The Assault on Kamala Harris
In a better alternative reality, Kamala Harris would be President of the United States right now.
In our crapsaccharine world, she’s being used as Joe Biden’s political human shield, as if he’s play-acting General Plymkin from South Park.
I will admit up front — I’m a bit of a Harris stan. Not quite #KHive, but fairly adjacent.
And my feelings have little to do with her politics or policy. They stem directly from a strange sense of kinship derived from two facts:
- Her parents are, like me, Berkeley grads.
- She graduated from the same law school as my wife — UC Hastings.
The reality of political preferences in the real world — not the ivory tower realm of American political science professors — is that they are mostly a function of a person’s environment. We all gravitate towards people who seem to be like us in some way, and we tend to behave like the people we trust.
When Kamala Harris speaks, I hear the voice of someone who spent a lot of time in places I enjoyed living in. Despite being a rural white guy, spending time in the Bay Area where she made her career, I feel like she automatically understands my life experiences better than, say, an old Catholic Atlantic American like Joe Biden.
But having spent a disturbing amount of my life in academia, I am at least aware of this bias. I act to counter it as best as I can.
And it is not my affinity for Harris that drives me to write this piece so much as a sense of righteous anger at how the political career of someone with such potential is being deliberately destroyed by a group of wealthy east coast elitists who see her as another “line-jumper” like Barack Obama.
In other words, someone still too young to be in the spotlight, a person who hasn’t yet paid their dues to the party establishment.
It is a basic fact of human organization that disparities in information and access to power tend to create an internal elite with disproportionate control over big questions — like who will be the party’s nominee in the Presidential election.
They don’t have total control, nor do they act as a coherent conspiracy. People just mimic the behaviors of those they spend time with, and over time any group will develop a shared sense of reality, a general conventional wisdom that is rarely perfectly defined but always deeply influences the group’s actions.
Within groups, sub-groups and individuals may actively compete to try and permanently define their shared values, but when they do it creates cleavages between members that can grow so wide the group fractures. Once aware of this threat, people tend to smooth over differences as best as they can, for as long as they can, while the situation remains favorable to their interests.
Elites survive inside organizations by maintaining control over this process of defining the group’s values and membership. They most strongly focus on who gets hired, what investments are made, and also, the broader group’s public image.
In the 1990s, during the United States’ last period of political realignment after the end of the Cold War, the Democratic Party establishment came under the sway of a group of people who believed two basic principles should govern the party going forward: triangulation and neoliberalism.
Triangulation is a fancy word that means appealing to centrist and moderate groups in the American political system. It is a powerful strategy in a two-party system because the more radical wings of each party can be counted on to back their side even if they rarely get the policies enacted that they want, because each fears the radical wing on the opposite side too much to turn against the centrists.
Neoliberalism is another fancy word with a less-precise meaning, but broadly speaking refers to the belief that government assets should be privatized to the degree possible. Neoliberal ideology derives from a particular subset of economic theory that holds private firms to be the primary engines of growth and wealth, with government playing a necessary but fundamentally inefficient role.
But ideology is just a scaffolding around which movements are built. In reality, triangulation and neoliberalism represent attempts to weaponize social science, hacking the American political system in order to reshape it to suit the interests of a wealthy few and justifying it using scientific language.
It was in fact this movement of rich Americans from the Republican to the Democratic coalition that sowed the seeds of the bitter partisanship ripping America apart in the 2020s, 30 years later. And as their era of dominance within their own organization comes to its bitter, tragic end, the Democratic Party elites are still locked in their perpetual quest for lasting power.
Joe Biden won the Presidential election fair and square — albeit barely. 45,000 votes across Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin are all that saved the world from a second Trump term. Biden’s 7-million vote margin in the national popular vote is, sadly, irrelevant, but his margin where it counted was enough to withstand the assault launched by his opponent on the process.
But what Joe Biden did not win fair and square was a normal Democratic Party primary.
Just like the Republicans, in the end the Democrats chose to effectively cancel their own primary contest and simply anoint Joe Biden as the party’s leader. Apparently, Barack Obama was instrumental in organizing this — and although perhaps necessary and justified, it was not without consequences… or casualties.
Going in to the 2020 Primary cycle, the Democratic Party leadership faced a dilemma.
