Kamala Harris Is a Knife to Sanders-Trump Voters
Let’s rewind a little bit.
Less than six months ago, Bernie Sanders stood astride the Democratic Party. He essentially tied for first in Iowa, the nation’s first presidential caucus, then proceeded to lap up the love in New Hampshire and demolish the competition in Nevada. Then Joe Biden became the real “comeback kid.”
South Carolina was always the former vice president’s firewall, a location where the ex-Delaware senator beloved by traditional Democratic voters — especially African-Americans — could, at least, make a last stand. Your author was an early believer that Biden would capture his party’s nomination and be a testy opponent of President Donald Trump. I did not believe he could completely botch the first three contests and still gallop to power.
Such a strategy had clearly failed before in campaigns past — think presidential front-runner Rudy Giuliani in 2008, who wanted to wait until Florida. But in 2020, this freakshow year of a new decade, it’s exactly what happened. With Trump in the White House to concentrate the mind, the standing of Biden (essentially a statesman) among Democratic primary voters was basically bulletproof. He knocked off Bernie Sanders two whole months before Hillary Clinton dispensed with him in 2016.
After the South Carolina primary, of course, came the U.S. onset of the novel COVID-19 virus. If the defeat in Dixie was depreciative of Sanders’ influence, COVID-19 was just deadly. After the killing of Minnesota man George Floyd spurred a national reckoning on race — as well as months of instability in American cities — “Sandersism” seems a world away.
Though a demonstrated, committed champion of civil rights and the plight of African-Americans, Sanders’ framework has always been more adjacent to old-school Marxism, viewing the reality of class as all-powerful. It’s a Brookylnite spin on Cajun James Carville’s maxim on presidential politics — “It’s the economy, stupid.” The socialist candidate once said that open-borders immigration (now close to Democratic Party policy) was a “Koch brothers” conspiracy.
Now, Sanders again stands on familiar ground: at the periphery of a Democratic Party with which he has a frenemy alliance. He tried to portray the dynamic as non-existent in his Democratic convention address Monday night. But from the barely optimistic — “Joe will move us forward” — to the outright mailed-in — “the future of our democracy is at stake, the future of our economy is at stake, the future of our planet is at stake” — the capsizing of his power has been laid bare. Sanders’ subtle split with the direction of new wave “wokesters” is evocative of a fissure that began between starched-shirt New Dealers and drippy hippies of the “New Left” at Port Huron sixty years ago.
A different type of politics rules the day. The dominance of “woke” social politics is clear. And the political fault lines, to many observers, are increasingly radical: not dignity for the lives of homosexuals, or equals treatment of blacks, or access to contraception and limited abortion rights, but instead obsession with transgenderism, as well as quota-style politics as the solution to the nation’s racial sins. Off the list are: any real proposal to cut corporations down to size, addressing American stagnation and inequality or reasonably grappling with the age of monopoly. You know, some of stuff “Crazy Bernie,” as the president might say, was talking about.
Joe Biden’s selection of California Senator Kamala Harris last week cements this new reality. “It’s been clear for the past month that whoever Biden picked was going to disappoint the progressive wing of the party,” wrote author Zach Carter, an expert on New Deal titan John Maynard Keynes. “But Harris has some unique baggage and seems destined to make the intraparty rift deeper. It’s a factionalist pick, intended to send a factionalist message.” There has been reporting that Sanders thought Harris the superior pick (granted, of the narrow list considered). I am dubious of this reality, but if true it demonstrates that his relationship with longtime ally Elizabeth Warren has collapsed. But it would also shine light on the limits of the political analysis of a figure who has lost two winnable primaries for president.
For Harris’ ascent is the further triumph of what the writer Wesley Yang observes is part and parcel of “the Successor Ideology”; other terms include “woke capital.” In a securalizing, locked-down, winner-take-all world, racial politics straight out of critical theory supply religious energy to troubled times, while conveniently forgetting to ask those with the best ability to pay to pick up the bill. It’s, one supposes, a fitting platform for a politician, Mr. Biden, who once said of the rancid economic conditions of young Americans: “Give me a break” if “think they have it tough.”
I’ve heard the 2013 California wedding of tech mogul Sean Parker described like a tournament. It pitted Harris (then the Golden State’s attorney general) against Gavin Newsom (then lieutenant governor) for donor affection. Harris won. And her broader routing of Newsom guaranteed that it would be she that went to Washington as a senator — and she would run for president first (as she later did, to little success). Newsom, now governor, would have to be content to running America’s largest state and the world’s sixth largest economy. Harris is a fitting avatar of America’s most spectacular state, the location of its most beautiful people and home to the greatest number of human beings banished to the streets.
But, for many, this is academic— or, a conversation for another day. From the c-suite executive to the Caviar deliverywoman, ejecting the usurper Trump from office is priority numero uno. “I’m skeptical that there will be consequences beyond messaging, though,” Carter noted. “November will not be decided by Biden’s VP pick.” But for the many Democrats still shell-shocked by Trump’s victory four years ago — and for those who recall that one-in-ten Bernie Sanders voters ended up going to Trump in 2016 — they have to admit: picking Kamala Harris, the putative “safe pick,” just might be playing with fire.