Everyone knows that Joe Biden—with his long history of serving corporate interests, is an establishment candidate. There are others like New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who, because of large contributions from people like Mark Zuckerberg is also known as the “Senator from Silicon Valley.” He votes with his Valley and Big Pharma funders. Kamala Harris is less well known as an establishment candidate. Her true colors can be illustrated by her personal political history, by the staff she has assembled to run her campaign, by the funding and favorable media attention that she receives from the powers that be and by the numerous identity rather than class politics policy proposals she is putting forward.
Kamala Harris’s Political History
Much of Harris’s early political history is obscure, but we do know that she was an unknown 29 year-old lawyer in the early 1990s when her career was kick-started through a romantic relationship with master politico Willie Brown (Los Angeles Times January 21, 2019; San Francisco Chronicle January 26, 2019). Brown was not only the Speaker of the Californian State Assembly; he was also a central figure in the San Francisco Bay Area Democratic Party political machine. Brown likely saw both Harris’s beauty and identity politics potential, a rare combination of female, African-American and Asian-American. Bright, well-educated and ambitious, Harris and her family came from the professional class that usually serves and aspires to join the rich and powerful. Her maternal grandfather was an Indian diplomat, her Jamaican born father was a Stanford economics professor, and her mother was a cancer scientist. Power broker Brown appointed Harris to two state boards–the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board and the Medical Assistance Commission–that paid well for very little work. Brown also introduced her to other key members of the Bay Area Democratic political machine–people like Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi–and some of the machine’s wealthy backers, all of whom could help her with fundraising, endorsements and staffing for electoral campaigns. This gave Harris the opening she needed to use her smarts and talent to successfully run for San Francisco City Attorney (served 2004-2011), State Attorney General (served 2011-2017), and the U.S. Senate (beginning in 2017), all after ending the relationship with Brown. Once in office, Harris became known for her lavish personal lifestyle, using campaign and other funds for first-class air travel and upscale hotels which routinely cost $800 to $1000 a night, topping out in one instance at $1,722.59 for one nights’ stay. One former aide commented that “Kamala demands a life of luxury.”
Once in office as a prosecutor, Harris clearly failed to pursue social and economic justice for the broader public which should be the true aim of anyone in the people’s service, including law enforcement. Instead, she favored corporate criminals like Steven Mnuchin (now Trump’s Secretary of the Treasury), who raked in millions as the CEO of OneWest Bank from 2009-2015. Investigations of home foreclosures by prosecutors in Harris’s own office of the California State Attorney General in 2013 found that OneWest had illegally backdated massive numbers of key documents, violated notice and waiting periods, as well as gamed foreclosure auctions to deprive tens of thousands of California’s homeowners of their property. All this to the benefit of Mnuchin and OneWest. The violations were in the thousands, summed up as “widespread misconduct” by leaders of the Attorney General’s own Consumer Law Section. They recommended a civil enforcement action against the bank, even writing up a sample legal complaint, but, despite their urgings, Harris refused to prosecute the case. Mnuchin and billionaire George Soros, an investor in OneWest, both evidentially appreciated what Harris did: each of them made a generous campaign contribution to Harris’s 2016 Senate campaign.
In sharp contrast to the kid-glove treatment of corporations and the rich, Kamala Harris was harsh and unrelenting toward rank-and-file people accused of crimes even when there was clearly false testimony and evidence tampering used to convict. The story is a long one, studied and recounted in depth by San Francisco School of Law Professor Lara Bazelon and published January 17, 2019 in The New York Times. Bazelon concluded that Kamala Harris was not a “progressive prosecutor,” writing that “time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reforms as a district attorney and then the state’s attorney general, Ms. Harris opposed them or remained silent. Most troubling, Ms. Harris fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors.” Harris even refused to investigate officer-involved shootings when called upon by the California State Legislature and appealed a ruling by a federal judge in Orange County that the death penalty was unconstitutional, bizarrely arguing that the ruling undermined defendant protections!
She also promoted and succeeded in getting a law criminalizing parental conduct when their children were truant from school. Some parents were in fact prosecuted. The real reasons for truancy – poverty, drug use, survival issues for parents, lack of community support – were ignored in this law which disproportionately affected low-income people of color.