Bernie Sanders had the name recognition and active movement required to make a serious run to be the party’s nominee — despite not actually being a member of the party at all.
His surprise early successes against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primaries were a warning sign of her serious weaknesses as a candidate. And many Sanders backers supporters were right in believing he would have stood a much better chance of winning the election against Trump in 2016 — and also, that Clinton partisans worked to sabotage his campaign in Clinton’s favor.
But Sanders’ beliefs are anathema to neoliberal ideology, which exalts the independence and wisdom of wealthy billionaires like Gates, Bezos, Buffett, and Musk above all. So facing the clear and present danger of Trump — who though rich, isn’t Gates rich — the DNC needed a solution to prevent Sanders from possibly running the table in the 2020 primaries.
This was why the Democrats shifted their debate procedures to allow not just a handful, as was typical in past primaries, but a full two dozen prospective nominees.
Sanders’ power in 2016 was that he wasn’t Clinton. In 2020, voters would have an array of alternatives to choose from.
Plus, in the contemporary social-driven media landscape, most people live in defined bubbles thanks to the way Facebook, Google, and Twitter design their content recommendation algorithms to promote engagement above all else. Emotions drive engagement, which is a proxy for consumer attention — a prize almost every company is willing to pay for in the form of advertising.
Having 20 people run for President in this environment creates 20 different channels of communication customized to different groups of voters. The party was clearly betting on the primary being a positive showcase of the party’s diversity that would engage lots of new voters — and donors.
While it might look chaotic, that would only serve to create buzz and raise the emotional stakes. The primary would look like March Madness, keeping people in suspense for months — and donating.
The risk, of course, was that Sanders might still walk away with a plurality of delegates thanks to his popularity in big states like California. But this danger was easily mitigated — everyone knew that at some point, if Sanders’s campaign didn’t tank itself, all the other candidates would be pressed to align against him either in the latter stages of the primaries or, in the last resort, at the convention.
Joe Biden was the perfect backup option. He was always the Democratic Party elite’s dream because he had already spent 40 years proving he was a consummate team player. He could be easily marketed as a centrist moderate, peeling away some of the white men in the Rust Belt who had either stayed home in 2016 or voted for Trump. He had name recognition. In many ways, he was the party apologizing to the Republicans for Hillary Clinton.
The Covid-19 Pandemic, of course, blew their smooth plan right out of the water.
But well before anyone knew of the plague that would end more than 600,000 American lives in 15 months, Kamala Harris threw a wrench in the affair by violating one of the cardinal rules governing the show.
She dared to attack the checkered record of the DNC elite’s favored son. She broke the invisible bounds of collegiality that everyone is just supposed to know and abide by.
And for that sin, she has paid — and is still paying, a heavy price.
The Vice Presidency is a bum gig. Everyone knows it — the position is roundly mocked in comedy and even on that most ridiculous travesty of civics myth-making, The West Wing.
Which made it very strange to see the media laud the historic nature of Harris’ election as the first black woman and child of immigrants to hold a position they typically treat as a joke. Strange, but not uncommon. Working in academia, I watched time and time again as women of color with stellar biographies were given fancy titles and no real power. One of white liberal America’s favorite pastimes is elevating a member of a historically oppressed group as an icon of their own liberal awesomeness, neglecting to then equip that person to actually do anything useful with the attention.
Classic social justice cosplaying, as I’ve heard it called.
When push comes to shove the person’s efforts aren’t supported. They’re put off, relegated to side roles if they persist, then trotted out as a symbol when it is convenient and subjected to incredible scrutiny for any misstep, real or alleged.
Kamala Harris’ treatment since she dared to point out the simple, ugly truth that Joe Biden used to be chummy with racists and segregationists is a stark example of what happens when elites feel a newer member has spoken out of turn without paying their proper dues.
The greatest fear of the white American liberal is to be accused — even in the most justified situations — of racism. This is a natural function of the paradox that the Democratic Party cannot survive if it doesn’t win the support of the vast majority of Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American voters — but the party leadership is mostly wealthy and white.
Especially after the Clinton era made the Democratic Party safe for billionaires, who sadly mostly get that way through exploitation of vulnerable populations on some level, allegations of racism are deadly. The one thing progressives can sometimes accomplish is to end the career of some old fool who should have been forced to retire long ago. That makes them terribly threatening to Clintonian liberals.
