Kamala Harris: the Left starts taking her apart as unprogressive

I think it’s great that Joe Biden chose Kamala Harris to be his running mate, which also positions her to be the Democratic Presidential candidate in (likely) 2024 or (if Biden is still healthy) 2028.  It’s time we had a woman on the ticket, and if she’s a racially mixed woman, so much the better. For Harris is not only a woman of color (half Jamaican black, half Indian), but one who’s well qualified for office—smart, eloquent, pugnacious when she has to be, and with a proven track record. (Some will, of course, take issue with her accomplishments.) But I have no beef with those who put her ancestry above her accomplishments, for she remains accomplished and qualified, and to me that’s the most important criterion. If she makes a group proud because of her ancestry, what’s the problem with that?

So I have no beef with those who see her as a role model, and those includes both African Americans and Indian Americans. The article below in yesterday’s New York Times, as you gather from the headlines, collects a bunch of enthusiastic responses to Harris’s candidacy, largely because of her ancestry. While one interviewee bridled at Harris’s record as California’s attorney general, all of them are positive, many because she’s a role model for Indians, blacks, and those who say that her multicultural background mirrors the changing face of America.

When I read the above, I thought, “This is great! Most Americans (and I mean of all Americans) approve of Biden’s choice, and this can only help kick Trump out of office in November, and perhaps even help the Dems win the Senate.  But of course there’s a spoiler: the article below from the Washington Post, which demonstrates the downside of identity politics.  A trap? What kind of trap is Harris’s nomination?

The trap, of course, is that although Harris is a Democrat, and on the Left, she’s not the right kind of Leftist. She’s not progressive enough. Never mind that a more progressive candidate might have been an impediment to a Democratic win, giving ammunition to Trump.

More important, the article, by Sanjena Sathian (an Indian American) is not so much about Harris’s policies as about the policies that she should have given her ancestry, but apparently doesn’t or hasn’t yet sounded off on them. The article shows the danger of concentrating on a candidate’s identity above her policies, for here we have a division in the Left that, to me at least, doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The article begins with The Issue:

Recognition is primal. But it can also make us gloss over the complexities of identity — and their unpredictable implications for policy. The heady rush of recognition can lull us into complacency or lead us to quell our deeper ideological convictions.

Okay, well, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, so let’s read on.

Among the beeves that Sathian brings to market are these:

Other Indian Americans have been conservative, but Harris, though not conservative, isn’t progressive enough.

Harris’s selection appears momentous set against Indian Americans’ earliest political success stories: the Southern, Republican governors Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal. It once seemed that, to succeed in public life, Indians had to swap their outsider status for White conservatism. Haley and Jindal changed their names from Nimrata and Piyush, respectively; Jindal espoused the spurious notion of “colorblindness.” That devil’s bargain involved more than external identity markers: Haley has defended the Confederate flag, and therefore white supremacy, and Jindal deployed anti-immigrant rhetoric. Harris, in contrast, talks often about her Indian background, citing her maternal grandfather’s involvement in the Indian freedom struggle as the source of her political ambitions. In that sense, something big has changed.

But in another sense, nothing at all has changed: The real cleavage in Indian American political life hasn’t been a partisan one, between a Republican like Haley and a Democrat like Harris. Indian Americans still reliably vote Democratic. Rather, the divide is between centrists like Harris and progressive South Asians such as Rep. Pramila Jayapal, Rep. Ro Khanna and Bernie Sanders-inspired grass-roots upstarts like democratic socialist Nikil Saval, a candidate for Pennsylvania’s state senate.

Seriously? Nothing has changed? We have a mixed-race woman on the ticket, and one who, in view of Biden’s age, is likely to run for President.  In fact, we have a liberal Indian American, but there are others of similar ancestry who are further toward the Left. Apparently Harris is supposed to be in the latter group, even though that could damage the Democratic ticket.

Harris should be fighting for those issues of greatest importance to immigrants, but doesn’t seem to be.

Harris calls up the question facing many upwardly mobile immigrants: Having arrived, how much trouble do we want to make? In her case, the answer seems to be “not very much.” After years of developing an establishment prosecutorial record, she basically lacked an ideological identity in the primary race, which made her the safe choice for Biden.

