Letter from America


In this Thursday Newsletter from Jewish Currents in the States, emailed to supporters of the magazine, David Klion assesses the significance of the selection of Kamala Harris as Biden’s running mate.

Without any illusions about the limitations of this choice from a progressive perspective, Klion is nonetheless optimistic:

“What all of this suggests is that a generational changing of the guard is coming at the congressional level, whether the Democratic Party’s traditional donors and operatives like it or not. Biden and Harris may not be the ideal vessels for that insurgency, but as long as it keeps growing, they will have a hard time ignoring it.”


Dear Readers,

What should the left make of the selection of Kamala Harris as Joe Biden’s running mate?

To start with, Harris’s status as a historic first—the first Black woman and first Asian American on a major party ticket—is not something to be dismissed. Some on the left have taken a skeptical view of “identity politics,” but the Biden campaign deserves credit for its unapologetic desire to run a ticket that is representative of the Democratic Party’s, and the nation’s, diversity. Introducing Harris at their first joint event yesterday, Biden spoke of the “little Black and brown girls, who so often feel overlooked and undervalued in their communities, but today, just maybe, they’re seeing themselves for the first time in a new way, as the stuff of presidents and vice presidents.” There are limits to this sort of appeal—most people of whatever background will never get to be presidents or vice presidents, and it’s hard to measure the material impact of historic firsts—but at the same time, there’s no doubt that Harris’s selection will impact millions of ordinary people’s self-conception in lasting ways. The immediate racist birther backlash against Harris is a clear signal, if any was needed, that issues of representation remain highly salient.

Harris certainly has an interesting story—she is more than two decades younger than Biden, the daughter of a Marxist economist from Jamaica and a cancer researcher and civil rights activist from India, and a product of hyper-progressive Oakland and Berkeley and of historically Black Howard University. Her husband, would-be Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, is Jewish, which deserves exactly one sentence of perfunctory acknowledgement. Moving on!

As far as her own ideological leanings, Harris is not the olive branch to the left some of us might have hoped for, but she was far from the worst option available to Biden. She is not a socialist like Bernie Sanders or a progressive stalwart like Elizabeth Warren, but she is also not an avowed centrist like Amy Klobuchar or a nakedly cynical opportunist like Pete Buttigieg. If she isn’t necessarily meant as a concession to Sanders supporters, she certainly isn’t meant to appeal to the much-mythologized “Trump Country.” Her selection seems to be aimed, rather, at exciting the Democratic base, which suggests that a Biden administration intends to be more liberal than centrist. Given Biden’s advanced age and low-energy campaign, and the unusually high likelihood that he may only serve one term, Harris is also very likely being positioned to lead the party for years to come.

Her record is the record of a liberal establishment Democrat. As a senator, she represents California, which is ahead of the national curve on many policy fronts. Unlike Biden, she at least nominally supports Medicare for All, to the point of having co-sponsored Sanders’s M4A bill in the Senate, although as a presidential candidate she proposed a less radical plan. She has also collaborated with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Green New Deal legislation.

The major reservation many progressives have with Harris concerns her record as San Francisco’s district attorney and California’s attorney general from 2004–2015, a period during which she marketed herself as a “progressive prosecutor” but drew controversy for enforcing tough truancy laws, among other policies that were unjust at the time and look even worse in light of this summer’s nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. Harris entered politics at a time when tough-on-crime policies were still in demand even in very liberal states, and when serving as a prosecutor was considered more of an asset than a liability for Democratic politicians. Thanks to the dogged efforts of racial justice and criminal justice reform advocates, attitudes have changed, and Harris seems to recognize the need to keep pace with a shifting electorate. She is not a radical—she doesn’t want to defund the police—but she understands which way the winds are blowing.

The most hopeful thing I can say about Harris is that she has a tendency to act as a weather vane for the Democratic Party mainstream, which is inching its way leftward. Given that Biden won the primaries, a running mate who is at least sensitive to grassroots pressure may be the best those of us who preferred a more left-leaning nominee could have reasonably hoped for. This is not to say Harris is a secret leftist—although the Trump campaign is already running ads suggesting that she is—but it is to say that if leftists keep agitating and protesting and winning primaries, she might feel compelled to respond.

