leftists, for exampleby branding herself a progressive prosecutor, miss the point and can only be experienced as patronising manipulation.
More importantly, if socialists are to have any chance of countering centrist blackmail, they must demonstrate the falsity of the centrist morality play which pits brave liberals against evil populists. Of course, a Biden win would, in itself, be superior to another Trump term. It is however easy to show, that far from being as violently opposed as they claim, Biden and Trump are not only mutually complicit in propping up the capitalist order but are also mutually interdependent: each side produces the other as a reaction to its own excesses.
In brief, as the popular will for 'Third Way politics' collapses, centrists can only justify their existence by stoking up fear of a barbarous ‘greater evil’, controlled by foreign interests and always ready to undermine the very fabric of democratic civilisation. This self-righteous paranoia, far from hurting the populist right, plays directly into the hands of those wishing to portray the left as condescending elitists; out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people. It is clear that Trump’s populist appeal depends precisely on this political dynamic and that, vice versa, the Democrats themselves need a Trumpian figure. This clearly demonstrates the falsity of the claims about Harris’ electability and the related claims that leftist criticism of her undermines the fight against Trump. If Trump emerged as a necessary reaction to the dead end of neoliberal politics, it becomes clear that the Democrats themselves are his greatest enablers.
It is therefore crucial to reject this lesser-of-two-evils blackmail and insist that a choice between Biden and Trump (or Harris and Pence) is no choice at all. While it is necessary to avoid falling into the trap of judging one’s opponent by one’s own standards, this does not in any way preclude a radical critique of Harris’ position. Harris’ central wager is that playing the liberal-democratic game is the key to progress. In turn, the left must demonstrate how the game is rigged.
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