But those of us who are new to America should be the most intent on ensuring that this country makes good on the promises of opportunity and equality that brought us here. We should be the ones who most demand just legal systems and fair immigration proceedings; who condemn climate policy that causes unequal harm to the nations our families come from. Indian Americans in particular, who have benefited from policies that favor “high-skilled” foreign workers, are for the first time placed to use our collective social capital and financial privilege to make life more equal. But Indian Americans’ joy at seeing Harris on a national stage suggests that desis risk merely joining the system, not pushing to change it.

This presumes that Harris, as a native-born American, should see herself as an Indian-American/African-American first and as an American second. But the President and Vice President are supposed to work for the country as a whole. Yes, one’s background can (and should) make one more sensitive to some issues, but claiming that Harris will become just another cog in the “assimilation machine” is way premature.

Voting for Biden and Harris at this moment is, in fact, changing the system: the corrupt and malfunctioning system of government created by four years of a narcissistic loon and his Republican flunkies.  Are Indian Americans supposed to be upset at Harris’s nomination because she won’t push to change the system? Well, why don’t we wait and see what, if she and Biden are elected, they will do?  At this point we have no idea, save that they’ll enact saner policies than would Trump and Pence, not to mention the doings of the hidebound conservative Senate.

Harris’s status as half-black, half Indian is problematic because the two groups haven’t always had the same political stands. 

The rush to claim Harris — to Spot her, triumphally, as one of our own — has other pitfalls: Some desis have begun to conflate her Blackness and her Indianness. In political commentary lauding Harris’s ascent, Indian Americans have celebrated Mohandas Gandhi’s connection to the Black civil rights movement and referenced the discrimination that South Asians have historically faced in America. That narrative actively rewrites a history of anti-Blackness in our own community. Gandhi, for example, began his protests on a South African train by positioning himself as above Black people. Another figure being cited as an immigrant rights hero, Bhagat Singh Thind, petitioned the Supreme Court for citizenship in 1923 on the grounds that he was White.

Gandhi, of course, abjured the racism he espoused in South Africa, and one of his followers was Martin Luther King.

Sathian continues her beef:

Desis have been able to take refuge in simulacra of Whiteness in a way that Black Americans cannot. A graduate of Howard University, a historically Black college, Harris emphasizes that her Indian mother brought her to visit family on the subcontinent while also understanding that “she was raising two Black daughters.” If Indians want to claim Harris, we can’t just point to her achievements; we must also engage with the histories at whose intersection she sits.

Like many in my community, I recognize Harris. But I don’t see her selection as a hard-won victory on behalf of immigrants or as the apotheosis of the American Dream — but rather as an identity crisis for a large swath of Indian America. When we see Harris and Biden remove their masks to flash pearly whites this autumn, some of us will decide that we’ve arrived.

But spotting ourselves on the highest stages of public life, and the complacency that brings, opens the door to other toxic ideas, such as nationalism (especially among Hindu Indians). President Trump, in part through his amicable relationship with right-wing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has attempted to woo wealthy Indians; Democrats like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a practicing Hindu, have also cozied up to Modi and his party, earning Indian accolades as a result.

No, we don’t have to engage with intersectional history. That’s pathetic and a diversion. We must engage with Trump and the Republicans. The policies toward India by Trump and Tulsi Gabbard are irrelevant now: Indian Americans will vote Democratic this fall, and more power to them.

Finally, Sathian is worried that Harris might not do do the right things if she becomes the VP. But can’t Sathian wait and see instead of playing Chicken Little? Viz.:

For her part, Harris has stepped carefully with regard to India policy issues, delicately defending Jayapal’s right to criticize India’s stance on the disputed territory of Kashmir and saying that Kashmiris are “not alone in the world,” without making Hindutva (Hindu extremism) a key talking point. If she’s elected, I don’t know that we can expect Harris to use her new power as the most prominent South Asian in America to end Kashmir’s historically long Internet blackoutfor example, or challenge Modi’s virulent majoritarianism. But desis should demand that, just as Black Americans can demand that Harris confront whether her prosecutorial role harmed their community.

Sathian doesn’t seem to recognize that the issues of black Americans are American issues, and those of the execrable Modi government are less important to Americans, bad as things are in India. What we should expect Harris to do as Vice President is to give precedence to things affecting the country she was elected to co-lead, not spend much of her time on issues of marginal significance to most Americans (granted, they are of more significance to Indian Americans, and I hope to hell that Modi is somehow deposed, though it doesn’t look likely).

