Kamala Harris: A calculated choice

Joe Biden has chosen Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential candidate in the expectation that she will be able to draw non-white voters in large enough numbers to defeat Donald Trump in November. Issues such as unemployment, hunger and racist injustice are not central to the Democrats’ agenda.

Published : Sep 04, 2020 07:00 IST

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris at their first press conference together after she became his running mate, in Wilmington, Delaware, on August 12

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris at their first press conference together after she became his running mate, in Wilmington, Delaware, on August 12

Senator Kamala Harris spent August 12 in Baltimore, Maryland, with former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden, the Democratic Party’s nominee for President, had just selected her as his vice-presidential partner. They did a public event together, where Kamala Harris attacked the record of United States President Donald Trump. “The case against Donald Trump and [Vice President] Mike Pence is open and shut,” she said. “This virus [the coronavirus] has impacted almost every country. But there’s a reason it has hit America worse than any other advanced nation. It’s because of Trump’s failure to take it seriously from the start. This is what happens when we elect a guy who just isn’t up for the job.”

The tone of Kamala Harris’ remarks was clear and precise. As she joined Biden, the cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. was at 5.25 million, the highest number in the world, with over 200,000 deaths, again the highest in the world. Trump continues to dismiss the basic science over the virus, disparaging the wearing of masks and the basic norms of physical distancing that the World Health Organisation has established. He has demonstrated none of the basic humanity necessary to manage the response to this global pandemic, neither the epidemiological and medical response nor the economic and social response.

The toxicity of Trump, which Kamala Harris intimated, emerged rapidly after Biden chose her as his vice-presidential candidate. Hours after the announcement, Trump called Kamala Harris “nasty” four times and said she was “the meanest, the most horrible, most disrespectful of anybody in the U.S. Senate”. Trump’s entire staff and family went after Kamala Harris; Trump’s son Eric took to Twitter to favourite a tweet that called Kamala Harris a “whorendous pick”, a term that is so disrespectful and horrid that even the person who wrote it had to delete it later. There was no better evidence of the toxicity of the Trump administration than its reaction to the Kamala Harris announcement; it simply fell over itself to attack her, not for her views but for who she is, namely, a woman and one who was born to a Jamaican father and an Indian mother. It is who she is that bothers Trump as much as what she believes.

The U.S. political system does not truly represent its population. It has long been clear how most of the States are going to vote, which makes the votes of their residents relatively unimportant. For instance, New York will vote for the Democrats, so the Republicans do not even try there, just as South Dakota will go to the Republicans and so the Democrats will give it a pass. There are, however, some “swing States”, such as Florida and Michigan, which might be won by either party. Even in these swing States, there are key populations—white suburban mothers and black workers in the cities—whose turnout will determine the fate of the two parties. The entire election is focussed on these key populations in these swing States; the rest of the country is taken for granted.

Biden’s team believes that he has a chance of winning back several of the swing States by drawing the white working class and the white middle class, particularly women, away from Trump. One of the weaknesses of Hillary Clinton’s campaign against Trump was that she was not able to inspire essential elements of the Democratic coalition, notably African-American women and men, and other minority men and women; it was clear that Barack Obama won the presidency largely because of a massive wave of non-white voters, led by black women. Since Obama’s victory, the U.S. Supreme Court has eviscerated legal protections for voters and allowed the typical racism of institutions to operate to disenfranchise non-white voters. This is one of the unspoken reasons why Trump had a clear lane to the White House.

To inspire large numbers of non-white voters to fight for their right to vote, Biden needed something special. That is why he said that he would certainly nominate a woman, and more precisely a black woman, to be his vice-presidential candidate. The selection of Kamala Harris is the redemption of that promise. There is an expectation that she will be able to draw non-white voters in large enough numbers to overcome the Trump supporters in their “Make American Great Again”, or MAGA, hats.

To beat Trump

The actual programme promised by Biden and Kamala Harris is not so important. They do not pledge to shift the politics of the U.S. towards the Left as Senator Bernie Sanders tried to do. The Democratic Party does not have on its agenda the renewal of social democratic values or an increase in public health care and public education or the salvage of institutions that have been gutted since the 1970s; nor does it have on its agenda a concern for the millions of people in the U.S. and the billions outside the U.S. who are plagued by hunger and unemployment. These basic human demands are not mirrored in the Democratic Party’s programme.

The purpose of the Biden-Harris campaign is primarily to defeat Trump in November. In her speech in Baltimore, Kamala Harris said that Trump had ruined the reputation of the U.S. in the world, a point that Biden has made over the past several months. The point for them is to revive the U.S.’ standing in the world and make the country able to handle the pandemic. Other issues—structural unemployment, hunger and racist injustice—are not central to their agenda. No doubt the Republicans are an odious force and a terrible blight for any country, but they have been like this for decades, and Trump is not the cause nor even the most potent symbol of its hideousness.

It is true that neither Biden nor Kamala Harris has a history on the Left. Neither has been central to the Democratic Party’s progressive wing and neither has a history of being in front of the major social movements of the times. That, however, is not the main issue at hand. The main, perhaps only, issue is to win the election in November. That victory would be decisive insofar as it would remove an enabler of white supremacy from the White House. It would also remove a man who displays total contempt for women from that important post. These are not issues to be scoffed at since these basic issues of human dignity have an impact on large sections of the public.

The choice of Kamala Harris is so calculated and so carefully calibrated that it does not strum the chords of the anti-racist solidarity that have echoed in the U.S. throughout its history. She has been chosen during a new uprising for Black Lives and a concern for women’s rights, a concern for very correct issues that—for the Democrats—will stand in for substantial and necessary change, including to the prison industrial complex. Kamala Harris’ parents will be the reason for the excitement, not her record and not the agenda that Biden has proposed. This is sadly the cynicism of identity politics. It is precisely this that the Right wants to contest. Dinesh D’Souza, a far-right ideologue, appeared on Fox News to disparage Kamala Harris. He said, bizarrely, that she could not truly claim to be black since her mother was from India and her father from Jamaica. People like D’Souza and Trump know that it is precisely what Kamala Harris represents, a black woman, that threatens their hold on power and reality. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans want to go beneath the surface to discuss the deep problems of unemployment and hunger and the deeper problems of police violence and social decay.

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