And when Harris launched her attack, the party’s default master plan for keeping Sanders from winning took a bad hit.
Payback began swiftly — and it hasn’t ended. I doubt it ever will.
A quiet truth about political campaigns in the United States is that the actual skill and ability of a given candidate with respect to the actual work of politics isn’t all that important.
Candidates are their team, which at the national level includes a vast and sprawling staff comprised of professionals who do campaigns for a living. In office they’re served by interns and advisers who literally write most of the bills they get credit for. Often, elected officials don’t even show up for floor votes — they’re too busy fundraising.
Obviously, candidates can make devastating mistakes — unforced errors is the new trendy term for it — that damn their campaigns. Gaffes and the like. But generally, candidates succeed or fail in a given campaign based on a combination of messaging, their candidate’s bio, the national mood, and a lot of luck.
At the Presidential level, though, you need something else: buy-in from the wealthy and the lobbyists. The position is too important for everyone who can not to invest in affecting the outcome of the greatest of political games.
Kamala Harris’ debate strike against Biden’s record was perfectly designed and executed and completely within bounds. In a few breaths, she drew attention to one of the Democratic Party’s most fundamental hypocrisies: while claiming to fight for Black Americans, the Democrats have just as often sold them out.
For Black and Latino Americans, the era of triangulation and neoliberalism has been an epic disaster. Democrats like Biden have supported dumb criminal justice legislation, made student loans almost impossible to get rid of, maintained the prohibitions on marijuana that always get enforced more harshly on the poor, and sent thousands of soldiers to die in futile wars.
Those without a college education are slipping away from the Democratic party, threatening its supposedly inevitable demographically-blessed future. They appear to understand better than their college-educated counterparts that the Democrats’ convictions on race relations are suspect. And I suspect many are chasing the lure of making it big the Republicans like to offer to the poor to induce them to accept their condition.
But powerful groups like the Democratic Party elite are always more concerned about their public image than the cold reality of their policy. They become disconnected and focused on their petty struggles.
And Harris, by highlighting the party’s contradictions, threatened their fervent desire to make Biden the next President at any cost, using him to “heal” a nation rushing towards the brink.
The first wave of the assault on Kamala Harris came, as it inevitably would, in the media. After the initial headlines and clamor of approval on social media — and a rise in the polls — came a marked shift in most prominent national magazines and editorial pages.
Biden was portrayed as a sage old veteran of the civil rights era deeply hurt by the implications in her words. An interesting Politico piece details how fingers were wagged at Harris, scolding her for lowering the tone of the debate. In an otherwise boring series of debates, blaming her for making the Democrats look bad was an easy way to fill a news cycle.
One of the most powerful tools party elites wield is the ability to boost a line of criticism simply by failing to counter it. In the American media, editorial boards have a tremendous influence over what their publication puts out into the world. Many senior staff have various connections to members of the parties and campaigns, and they leverage these to generate interesting content for their reading, viewing, and listening customers.
That’s their business, after all. Turning facts into stories to inform — but also entertain — customers. Thus the advertising space they sell alongside gains value, and so are their shareholders made joyful.
Whisper campaigns are conducted through these channels, private discussions in confidence that help shape the news the public then eagerly consumes. Again, there are no conspiracies at work — simply exchanges of information and access that benefit both parties, and stories constructed a certain way, using a set of standard tropes audiences respond to.
So it was very telling that once the attacks on Harris began, few came to her defense. In fact, despite later walking back her statements — a mistake too many politicians make rather than owning their words, something most people love — the attacks ramped up.
Bernie Bros who had previously been relentlessly attacking Joe Biden suddenly shifted laterally to focus on Harris, pushing the #Kamalaisacop hashtag on social media after it was revealed she did her job as California’s Attorney General. Many of these attacks turned blatantly racist — but few stepped up to defend Harris despite the polls showing her a frontrunner for the nomination — at least in 2019, months before a single vote was cast.
From there, things only got worse. Once the backlash had grown, new whispers began to spread questioning how Harris would stand up to Trump given her present difficulties. The media’s positive coverage moved on to new big stars like Warren and Buttigieg, leaving Harris’ campaign ignored or mocked.
