Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Identity Politics and Kamala Harris - Howard J. Warner

by Howard J. Warner

Kamala Harris is trying to separate herself from the many other potential presidential candidates.

The fight for the 2020 presidential nomination is underway within the Democratic Party. Several personalities are vying to position themselves as far to the left as practical to garner adequate attention and support among the activists and power-brokers. Among the senators, Kamala Harris has found a unique approach to the internal debate.

Harris is the daughter of Shyamala Gopalan Harris (1938-2009), an immigrant from India, and Donald Harris, an immigrant from Jamaica. Her mother was a breast cancer researcher and her father an economics professor at Stanford University. They met while at graduate school in California and divorced when Kamala was seven years old. After the breakup, Kamala moved with her mother and sister Maya, an MSNBC political analyst, to Quebec, Canada, where her mother took positions at the Jewish Hospital and McGill University.

Kamala attended Howard University and received her law degree at the University of California in 1989. Since 1990, after her admission to the California Bar, she has held government legal or political positions almost continuously. With little private-sector experience, she is the prototypical Democratic politician, without the taint of the private sector. Her rise within the party has been meteoritic. As a woman of minority heritage, she will be hard to counterbalance by other contenders. She has positioned herself as an anti-Trump leader who often speaks, quite eloquently and moderately, on social issues as a protector of freedom and decency.

Her record demonstrates a keen use of rhetoric and a decidedly leftist tilt. Last week at the progressive Netroots Nation meeting, she attacked opponents of "identity politics." Harris told the progressive gathering:
"I have a problem, guys, with that phrase, 'identity politics,' because let's be clear, when people say that, it's a pejorative. That phrase is used to divide, and it is used to distract. Its purpose is to minimize and marginalize issues that impact all of us. It is used to try and shut us up." Harris said Democrats "won't be shut up, and we won't be silenced[.] ... These issues that they're trying to diminish and demean," she added, "are the very issues that will define our identity as Americans."

Identity politics comprises political positions based on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify. Identity politics includes the ways in which people's politics is shaped by aspects of their identity through loosely correlated social organizations.

One aim of identity politics has been for those feeling oppressed to articulate their oppression in terms of their own experience by a process of consciousness-raising. Inherent in this approach to politics is the Marxist conception that the power struggle must be uprooted in favor of the oppressed. The irony in Harris's statement is that she has justified identity politics by claiming that it is the basis of American society.

Harris goes on to give a direct example of how a group identity was instrumental in securing a Democrat victory:
"We've all heard how critical black women were to Doug Jones' victory," she said of Democrats' success in the Alabama Senate race. "But that didn't just magically happen. It happened because black women have been putting in the work, going door to door, organizing even when the cameras were focused elsewhere."
She further claimed their status as a depressed minority group:
Noting that black women are far more likely than white women to die of pregnancy-related causes, Harris said, "It's time to respect [black women's] leadership. It's time we addressed the issues that they uniquely face."
Kamala Harris has demonstrated a facility with speech few in public office possess. She has attacked and deflected her behavior to condemn those pointing out that very behavior. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, helped Adolf Hitler type Mein Kampf (1925), where, in "War Propaganda," Hitler wrote, "If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself." (This quote is often incorrectly credited to Goebbels.) Clearly, Kamala has come to believe her own statement.

There is another rationale for her statement. Within the Democratic Party, there is a fight between competing approaches to messaging. Though most of the leadership tends toward statist or socialist policies, stealth has been instrumental to Democrat electoral victories. Barack Obama planned to "fundamentally change" America, but he used the language of a more moderate intention. Recently, Obama did not endorse Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is running as a Democratic Socialist, which removes the veil. Obama may eventually support the rising star, but for now, he has not done so.

Kamala Harris is trying to separate herself from the many other potential presidential candidates. She is also demonstrating her ability to argue against members of her party who want to appeal to a broader base and attract traditional working-class voters back to the fold from Trump's conservative nationalist platform. She has learned from Obama a winning strategy that she hopes to ride to victory in two years.

Howard J. Warner


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