Staffing for a Presidential Run
Kamala Harris’s earlier campaigns and cross-endorsements (candidates agree to endorse each other) allowed her to build up the key staff needed for a presidential campaign. Here members of her family became central, together with a reliance on an informal alliance with Hillary Clinton. Clinton and Harris endorsed each other in 2016, Harris was an enthusiastic supporter of Clinton and has recruited a number of Hillary Clinton’s staff for her own campaign. These two themes come together in the person of Harris’s sister and presidential campaign chair Maya Harris. Maya Harris, formally an official with the Ford Foundation, is currently a commentator for the MSNBC, one of the three key cable news outlets (with Fox and CNN) covering the presidential campaign. Positive news coverage for media favored candidates is a key feature of presidential campaigns in the U.S., and having a connection to possibly receive this kind of advantage is central to a successful campaign. Maya Harris also has other important ties to key political networks. In 2015 Hillary Clinton appointed her to lead a small team of policy advisers to develop the agenda for Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Then she became a senior policy adviser for Clinton in 2016. Maya Harris also brings to the table membership in the Council on Foreign Relations, “Wall Street’s Think Tank” with the numerous connections and favorable treatment that membership in this 5000-plus member capitalist class think tank brings. The Council (CFR) is the world’s most powerful private organization, the ultimate networking, socializing, strategic planning, and consensus-forming institution of the dominant U.S. plutocratic billionaire class, the think tank of monopoly-finance capital. Its connections extend deeply into key American corporations, leading media, top universities, powerful non-profits, foundations, other think tanks and international organizations, as well as meetings groups like the Bilderberg group, Trilateral Commission, and Davos (see Laurence H. Shoup, Wall Street’s Think Tank: The Council on Foreign Relations and the Empire of Neoliberal Geopolitics 1976-2019, Monthly Review Press).
Just to cite one concrete example of corporate and CFR connections, Maya’s employer, MSNBC, was founded in 1996 as a partnership of General Electric’s NBC unit and Microsoft. Microsoft has since divested its interest, leaving GE/NBC in charge. GE has many CFR connections and Council members in leading roles in MSNBC include Brian Williams, Mica Brzezinski, Joe Scarborough, and Andrea Mitchell (who is also Council member Alan Greenspan’s wife). The CFR’s broad network also includes key print media, resulting in favorable coverage for some candidates. For example, the Financial Times (FT), a “world business newspaper” has a special relationship with the Council, the FT often has CFR leaders, staff, and active members writing opinion pieces for it, and the Council often invites key FT staff to speak at one of their two headquarters. The FT had a long favorable article on Kamala in their weekend edition June 22-23, 2019 ending by quoting a political strategist who concluded that Kamala “obviously has great political talent” (Financial Times June 22/23, 2019 Life and Arts: 18-19). Another FT opinion writer stated that if you are looking for someone “…who could beat Donald Trump next year, the answer without a shadow of a doubt is Californian Senator Kamala Harris” (Financial Times June 29/30, 2019:9). Having a CFR member as her sister and campaign chair means that a Kamala Harris administration would very likely bring many Council on Foreign Relations members into government and into leading roles in the policy formation process. Having the FT on your side means that wealthy campaign donors and other media outlets will take you seriously.
Kamala’s family’s corporate ruling class connections do not end with her sister, because Maya’s husband is Tony West, a leading corporate lawyer whose father was an IBM executive. West is politically close to Kamala, he co-chaired her 2016 Senate campaign, and recently stated that he is with her 100% (San Francisco Chronicle July 14, 2019). West was chief counsel for Pepsi Cola, a giant multinational corporation prior to taking his current job. He is now the highly paid chief counsel for Uber. Uber’s business model relies on maintaining that their working class drivers are not employees and so not subject to regulations on wages and benefits. This means that West is a central figure defending the interests of the company’s owners against the claims of their exploited drivers. Many Uber drivers want the status of employees so they can gain minimum wages, paid holidays, healthcare and other benefits. Australia’s workplace regulator ruled that Uber drivers are not employees, but a U.K. court ruled they are. Uber’s legal team, led by Tony West as chief counsel, has now appealed this ruling to the U.K. Supreme Court.
Kamala Harris’s other staff members represent a combination of people connected to the Bay Area Democratic Party political machine, former Barack Obama operatives, and former Hillary Clinton staff members. The connection with Clinton appears especially close. Besides Maya Harris at least four other top staff members for Kamala played similar roles in Clinton’s 2016 campaign. General counsel Mark Elias was general counsel for Clinton in 2016; communications director Lily Adams was Iowa communications director for Clinton in 2016; media consultant Jim Margolis served in the same role for Clinton in 2016; and advance director Joyce Kazadi served in an identical role for Hillary in 2016.
