Kamala Harris Represents Everything Wrong with Empty Identity Politics

Photograph Source: Office of the Attorney General of California – Public Domain

Joe Biden’s pick of Kamala Harris as his running mate will surely satisfy Democratic Party insiders who were hoping for him to balance the ticket. As a woman of color, Harris kills two birds with one stone by ticking both the gender and race boxes. But the prospect of her becoming vice president is nothing to look forward to. She’s overwhelmingly spent her career, both before and after entering politics, fighting for reactionary policies that completely obliterate the credibility of her claim to be any kind of progressive.

But there’s something deeper going on here. Because Harris represents not just the center-right policy positions of the Democratic establishment. She is also an illustrative example of the kind of empty, tokenistic brand of identity politics that this establishment uses to give its major figures political cover.

‘Balancing the ticket’

On 11 August, Biden ended months of media speculation that had been intensified by his advanced age and clear signs of cognitive decline. Of course, Harris might end up serving out the remainder of his term should he die or otherwise become unable to fulfil his functions as president. Biden has even himself spoken of being “a transition candidate”, which implies he doesn’t expect or perhaps even intend to serve a full four years should he win.

Biden had indicated during a previous televised debate with then-fellow Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders that he would choose a woman. Harris, who is of mixed ethnic background and identifies as both African-American and Asian-American, is the first woman of color to be on the ticket of either major US political party.

A clear case of tokenism

To be sure, having a woman of color is something that in other circumstances ought to be celebrated. The US does indeed lag behind comparably developed nations when it comes to gender equality. But this is a clear case of tokenism when taken in a broader context. Though neither Biden nor Harris have spelled it out, it appears that race and gender were the major factor behind this choice.

After all, Harris performed poorly in the 2020 Democratic primary, failing to win a single state before pulling out in early December 2019. So she bucks the trend of a presidential contender picking a running mate who came up runner-up, or at least was a serious contender, in the party’s primary contest. Harris even attacked Biden during the primary for his close partnership in the senate with southern segregationists (which was, in fact, close friendship in at least one case). In short, she hasn’t done anything to endear herself to Biden nor demonstrated that she has significant broad support based on her own merits as a candidate.

Shameless misuse of identity politics

Clearly this another case of establishment Democrats shamelessly using identity politics to provide a political smokescreen for their reactionary policies. Devoid of any real political content, its peddlers present the fact that a person is a member of historically persecuted group as something that in itself somehow provides progressive credentials. In the process, the person’s political record gets lost behind the self-congratulatory back-patting.

The classic example of this is none other than Biden’s former senior running mate Barack Obama. Obama waxed lyrical on the campaign trail with lofty talk of ‘hope and change’. But we all remember how empty these promises turned out to be. Once in office, he largely continued the policies of his predecessor George W. Bush. The list is far too long to exhaustively enumerate here but includes failing to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention center, continuing Bush’s bank bailout program, and escalating the drone assassination program by a factor of ten.

A sordid record in political life and before

And like Obama and Biden, Harris’ progressive credentials are paper thin. Her record both before entering politics and since represents everything that is wrong with the center-right establishment wing of the Democratic Party.

Before standing for elected office, Harris was a public prosecutor and then attorney-general for the state of California. In these roles, she gained notoriety for her ruthless pursuit of so-called law-and-order policies. She supported a law that would lead to the prosecution of parents of truant children, leading to some even facing jail time. She later falsely claimed that this was an “unintended consequence” of the law.

A pillar of mass incarceration

Harris was also instrumental in putting non-violent drug offenders behind bars. She oversaw over 1,900 cannabis-related convictions while San Francisco’s district attorney. Of course, such convictions, which disproportionately impact people of color, are one of the major driving forces behind the phenomenon of mass incarceration. As the Black Agenda Report’s Margaret Kimberley put it: “She did everything in her power to support the mass incarceration system and all of its foundations.”

Astonishingly, Harris admitted during a radio interview that she herself has used cannabis. She now claims to be in favor of cannabis decriminalization. On both counts, this, of course, paints a picture of someone of profoundly poor character who has little sense of fairness and who furthermore demonstrates a willingness to engage in brazenly self-interested double standards.

Enabling Israel’s crimes

Since her election as a US senator for California in 2016, she has overwhelmingly sided with the Democratic Party’s center-right establishment wing, especially when it comes to foreign policy. On 3 June, 2019, she said in a pre-recorded statement to the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum: “I am deeply involved in insuring the American Israeli relationship remains strong. And I am proud to stand strongly with America’s most important allies. Israel is a critical friend and ally to the United States.”

In July of that year, the president and CEO of a major Washington polling and consulting firm said to The Jerusalem Post: “In terms of her Israel positions, she’s been in the Senate a relatively brief time, so she doesn’t necessarily have the longest record in dealing with Israel, but she has been strongly pro-Israel throughout her career. And certainly, in the statements, she’s made and the votes she’s cast so far.”

Harris even supported a congressional resolution condemning a UN resolution that criticized Israel’s settlement activity, which is widely accepted as illegal under international law. None of this should come as a surprise, however, as Biden himself is firmly on the establishment wing of the Democratic Party and was the favored pick of major party insiders.

Time to reject the empty promises of identity politics

Just as Obama’s supporters used triumphalist talk of him being the first Black president to deflect criticism of any of his reactionary policies, history is now repeating itself with Harris. We’re supposed to celebrate her nomination because of her status as a minority when in reality her political record is little better than that of her Republican rivals. And this provides yet another example of how the US is essentially a one-party state with two rival factions of the same sordid status quo that alternate power with one another every so often.

Luckily, there is someone on the ballot who is both a woman of color and an actual progressive. Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins picked longtime grassroots activist Angela Walker as his running mate. Of course, establishment Democrats and their minions will surely tell us that we’d be “throwing away our vote” by casting our ballot for the Hawkins/Walker ticket. But now that two major US parties compete with each other on a tiny speck of space on the far right of the political spectrum, it’s time that we give up on the Democratic Party en masse and prove them wrong.