Early in a primary donors will invest in multiple candidates like a gambler hedging by betting on several horses in the same race. They tend to chase notoriety, so once Harris lost media attention, her donor base shriveled.
By December, things were looking grim — but there was still hope. No candidate had emerged as the clear front-runner, with the Sanders-dominant scenario looming. And historically, the early primaries dramatically shake up the race, with the winner of Iowa or New Hampshire surging to be declared by the media to be the front-runner.
The media had written Harris off entirely, but Biden too was languishing in the polls. His backers had begun to sell a rather unique narrative — he would ignore Iowa and New Hampshire entirely, only really competing in South Carolina, where his strength among black voters would power him through to the big contests later on. That had never worked before but in 2020, who could say for sure?
Of course, he was now facing the threat of Michael Bloomberg’s immense wealth and potential appeal to centrist Democrats Biden would eventually need along with black voters if he wanted to beat Sanders. And so the danger Harris posed could not be ignored.
When Harris suspended her campaign in December, most commentators chalked it up to a desire not to be “humiliated” by a loss in Iowa. I, however, believed at the time — and the course of events vindicated my suspicions — that what had really happened was a deal.
Biden would privately guarantee Harris’ place as his VP, under the assumption his job would be to beat Trump and stabilize the country before stepping down in 2024 — or before, health depending.
She, in return, would leave the black voter lane clear. Biden would have the best possible chance of keeping the black electorate in South Carolina united, and the Democratic Party would keep its primary firewall against Sanders intact.
Ironically, the Iowa caucus turned out to be a disaster — a stroke of luck for Biden, whose campaign immediately benefited from the relegation of Iowa to joke status. New Hampshire was always going to go for Sanders, leaving Nevada as the first real test of the candidates — had Harris hung in to Nevada, it is very possible she might have hit her stride again.
Ultimately, what ended the Democratic Primary and left Joe Biden the anointed standard-bearer for the party was the outbreak of a global plague. It is notable that even before the country shut down in March, the Democrats had already enacted the everyone-drops-out-to-beat-Sanders plan ahead of the Super Tuesday primaries.
My personal suspicion is that party leadership realized the primary process was about to get upended and chose to quietly terminate the thing before anything weird could happen. Senators receive intelligence briefings like Presidents do, and by early March everyone with a brain and access to the BBC knew the pandemic was going to rock America like it already was Italy and the UK.
It should come as no surprise that the party would more or less terminate its normal nomination process ahead of such a catastrophe. A contested convention would be out of the question — an invitation for discord and disaster at a critical moment.
But what did come as a surprise was the vehement opposition to Harris that arose the moment the time came for Biden to select his running mate.
One would have thought winning the nomination would have been enough for team Biden. But — and this is evidence of just how cliquey these people are — rather than accept the simple fact that plenty of people expected and wanted Harris to be it — team Biden made a deliberate show of considering a slate of other women.
There was a kind of dark comedy to watch the media discussing which black woman seemed the most deserving. If ever you want proof of the American media’s default white male gaze, go back and read some of the articles from that weird few weeks.
This, in retrospect, was clearly a message for Harris: you can be replaced.
That same message has been broadcast to her over and over since the day Biden and Harris were sworn into their respective offices.
Under the guise of entrusting her with a serious portfolio to prepare her for future office, Biden has instead given Harris the two most impossible problems facing the United States — immigration and voting rights — while he focuses on the white man stuff — foreign policy and infrastructure.
He really has made her a political human shield, attracting all the racist vitriol of the right wing media ecosystem while he runs around talking about healing and bipartisanship. Word has come from sources within his administration that Biden is dead set on running for reelection in 2024, when he’ll be 81.
Now, a new whisper campaign is underway, alleging chaos within the office of the Vice President. Maybe, sage voices are saying, she isn’t cut out to be the nominee in 2024 after all?
Such a classic political hit job. And evidence the assault on Kamala Harris continues. Because once you sin against the establishment, you are forever condemned.
The Democratic Party elites are determined to destroy Kamala Harris. They see her as an imposter — someone who doesn’t truly belong to their club.
This is partly because of her race. Partly because she is a successful, ambitious woman — potentially America’s Angela Merkel, if given room to grow. Which she won’t be — that’s why she has been separated from people who used to know her by a wall of Clinton-era pros sent by team Biden.