The Kamala Harris connection to Hillary Clinton extends to at least on one Hillary’s election clients. A firm named Legion AVS worked for Hillary for America. Harris hired this firm to organize her kickoff rally in Oakland. Legion AVS was reportedly paid $485,000 to organize this one, evidently lavish event. The Oakland Police Department was also paid $187,000, and there were other expenses. So this one event cost the Harris campaign in excess of $672,000, quite a sum for an event of this kind.
The U.S. system of private political campaign funding gives the wealthy corporate ruling class a key way to influence politicians in what is a carefully managed “democracy.” Publicly funded election systems that are much more democratic exist in many nations, but not in the U.S.
Running a successful presidential campaign requires a serious amount of money, especially for staff and political ads. Where a given candidate gets this money is one key to whom this candidate ultimately owes allegiance. In this realm, as in her political history and staff, Kamala Harris clearly represents the corporate class. So far in the 2020 campaign, Harris is the queen of large donations, just as Bernie Sanders is the king of small donations. Open Secrets, which tracks campaign funding, found that Harris received the largest amount from large donors among the 16 candidates then in the 2020 race when it did the study (Joe Biden had not yet reported).
Data from the Center for Responsive Politics offers more specifics. CRP found that as of mid-April 2019, over 85% of Harris’s donations came in the form of checks for $1000 or more. Lawyers for the giant Paul Weiss multinational law firm are Harris’s biggest single donor. Among their key clients are GE, Exxon-Mobil, IBM and Avon. Members of other top law firms also give heavily to Harris, including DLA Piper and Venable LLP. DLA Piper is another global law firm with offices in 40 different nations. Piper’s clients include over one-half of all top Fortune 250 corporations, and is often number 1 ranked annually in mergers and acquisitions deal volume. Piper also has a strategic alliance with the Cohen business consulting group. William Cohen, a Republican and a former director of the CFR, is chair and CEO of this group, which includes several other Council members among their vice chairs and senior counselors. Venable LLP is Kamala Harris’s husband Douglas Emhoff’s law firm. It is paid well to lobby government for leading corporations like GE, Time-Warner, Oracle, Met Life, Fiat Chrysler, American Express, American Airlines, Allianz, and Hilton. These corporations would obviously have an inside advantage in a Harris Administration. Other prominent corporations which have given thousands to Kamala Harris include Time-Warner; Alphabet/Google; Wells Fargo Bank; Apple. Microsoft and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, whose grossly biased coverage helped Trump get elected in 2016. All of these giant corporations have good reasons to try to influence a potential Democratic administration. Just to cite one example, Alphabet/Google has been fined over $8 billion by the European Union for anti-trust violations, something that could be repeated in the U.S. (Financial Times June 6, 2019:14).
Additionally, in late May, 2019, Harris was the star at a San Francisco fundraiser hosted by oil billionaires Gordon and Ann Getty and attended by California Governor Gavin Newsome, who is also part of the Bay Area Democratic political machine (San Francisco Chronicle May 26, 2019:A15). Newsome has also endorsed Harris for president. The list of other, likely very wealthy ruling class attendees has not yet been reported.
Policy Proposals, The Context
To fully comprehend Harris’s (or any presidential candidate’s) policy proposals, one has to first understand some key facts about the complexity of American society and its power dynamics. The U.S. is a racialized, multicultural class society, which, according to the 2010 census, is made up of about 56% people from European (“white”) background; 16% Latino background; 13% African (“black”) background; 5% Asian and only a few percent from Native American, Native Hawaiian, mixed race and “other” background. These facts need to be kept in mind, plus the historical reality of eons of patriarchy, victimizing females; hundreds of years of slavery, victimizing Africans; as well as genocide against Native Americans. This class society has at the top of the economic and political power hierarchy a relatively small group of very wealthy capitalist families (the capitalist ruling class), about 5% of the total population. They own enough capital to live well without entering the nation’s labor market. This 5% owns fully 63% of the wealth of the United States. The next most powerful group is a professional class of experts, (often inaccurately called the “middle class”) amounting to about 30% of the population and mostly serving this ruling capitalist class. This top 35% is well-educated and predominantly European-America The remaining approximately 65% of the population is properly called the working class, people who have few assets and have to enter the labor market to survive. This working class is racially, ethnically and economically diverse, including both the relatively well-paid and those receiving minimum wages and below. There are many other cleavages: cultural, political, and language among this working class, making it difficult to unite the class to fight for its own interests. This difficulty is made more acute by the fact that the main means of education and communication (especially universities and mass media outlets) are fully controlled by the capitalist class and their professional class allies.