In the end, Sathian appears to be most upset that Harris—even though she won’t be running the show for four years—will inspire Indian Americans “to belong to, rather than transform, America.”  But you can do both. If our motto “E Pluribus Unum” is to mean anything, it must mean that progress in America depends on both belonging and transforming. For this is a democracy, and if you want to transform, you must do more than make demands; you must appeal to the moral and political sentiments of your fellow Americans, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. That is why Martin Luther King had more success than, I suspect, Black Lives Matter ever will.

48 thoughts on “Kamala Harris: the Left starts taking her apart as unprogressive

  1. Complaining that Harris is not progressive enough, particularly on immigration, is just crazy and stupid. Trump won in 2016 by feeding off his base’s fear of immigrants. That fear is surely still there. With Biden/Harris, we should be hoping for a return to normalcy not moving the immigration needle to the opposite end of the scale. Right now, their position on immigration should be about taking kids out of cages and maintaining DACA. If they get into office, then we can talk more about immigration.

  2. I comend your comment identifying black issues as American issues. Until everyone agrees with this we are doomed to disunity and conflict thanks to the groups and movements like BLM who want to fracture Americans and who spend their time vilifying all whites, a practice not likely to earn them friends or allies. The psychotically despicable Identity Politics gangs are determined to undermine the very institutions that have advanced the condition and opportunities and rights of blacks. Their
    ideology is subversive of both freedom, equality and democracy and represents as grave a danger to our republic as the extreme right. The challenge is to make traditional liberals understand this, intimidated as they are into abasement and appeasement of the authoritarian left.

  3. If you’re a progressive liberal unhappy with the ticket, and in particular the VP pick, here’s what I’d say

    1. Vote Dem come November.

    2. Remember that if Biden/Harris wins, Harris has 4 years to make her case to you that she’ll fight for progressive reform. A vote for Biden/Harris this year does not commit you to a vote for Harris/X in 2024. Particularly if someone runs on her left then (which, while it’s very hard to prognosticate what may happen between now and then, would seem very likely).

    1. Harris/X in 2024…hmmm methinks a good bumper sticker (for inducing road-rage in my locale {Flyover, Mo.}) might say something like: K.Harris/R.Rainbow 2028.

    2. Indeed. I agree as someone who is unhappy with the P pick as well as the VP pick. It’s not surprising that Biden is taking the progressive wing of his party for granted. We are granted. We can’t afford a Nader 2000 repeat, and we can’t afford to opt out of voting in 2020. But we can definitely primary Harris and X in 2024.

      1. The leaked memos indicate that he chose Harris to get undecided suburban women, not out of any dismissal of progressives. Sure, it’s a calculation of whether appealing to group A is more important than appealing to group B, but it’s difficult for me to say that was a bad choice.

        I think the amount of progressivism we see will really depend on the House and Senate. I bet that if the Dems sweep the Presidency and both, the progressives may see a lot of love in terms of policy (health care, immigration law, etc.). But if Biden has to horse-trade with McConnell, you’re not going to see much love for progressive policy.

  4. All I see here is Sathian saying “me, me, me” and only my people count. She sounds like Trump.

    Pathetic and gross.

  5. Kamala should make like Gandhi and tell her critics to pound salt. She has no obligation to meet anyone’s expectations other than her own and, now, Joe Biden’s. Opinions to the contrary are like armpits — everyone’s got ’em and everyone’s stink.

  6. As a Greek it is none of my business. But I make it so as a progressive lefty of six decades. Identity Politics is neither Progressive or Left,

    1. Pence could dance like that. Just remember to plug him in during his OS software update, download some new apps, maybe install some new actuators when he goes in for servicing.

    2. I suspect “One Nation Under God” is more Mike’s thing. And preferably, really trodden under…

      1. “One Nation Under a Groove” – now that would be some Clinton presidency! And a damn sight more coherent than the present onr.

