W Stephen Gilbert
Joe Biden’s choice of Senator Kamala Harris of California as his vice-presidential running mate has not been universally well-received on the left. Harris is seen by some as a conventional hawk, a Netanyahu apologist and a lawyer who punished African Americans.
A debate may be had as to whether these charges really stack up; certainly Harris’s record is diverse rather than monochrome.
In her time in the Senate, Harris has voted for six out of eight military spending bills.
This July, unlike her former rivals for the Democratic candidacy – Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand – she voted with her other senatorial rival Michael Bennet against Bernie Sanders’ amendment “to reduce the bloated Pentagon budget by 10 percent and invest that money in jobs, education, health care, and housing in communities in the United States in which the poverty rate is not less than 25 percent”.
On the other hand, last December, in one of her pair of rebellions, she joined Sanders in not voting for the 2020 military spending bill; this was two weeks after she had withdrawn her candidacy. Those named above also did not vote (making up the only members of the Senate so to do), save Gillibrand, one of six senators who voted against, and Bennet who voted for.
When it came to specific issues, Harris opposed the Saudi war in Yemen and argued for rejoining the Iran nuclear pact, like all the other Democrat runners for the nomination.
Regarding Israel, Harris was excoriated for meeting officials of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in her office. However, she did not join the AIPAC’s vehement attack on allegedly anti-Semitic remarks by Rep Ilhan Omar who is Somali-American, declaring that “like some of my colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus, I am concerned that the spotlight being put on Congresswoman Omar may put her at risk” [quoted in The Jerusalem Post July 12th 2019].
Harris opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that targets Israel, but she is on record as speaking out against the annexation of West Bank settlements [interview for PodSaveAmerica April 17th 2019] and, along with her Democrat rivals, supports the two-state solution.
Without explicitly committing to recognition of a Palestinian state, she has written that “Palestinians should be able to govern themselves in their own state, in peace and dignity, just as Israelis deserve a secure homeland for the Jewish people” [Council on Foreign Relations questionnaire, August 21st 2019]. That seems indistinguishable from support for self-determination. Harris’s husband is Jewish.
Some white commentators evidently feel no discomfort in judging a woman of mixed heritage (Tamil Indian and Jamaican) on race. They discount the point made by the LA Times that “…many black voters are wary of her 27 years as a prosecutor enforcing laws that sent African Americans to prison. Often left unsaid is that Harris, a former state attorney general and San Francisco district attorney, did not play a role in passing those laws” [October 24th 2019].
It may be true that California incarcerated a disproportionate number of black men during Harris’s time, but is there any state penal system that doesn’t hold a huge number of black people for very long periods? As a prosecutor, she will have had to deal with the defendants the police put before her. It seems unhelpful to risk this becoming a proposal that Harris is “the wrong kind of African American”.
Harris’s record as a law officer and senator can be seen to bear comparison with any progressive lawyer and legislator in the country on homicide rates, domestic violence, sex crimes, gun crime and firearms availability, transnational crime, hate crime, LGBT+ rights, race bias in the police, immigration, trafficking, drug dealing convictions, possession offences, recidivism, social media rights, right-to-know access, truancy, environmental crime, transgender cases, corruption among public officers, business fraud, legal loopholes, mortgage foreclosure and locally on Propositions 8 and 21.
In court, she has won billions of dollars for citizens from financial enterprises, speculators and fraudsters.
There is some evidence that she has sometimes temporised on the death penalty, parole access and body cameras for police officers. But there are few who take public roles that require far-reaching decision-making who do not find that those roles are apt to temper their beliefs and inclinations.
The balance of judgment ought not to condemn Harris out of hand. Voters cannot reasonably expect long-serving public officials to be meticulously consistent, preternaturally wise, hieratically noble and scrupulously on-message on a daily basis.
What’s more, it needs to be remembered that in politics, women, people of colour and progressives are judged by far more stringent standards than reactionary white men, who only need to be idiosyncratic and/or combative to be seen as godheads.
Because of the nature of the executive roles taken by both Biden and Harris, they were more vulnerable to generalised attack from their rivals for the Democratic nomination than any of those rivals in the televised debates.
Someone in a thread on my Facebook page declared that Harris “got taken to absolute bits by Tulsi Gabbard”, but checking on the July 2019 debates shows no such case.
Gabbard’s remarks, which accounted for just one minute of over 130 minutes of debate time, were broad and unsupported. It’s easy to throw out accusations that may or may not be true or fair.
As Jeremy Corbyn could confirm, it’s impossible to defend a career against amorphous assaults. Harris was expected to expound her working method and philosophy in her own prescribed one minute. She made a fair fist of it.
But let’s step back from the particular. How close to an exemplary ideal do candidates need to be in order to avoid being decried by those whose votes they need?