The messages that the powerful want to send to the majority are that identity, individual characteristics constructed and stressed by society such as one’s racial/ethnic background, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation, and culture are what is central, not one’s material/class position in economy and society. Differences, not commonalities are affirmed. Except among the capitalist ruling class, where class consciousness is very high, class is mainly left out of the discussion and is mainly missing from people’s consciousness. This is in line with the long used divide-and-conquer strategy and tactics on the part of the nation’s and world’s rulers dating centuries. Thus identity politics is an easy way to unite a sector of society, those who feel powerless, aggrieved or fearful such as white workers exploited by corporations or African-Americans who are racialized and oppressed by the dominant society. This focus on the individual creates a divided society, without strong community bonds, with the majority working class fighting among themselves, right in line with what those at the top and in control want. Political alliances are then forged based on divided identities, not the potential unity and power of the majority working class. This approach allows the right wing white nationalist form of identity politics to advance and become powerful, since white people are a majority, and are often a large majority in rural areas and in places like the Midwestern section of the U.S. This is why Steve Bannon, a key theorist of the right wing in the U.S. and worldwide, stated that he could not “get enough” of the left’s “race-identity politics…the longer they talk about identity politics, I got them…I want them to talk about racism every day.”
To counteract the right, diversity must be thought of in a holistic way, since our personal (identity) and our economic (class based) lives are completely intertwined in a cultural and economic totality. Therefore, class, usually left out, must be brought into the conversation in a decisive way. The capitalist social relations that give rise to identity politics can best be overturned and people’s real problems solved by confronting capitalism and the corporate and other powers that be. Identity politics is actually harmful to the real interests of oppressed groups because it diverts attention from the real problems, creating division and confusion. Maximum unity of the working class through a class based politics “for all and the good of all” must be the true goal of progressive and left people.
The Harris Policy Proposals—Specifics
Kamala Harris is strongly wedded to identity politics as a way of gaining support in her quest for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. This obscures the fact that she herself is part of the corporate capitalist ruling class. With her policy proposals she focuses on specifics like woman’s issues (abortion and equal pay); advocacy for immigrant dreamers; “moderate” health care reform, background checks on guns; advances in marriage equality; higher minimum wage; prison reform (Harris was a zealous prosecutor, she even stated that she was “as close to vigilante as you can get,” but then, once a victim was locked up, “reforms” in terms of training for the life outside became appropriate for Harris). Indicative of the Harris identity politics approach was the first debate confrontation she had with fellow candidate Joe Biden over busing, when she pointed out that as an African-American child she was bused and so knew first-hand what it was like. But the central, and broader, class-based issues behind busing like enforced residential segregation, poverty and poor schools for working class people were not mentioned.
Tellingly, Harris’s approach to the environment and clean energy is to use “market forces” to speed up implementation of programs like the limited Democratic Party’s version of the Green Party’s Green New Deal. All this reinforces the fact that Harris represents the liberal wing of the neoliberal program, where identity politics and capitalist market forces are dominant and class issues are downplayed or left out entirely.
Summary and Conclusion
This article has illustrated in some detail, through her political history, staffing, family connections, campaign funding and policy positions that Kamala Harris is an establishment candidate, a Clinton clone backed by the corporate ruling class and its close allies. She is only pretending to be “for the people” (her campaign slogan). Furthermore, Harris is playing into the hands of the right wing by focusing on divisive identity politics instead of unifying working class politics. A class based program for human rights for all is what is needed, for health care for everyone as a human right, full employment at living wages, free education, affordable housing ensured by the federal government, adequate retirement funding and a clean environment, saving our planet based on the strongest version of a Green New Deal. Confrontation with the corporate and wealthy powers that be is necessary to achieve this program, and is also the road to winning the unity of the vast majority, defeating Trump and moving rapidly toward a just society with ecological sanity.