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Is Kamala Harris the Centrist We Need?

In 2016 Bruce Dixon recounted that the Democrats have employed a sheepdog in all the recent past elections: “1984 and 88 the sheepdog candidate was Jesse Jackson. In 92 it was California governor Jerry Brown. In 2000 and 2004 the designated sheepdog was Al Sharpton, and in 2008 it was Dennis Kucinich. This year it’s Vermont senator Bernie Sanders.” The purpose of the sheepdog is to shepherd radical and progressive voters back into the Democratic Party.

Bernie Sanders was excellent at playing the sheep, but almost in spite of himself, he was better at playing the dog. Bernie is a loyal company man, but his individual ideas remain too sane to be ignored. The policies he advocated for are being taken up by an assemblage of politicians in local and national races. For this reason we should give Bernie more credit than the typical sheepdog. Even as he props up the carcass of the Democratic Party, Bernie has helped breath life into new ideas such as socialism, Medicare for all, 15$ an hour minimum wage and free college tuition.

Progressivism cannot coexist with the current corporate duopoly structure. This contradiction has not yet been resolved. But Bernie has helped to mainstream the idea that such a contradiction exists. Bernie then is not just “a good boy” in the sheepdog sense of the word, but a man who has brought some good in his own right.

Regardless, Bernie can function as the typical sheepdog character for the purposes of the corporate duopoly’s grip of death. If we are to apply Karl Marx’s theories of historical materialism then we should recognize that politicians are products of their time, not the other way around. The more progressive ideas that are arising now then come as a result of the organizing by the poor and the greed by the rich. Politicians do make decisions of their own but they largely respond to the needs and constraints that the times present. In times like late-stage capitalism, needs are great but so are constraints. Most major politicians are indebted to corporate interests to get re-elected and therefore have many constraints on their ability to do anything for the common good.

This is why someone like Bernie Sanders was never electable in the Presidential arena. This can change. It can change quickly. But it will take massive revolt, and perhaps, even as Sanders would say, revolution. If the sheepdog has an interest in the Democrats winning then the most productive thing he can do is move his supporters into the very party that sabotages him. The sooner they do this the better, as far as the Party is concerned. If the voters find out that their views are not represented, their votes cannot be counted on.

The Democrats felt pretty darn good in 2016. This was entirely because of Barack Obama. It was a curious dynamic. Obama had spent eight years sitting on his hands. Republicans had successfully suppressed votes on their way to victories across the country in offices that weren’t oval. While in office the Republicans were able to derail much of whatever Obama’s agenda was. Obama himself did little to nothing in his first two years in office when he had both the House and Senate under Democrat control.

Regardless, it seemed like Democrats who were interested in Mr. Obama’s agenda should have been more motivated for one reason or another. They could have been aimed at the Republican’s corruption, cheating and refusal to be reasonable with their partners across the aisle. They could have at the very least been unsatisfied with losing the House in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Instead, Mr. Obama’s shadow seemed to be enough for them. Obama was charismatic enough to cast a big shadow, but where was his body?

Barack Obama once said he could have beat Donald Trump if he had run for a third term. This was not an especially helpful comment as the destructive and dangerous Donald seized the Oval Office. Obama was right though. Either Barack or Michelle could have beat the Donald. Few other Democrats could have. Mr. Obama is the only reason the sickly fossil Joe Biden is leading some 2020 Presidential polls.

Give Barack Obama this: he could win an election. It may not have meant much once he got there. But if we are to believe the Democrats, they are very interested in beating Donald Trump in 2020. Therefore they should look to 2008 for a parallel strategy to victory.

Flashback to 2008. Occupying the sheepdog section was Dennis Kucinich, and later John Edwards. Hillary Clinton was the establishment candidate. The former would always be too radical to get the corporate money necessary to win. The latter would always be too stale and right-wing to turn out any ‘lesser evil’ votes.

What the Democrats needed was a wedge candidate. Someone who could speak the language of progressive and take corporate money at the same time. This candidate would have progressive instincts and therefore often take seemingly sincere progressive lurches. This person would be convincing enough to fool themselves but cynical and opportunistic enough to change course when necessary, and only when necessary. ‘When necessary’ was most of the time but this candidate would always be reluctant rather than ambitious about their conservative and corporate ties.