They are keeping a close eye on her.
More than any other reason, team Biden hates Kamala Harris because the Democratic Party is still dominated, at the highest levels, by a bunch of rich white men determined to fight the battles of the 1960s until the United States goes the way it did in the 1860s. They like to pretend they’re generals in need only of good soldiers, and they hate being questioned or made to look bad in public.
Harm their image, and they never forgive, never forget.
The few Black and Latino elites who have been allowed into the elite club have been so carefully selected for their loyalty they won’t easily break their bond with the establishment that raised them up. Democrats, just like Republicans, are prone to racist and sexist bias in hiring, with the old white men holding onto as much power as they can even as they age out of the workforce.
The last ones to go will be the ones at the top. They’ll sacrifice all the other white men to the inevitable before their time comes.
Yet as they fight to maintain their privilege, the world is burning. Climate change, pandemics, and foreign conflicts rage on.
Meanwhile, it’s politics-as-usual in Washington D.C. A bunch of petty internecine power struggles that waste time and energy while real problems go unaddressed. The country is collapsing and fragmenting, people are afraid of their neighbors, and leadership at the top is lacking.
Joe Biden is a classic politician in the mold of a used car salesman. His administration’s approach to big problems is the equivalent of slapping cheap paint on a junker and calling it a Mercedes.
And because those of his close circle are ultimately inward-focused, non-systemic thinkers incapable of understanding the changes gripping the world today, they are taking great care to destroy the single greatest threat to Biden’s hopes in 2024: Kamala Harris.
And it is my fervent hope that she takes action to become that threat sooner rather than later.
I want to see this Vice President go rogue.
The truth is, Harris is damned no matter what she does — chasing the dangled lure of a future Presidential campaign actually backed by the establishment is a one-way ticket off the nearest cliff. It will never be her turn in their eyes — she can never live up to their standards.
That establishment is already falling apart anyway— the fact that the Democrats are claiming to be the only party committed to American Democracy is a sign of their failure. A one-party system is not a democracy. If things go on like they are, America will cease to exist as a united country by the end of this decade.
There is no sense in investing in what can’t continue the way it is.
And only someone with a public platform and the ability to generate headlines stands any chance of building an alternative in the little time the country has left before electoral collapse.
Most Vice Presidents have virtually no power. But this Vice Presidency is different.
In a 50–50 Senate, Kamala Harris’ vote is required to break ties.
This is what you call leverage.
Kamala Harris must use this leverage and her public position as an elected official — next in line for the Presidency in the event of incapacitation or impeachment — to build an alternative platform dedicated to a new vision for American politics.
This must be centered on a new kind of social media platform with algorithms designed to promote diversity of content, not bubbles. One that replicates the function of Facebook and Google but with dramatically more privacy controls — and the backing of government legislation requiring these behemoths share their data and algorithms with a dedicated social media oversight board.
It needs to be a home for healthy civic discussion that relies on smart moderation and design to promote good, meaningful discussions. A place for businesses and politicians to build an audience, but without having to fear pile-ons and thread hijackings.
A publicly funded social media network and search engine is a basic necessity in the modern world. And building one is the kind of project a Vice President can use to develop a new approach to politics entirely — something more democratic and effective than we have now.
But above all else, I just want to see Kamala Harris push back.
The Harris at the debate was fierce and honest. Willing to speak truth to power. The kind of qualities that make a good leader.
Given that it appears her office is managed by Clinton loyalists who have separated her from her older associations, I’m afraid Harris might be too trapped to make such a play. But I hope I’m wrong.
I’m not saying Harris doesn’t have her weaknesses — that law school training of hers shows itself in interviews when she gets annoyed. It’s a habit I know well from my own household — you feel attacked unfairly, so you slice and dice the language to make your accuser specify exactly what they are criticizing.
But habits can be changed. And able to express herself normally, Harris can clearly make connections on an emotional level — witness the #KHive.
Time, however, is running out. Mired in its own self-inflicted muck the Biden Administration’s summer is set to get hot and dark in a hurry.
Never before has it been more important for sitting Vice Presidents to go against the will of their chief. Pressure is building among the young and the poor and the politically disaffected.
Change is coming. The question is what kind of change will come.
The answer, unfair as it may be, depends almost entirely on what people like Kamala Harris do.