  7. I hadn’t seen the criticisms of her for taking the wrong positions given her ethnicity, though its possible you have misunderstood some of the arguments. I’ll speak strictly for myself. I think of myself as “left”, though more in the way that someone like Adolph Reed is left, but probably not that far left. Harris has a long history of enthusiastically embracing and carrying out destructive policies, especially with respect to mass incarceration. If she would say “I was wrong” or “I’ve rethought my position” I’d have more respect for her on this score. I was initially very moved by her personal story on busing until it came out that she had taken similar positions to Biden. Given the way she went after Kavanaugh, I would think she would at least have some tough questions for Biden. My biggest objection to her is on foreign policy and her mindless repetition of the revived Cold War propaganda on Russia. I thought her response to Gabbard was pathetic and it was at that moment that my opinion of Harris changed for the worse. Left critiques of Harris are not just about enforcing morality. They are about a ticket that is composed of people who have a history of embracing some very destructive policies. I intend to vote for this ticket, fyi.

  8. “The article shows the danger of concentrating on a candidate’s identity above her policies” – absolutely! Leftist politicians in the UK, such as Tony Benn, spent years trying to get their policies and not their personal identities taken seriously. After all, it should be about the message, not the messenger? (In Benn’s case, he famously succeeded in changing the law so that he could refuse a hereditary title that would have forced him to automatically sit as an unelected member of the House of Lords. He did so because he wanted to continue sitting in the democratically elected House of Commons. Yes, he was born into privilege but he had no personal choice in who his parents were…!)

  9. It seems we’ve always had gradualism vs revolution. They are always at odds, but you’d think they could consolidate their efforts in the right direction when a candidate has already been selected.

    “Among the beeves that Sathian brings” – I looked up beeves and it really is the plural of beef, but it’s the first time for me. 🤓

  10. This was to be expected, as is the coming criticism from the left of her record as a prosecutor.

  11. This brouhaha reflects why Republicans have one built-in advantage. They have only one racial group to appeal to: white people – the biggest identity group of all. The Democrats consist of all other racial groups, including some whites. This means that Democrats have a much tougher time than Republicans in keeping their coalition united in the pursuit of victory. As to be expected, the various groups within the Democratic coalition are always fearful that they will get the short end of the stick unless their various concerns are explicitly addressed. We can expect more whiny op-eds such as the one under consideration, where the writers express extreme disappointment the nominees don’t agree to their all demands. Lacking an understanding of how politics works and apparently incapable of learning, they diminish Democratic chances.

    1. Democrats feel they have to fall in love with their candidates. Republicans just fall in line behind theirs.

      And given the way they’ve fallen in line behind a blatantly incompetent buffoon like Trump, Republicans’ll fall in line behind anyone.

  12. In the last two centuries of mass immigration to the United States, there have always been some, sadly, who cannot let go of the hurts and grievances of their homeland, and end up expending all their emotional energy on the country they’ve left rather than concentrating on establishing a life in the one they’ve come to — think of the Fenian Brotherhood for example. To such people the idea that someone they think of as “one of their own” should choose to focus on American issues must be incomprehensible, even traitorous. For them, loyalty to blood, homeland and jealously preserved cultural practices is more important than their own citizenship, which they seem to take utterly for granted.

  13. Her interview with Stephen Colbert did not really look good. I am specifically referring to the part where Colbert brings up how rough Harris was with Biden in the early debates (it may have been the first debate). She answered Biden by saying “it was a debate” and then laughing. The problem with that answer is that in the debate Harris was very passionate and angered. So was that just theatrics? To me what she did was pretty manipulative. I have a hard time liking politicians, but I really love the idea of a women of color being president and I am not sure what would happen to the country with another four years of Trump. I am voting democrat no matter what.

    1. I did not watch the debate, but as you can remember Biden was one of the front runners and the other candidates, especially those not getting much traction (K. Harris being one), really had to generate a viral moment to move up in the polls. There was not much time, and nothing to lose.
      We may not like this calculus, but that is the way it is.

  14. I saw this somewhere online:

    Voting is not a marriage; it’s catching the bus. You aren’t looking for a perfect match; you are looking for a way to get where you want to go. If there isn’t a bus that takes you right there, you catch the one that gets you closest.

  15. Getting rid of Trump is the only reason to prefer Harris or Biden.
    Both embrace identity politics and other progressive PoMo corrupted ideologies.

    But Harris is particularly troubling due to her fondness for jailing people. Law and order type candidates are always troubling and she is just that.

    And the way she got to her positions of power, via the influence of Willie Brown in California, is also troubling.