This last sentence was the only difference between the right-leaning Hillary Clinton and the weaving Barack Obama. In a corporate system like this, the differences may not be satisfactory, or even significant. However, even the appearance of difference demonstrates some supposed good faith by the Democrats. If they can fool voters that there is some agency in the primary process, these same voters will be more likely to turn out to vote in the general.

Furthermore, such a scenario presents few consequences to the 1%. They still have their way. Electing an Obama is slightly less favorable than electing a Clinton, but it is also less risky. Just a few mainly symbolic compromises with the people leaves them with a sense of agency that dulls their capacity to resist. Electing an unpopular right-winger opens up the possibility for dissent.

The Democrats were far too self-assured in 2016. It didn’t matter to them that Obama was their only success. They saw an increasingly bigoted and inane Republican Party across the aisle. They thought they didn’t need the wedge candidate. They could go full-blown conservative, as they always wanted to do. They wanted to play off of Obama’s momentum without using his lessons. Foolish.

This lack of a wedge candidate proved to be costly in the primary. The sheepdog candidate gained far too many votes. Left with the seemingly simple choice of establishment and anti-establishment, many voters flocked to the anti-establishment. A wedge candidate could have helped reel in some of that ‘populist’ energy and directed it towards a corporate-endorsed platform.

If 2016 was going to be Hillary Clinton’s year, so be it. She had almost as few political believes as Donald Trump. She could have been the wedge if the Party had planned well. Have her make a few steps to the center, position someone to her right, and have her triumph in a seemingly organic process. Instead the Party hand-picked Clinton. They overplayed their hand. They now looked like a party that let corporations pick their candidates.

Flash forward to 2020. There are plenty of candidates to choose from. It is likely that the wedge scenario will happen, whether the Democrats plan it or not. For the record, 2008 seemed largely unplanned. Mr. Obama surprised everyone. This shows how out of touch the Democratic Party is. But it also is another lesson. The more unfamiliar a candidate appears, the more likely they are to win. It has been said that a happy man hates change, but these are not necessarily happy times.

The wedge candidate should sound like a sheepdog but act like the establishment. They should play it this way as much as possible for the wedge to be believable to both sides. Here and there they will have to sound like the establishment or act like the sheepdog. An adept candidate like Obama will adapt on the fly and will not need to be micromanaged by tone-deaf elites.

Early polls show three candidates doing fairly well: Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders. Democrats, you have your field. Let Biden play the role of Clinton. He will sound old, white and privileged. Maybe the #MeToo story we all expect will finally surface, or at least we will look seriously at the Anita Hill case. His ideas will sound out-dated and even racist. He will lose his temper. He will defend corporations and capitalism. He will insist that everything is fine. Joe is too stupid to be a Clinton. He acts more like a Bush. By now Americans are wise enough to dump both.

Voters who have grown wary of Biden’s old-school conservatism will naturally look for something different. Pan to starry-eyed Bernie Sanders. Bernie can play the role of idealist. Health care for the richest nation on earth? Middle class families without debt? A wage that is enough to rent an apartment? These so-called ridiculous ideas will be shot down as unrealistic. Bernie will appear much like Biden: an old man out of touch with the times. Socialism? Isn’t that an ‘old’ idea, Bernie?

These were the stories we heard in 2016. Naturally, a division was created. What the Democrats didn’t recognize was that in every division, there was a gap. Enter Kamala Harris. Like Obama, she is young. Forward-looking. The proof won’t be in the pudding, it will be in the prose. The most trendy policy ideas will be spearheaded, but insincerely. (See Iraq War 2008, Medicare For All 2020). She will take the best of both sides. She will take the corporate money in private, but she will also listen and adapt to her voters in public. She will present herself as the natural democratic thrust between two extremes.

In her opening campaign speech Harris weaves, like Obama weaved. From liberal mainstream (DACA, #MeToo, democracy, Trump) to more left (health care, banks, poverty, debt). The Obama formula is not to ignore the left side of the Party, but to sprinkle them in. The journey from issue to issue made by Harris is so impressive she does not need a platform like an Elizabeth Warren does.