There’s an ancient saw about voting for Anyone But [Name of Candidate]. Many of those who will vote – “holding their noses” in the cliché – for Biden and Harris may very well do so only to ensure that Trump and Pence are ejected from office. Unusually this year, though, it’s hard to imagine there would be many votes for the incumbents in an Anyone But Biden and/or Harris camp.
But those seeking election hope to generate a little more enthusiasm than that, understandably.
The Republicans will certainly rake over the careers of both Biden and Harris (respectively of 50 and 30 years’ duration) to find specific instances of useful ammunition. Biden has plenty of well-aired inconsistencies to defend.
However, there is no richer pasture on which to spread manure than Trump’s record in office, which is why the general expectation is that he will attempt to rob the election of its legitimacy, both before and after November 3rd.
Meanwhile, the Democratic ticket will (unless badly advised) seek to propose an optimistic, positive, creative and restorative platform and stay aloof from dirty tricks. Those who incline to vote Democrat but still bite lumps out of the nominees need to consider the extent to which they are merely being useful idiots for Trump.
Trump’s ideology – if such a creature may be discerned at all – is something that nobody with an iota of concern for her fellows wants to maintain in the White House. Voting for the Democratic ticket is, to vast hordes of Americans, a no-brainer.
Elsewhere in the world, questions of who rules are not always so clear-cut. Even in nations where the regime is impervious to criticism, and opposition politicians are locked up and/or murdered, the spirit of fascist Italy lives on: “Il Duce ha sempre ragione” [Mussolini is always right].
Iron rule sometimes rusts, though, and at present there are proliferating outbreaks of unrest in several countries. Social media has proved an invaluable tool for those embarking on campaigns of civil disobedience, both in spreading the word about demonstrations quickly and in recording evidence of police or military brutality in response.
Governmental attempts to shut down these avenues have inevitably followed. But periods of unrest are apt to fizzle out. At least, Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus and Carrie Lam of Hong Kong and Prayut Chan-o-cha in Thailand will hope so (if they’re still in office when you read this).
Of the alternatives, it’s what? – settling for electoral challengers whether or not they come up to your own high-minded expectations, or armed insurrection?
There may be sound intellectual arguments in favour of the latter course, but to characterise it as perilous would be to understate its implications laughably. What’s more, a global pandemic may not be the most helpful background to such a drastic endeavour.
If storming the Winter Palace has become more hazardous than it used to be, a programme systematically to disrupt the circumstances of the masters of international capital one-by-one might be more profitable.
Given that these people are in reality far more powerful than any dictator – and really, that the President of the United States is still described as “the most powerful man in the world” is now a feeble joke – such a programme might be thought by some to do more for democracy (and certainly more for climate change) than the election of any number of well-intentioned politicians.
Britain made its contribution to the Black Lives Matter expressions of citizens’ outrage and continues to host disruptions of traffic organised by Extinction Rebellion, but there’s little sense here that the state is threatened. This doubtless speaks to insufficient radical zeal among people living in a mild climate.
If not at the Trump level, these islands have certainly been governed by some divisive leaders, about whom history will be mindlessly partisan if it neglects to record that they were deeply loathed by quite substantial numbers of citizens. I am thinking especially of Lloyd George, Churchill, Thatcher and Blair. To join this group, Boris Johnson may need to go to war.
It’s interesting that, if opinion polling is to be credited at all (and I rarely think so), Trump has suffered a much greater drop in support than Johnson, though both of them have been widely denounced as hopelessly incapable of finding credible responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Furthermore, Johnson’s government has been found wanting across a range of policies and (particularly) the handling of unforeseen events, and indeed foreseeable ones such as school examinations and term reopenings.
Yet the Tory government maintains a decisive lead in these polls over the Labour opposition. As the leader, Sir Keir Starmer, is supposedly held in some esteem by polled voters, his reported failure to cut through against Johnson’s erratic bumbling must say something deeper about the political climate in Britain.
A commentator on a Facebook page about polling that I manage characterised Starmer’s approach as “promise nothing, say nothing, and hope the Tories wreck so many lives that nobody will vote for them”. Masterful inactivity is usually more effective in theory than in practice.
My own view may perhaps be shared more widely than I imagine. While I would have no hesitation in voting for Biden and Harris in the US, I see little prospect of my voting for a Labour party led by Starmer.
This is because the Democrats, though certainly not likely to seek all the societal change I would wish, would be sufficiently distinct from what has pertained over the last four years to make the decision simple. But Starmer can be seen to be determinedly turning his party into the shell of New Labour that Tony Blair left in 2007 and that David Cameron assumed in 2010.
I ask myself: would I prefer a Tory government that I am expected to oppose or a Tory government that I am expected to support? That’s a no-brainer too. I might even find myself voting for the Conservatives, just for the perversity.