    She leapfrogged many more qualified people thanks to the ‘relationship’ she was having with Brown and the appointments he gave and arranged.

    In normal circumstances these would be the last people on my side of politics I would want with power over me.

  16. Had to look up “desis”:
    Desi, referring to the Indian subcontinent or South Asia.

    Also had to look up “The heady rush of recognition can lull us into complacency or lead us to quell our deeper ideological convictions”:
    Vacuous crap.

  17. As I’ve said here before, I was too young to vote for JFK, but I’ve voted Democrat in every election since, whether I greatly admired the candidates or not. I considered them to be a much better option than the Republican candidates. That individuals are willing to take on these tasks despite the naysayers and badmouthers, some extremely vicious, amazes me. None of the people running for office are perfect, just as (I assume) none of us voters are perfect. Yet, we expect so much more from them than ourselves. One cannot expect lifelong consistency among any of us as, hopefully, we may learn and change as time passes. Even public servants. The exception to this is tRump who will say or do anything his minuscule brain can think of that he expects will benefit him. Anything is better than four more years of tRump. And, Biden/Hrris are significantly better.

  18. As a retired resident of Iowa, it’s clear that I’ve followed it closer than you. What is progressive about a vicious prosecutor who pushed for locking up the parents of truant children? (They didn’t miss school because their parents made them stay home to work on the farm, that why my dad missed a lot of school!) Kamala would have been a moderate Republican when I was a young adult. Pay attention to the people of America who are struggling to put food on the table! Honoring MLK with a national holiday is no excuse for forgetting his message!  A second rigged primary doesn’t look good for the future of our democratic republic! https://observer.com/2017/05/dnc-lawsuit-presidential-primaries-bernie-sanders-supporters/amp/ (with links to the supporting evidence) In spite of that, Hillary supporters voted for McCain in 2008 at a higher rate than Bernie supporters voted for Trump, but the lies about us still persist!

    1. “As a retired resident of Iowa, it’s clear that I’ve followed it closer than you.”

      What is the logical, “clear,” and inescapably unique and necessary connection between being retired in Iowa (as opposed to, say, being retired in Chicago, or in any other location on this planet) and informing oneself about this particular issue?

      “What is progressive about a vicious prosecutor who pushed for locking up the parents of truant children? (They didn’t miss school because their parents made them stay home to work on the farm, that why my dad missed a lot of school!”

      I agree that it seems excessive, to say the least, to lock up parents on account of their truant children. (That would be a judge’s, not a prosecutor’s, decision, IIRC.) What is your understanding of the extent of the legal responsibility and liability parents have for children?

      Why do you suppose the children were truant, if not because they had to work on a farm?

      Since you mention it, was your father’s situation unique at the time? Do you blame your grandparents? Should your grandparents have been compelled by law to send him to school, with the law/society indifferent to the economic reality with which I’m given to understand many farm families of yesteryear were dealing? (One notes that society, in its refulgent wisdom and sense of decency, still exempts child labor laws from applying to the human resources – I mean, children – of migrant workers. After all, they are “just employees.”)

      Is it a possible reason that the parents, despite repeated warnings from duly-constituted legal authority, were so dilatory and irresponsible that they could not be bothered to make their children actually show up at school?

      Rather than jailing parents, perhaps such a situation is sufficient cause for Child Protective Services to take custody of the children and for parents to lose their custodial rights, hopefully only temporarily, the parents taking the hint and getting their act together. (Unless children not going to school should be of absolutely no concern to society.)

    2. May not look good for a democratic republic, but unless America starts to address the climate crisis, instead of the backpedaling that trump/republicans have been doing, it’s the whole world this time.

  19. “It’s time we had a woman on the ticket…”

    Other than Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton? It’s not like she’s the first female major party candidate. And if you bring in the Greens and Libertarians, there are a lot more.

  20. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

    March, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr.

    And now: Many think that someone’s race or ethnic heritage is the most important fact about them.

    How did this happen in a few short years?

    Authoritarianism appeals, simply, to people who cannot tolerate complexity. … It is anti-pluralist. It is suspicious of people with different ideas. It is allergic to fierce debates. Whether those who have it ultimately derive their politics from Marxism or nationalism is irrelevant. It is a frame of mind, not a set of ideas. (Anne Applebaum, Twilight of Democracy , p. 16)

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