Speaking of primaries, they continue to deliver encouraging omens to progressives. On August 4th, BLM activist Cori Bush unseated a Democratic establishment dynasty in St. Louis, while Rashida Tlaib beat back a well-funded primary challenge in Detroit by more than 30 points. This past Tuesday, Tlaib’s fellow “Squad” member Ilhan Omar similarly fended off a corporate consultant-advised primary challenge in Minneapolis by more than 15 points—just as the most famous Squad member, Ocasio-Cortez, easily won her own primary in June. All of this comes on the heels of Jamaal Bowman’s dramatic upset against the Israel Lobby-backed incumbent Eliot Engel in New York last month. As Jewish Currents Assistant Editor Joshua Leifer noted on Twitter, “Hawkish, pro-Israeli government groups have spent many millions of dollars in campaigns against progressives like Omar this primary season. In basically every race, that money has won nothing.”

The implications of these victories stretch far beyond Israel. In some of the bluest cities and states in the country, progressive candidates supported by millennials and grassroots small donors continue to beat the corporate-backed establishment favorites. In Massachusetts, progressive incumbent Sen. Ed Markey, a co-author of the Green New Deal, is now surging against a formidable establishment-backed primary challenge by a Kennedy scion. Despite being 74 to Joe Kennedy’s 39, Markey is drawing 71% support among voters under 30, a clear sign that millennials and zoomers prioritize his leadership on climate policy.

What all of this suggests is that a generational changing of the guard is coming at the congressional level, whether the Democratic Party’s traditional donors and operatives like it or not. Biden and Harris may not be the ideal vessels for that insurgency, but as long as it keeps growing, they will have a hard time ignoring it.

David Klion

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Comments (5)

  • MIke Cushman says:

    What Klion does not mention is Harris’s extremist views on supporting Israel. She even rejects conditionality on US arms assistance to Israel.

    As the Israeli news site Ynetnews puts it:

    The California senator has often come out in defense of Israel, opposed conditioning aid on change in West Bank policy; Democratic vice presidential hopeful, who has Jewish husband, has also been vocal on her belief in Israel’s right to defend itself

    Senator Kamala Harris, named on Tuesday as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s running mate, is considered a friend of Israel, who on many occasions during her time in Washington had emphasized the need for support for bipartisan support for the country.

    Like Biden, she has often come out in defense of Israel and had opposed conditioning aid to Israel on a change in policy in the West Bank

  • Jaye says:

    Mike come on … Harris’s “extremist” views such as “belief in Israel’s right to defend itself”. So you think otherwise, and she’s the extremist?

  • Richard squince says:

    More sobering account of her by Nevada media US columnist Nomiski https://youtu.be/13Gg9my1EfU

  • Stephen Williams says:

    My impression is that the writer is grasping at straws. I see Kamala Harris as neither a friend of the Afro-American community who continue to struggle to survive within a blatantly-racist “justice” system in which she operated cheerfully. Nor of Palestinians who will in all probability be thrown under the bus. As usual.
    The fact that Trump is likely to bite the dust shouldn’t hide the fact that corporate Democrats have proved themselves incapable of achieving real change. Even with Obama.

  • DJ says:

    “Israel’s right to defend itself” is a sham. Every act of aggression by this colonial settler state is justified by this empty slogan.There is nothing “defensive” about disproportionate attacks on besieged Gaza or the military occupation of the West Bank. Israel is armed to the teeth by the West. What about the right of the Palestinians to defend themselves? Don’t they have the right to fight against their oppression?How would you feel if somebody stole your land, your home and your livelihood. When our Government supplies arms to Israel it is “defending” apartheid. When JCB supplies bulldozers to demolish Palestinian homes, is this what we mean by defending Israel?I find 72 years of Israeli oppression of Palestinians pretty “extreme”.

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