Harris builds a nice story. It’s the Obama hybrid. Fair, but tough. Thoughtful, but relatable. Populist, but experienced. True, but false. It’s been done before, but Reagan did MAGA only a couple of decades ago.

The speech hits the right notes, although it is mostly flat. Harris does do a saucy look at the camera that I enjoyed. It was followed by a near shimmy. The psychoanalyst John Helmeke read a lot into the famous shimmy by Hillary Clinton in her first debate with Donald Trump. At that time Hillary was loose and innovative, and remained ahead in the polls. As Trump stock plummeted Hillary and all those around her became stiff and self-assured. If the Democrats are going to win they need to shimmy the whole time.

Harris then makes good points about how the word unity is weaponized by people in power. She points to women’s suffrage activists and abolitionists being framed as breaking up the unity. Similar parallels could be drawn about the Democratic Party’s call to unite around the anti-Trump corporate banner.

Should we be concerned that Kamala Harris’s Dad is named an economist named Donald who doesn’t smoke weed? This makes her a natural successor to Mr. Trump’s throne. But it also presents the possibility that Ms. Harris will not change as much as we might like. Like Trump, she has a shady history of racism and the instincts of a cop. Harris’s opening speech lasted only seven minutes before she warned us of transnational gangs. Climate change didn’t make an appearance for much longer. Foreign policy was completely absent outside of Russian hackers.

There is one crucial difference between a Bernie Sanders speech and a Kamala Harris speech. Bernie uses numbers, Kamala uses slogans. Jacobin ran a brutal account of Harris’s record, which strongly conflicts with the vague statements she says. Harris oddly is positioning herself as the candidate who has criminal justice as a top priority, maybe even the top priority. This feels like a conscious move to cover up a career that was made on being just the opposite.

If the Democrats were interested in the common good, they would nominate Bernie Sanders. If the Democrats are interested in beating Donald Trump, they will nominate Kamala Harris. The former is an impossibility; a complete contradiction to the corporate interests that back their major candidates. The latter is no guarantee either. The Democrats are incapable of following through on their own agenda electorally and politically. Barack Obama succeeded simply because he capitalized on the Democrat’s own contradictions. In 2016 the Democrats demonstrated that they were either still unaware of their contradictions or that they simply had no sincere interest in beating the Republicans.

Somehow we are in a situation where Kamala Harris riding her corporate donors to the top is the best case scenario for 2020. Bernie Sanders will only be sabotaged. Joe Biden will only win the suburbs. Donald Trump could scrub the floor with either. There you have it: President Kamala Harris is the best case scenario for our very democratic elections in 2020. If that grim reality doesn’t end the corporate duopoly, nothing will.

There is another possibility. Voters may recognize that the gap between the establishment Democrats and the sheepdogs is only getting wider. As young people spearhead a new progressivism in this country, the Democrats cling to their donors and ignore the people. Even a skilled politician such as Kamala Harris may not be able to hide this growing disparity. This is bad news for the Democratic Party. It may even be good news for Donald Trump, who has united the Republican Party under a dystopian fascist cloak of despair.

For the long term future of the world, exposing this gap within the Democratic Party can only be a good thing. Either the Democrats concede to the people, or cease to exist. The fear is that the Republican Party will remains a united group of deregulators and misanthropes and will gut the country until there is nothing left to fight for. Given the open embrace of misogyny, racism and free market fundamentalism in this country, we should fear a united Republican Party.

Noam Chomsky is right. The Republican Party is the most dangerous organization in human history. To beat the most dangerous organization in human history, there must be a united organization. The Democrats too often mistake compromise for unity. In many ways, they are the opposite thing. Rather than compromise with Republicans or multinational corporations, the Democrats should find a new centrism. The Democrats should embrace the centrism of popular opinion.

The centrists that the Democrats produce are merely centrists between the movers and shakers of the world. Kamala Harris then can only be a centrist in a world that is ruled by the rich. Compromise won’t do. It is only so much longer that the Democrats can get away with it and survive. The Republican Party and the 1% are dead set on destroying all life on earth just to make a few more dollars. A few more compromises and there will be nothing left to concede.

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Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com 

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