Kamala Harris and our shameless politics
Vice President Kamala Harris’s poor polling performance has Democrats worried about their midterm strategy, The Hill’s Hanna Trudo and Amie Parnes report. The vice president has long struggled against the perception that she is inauthentic and lacking in honesty and integrity, a perception that’s hinted at in the most recent survey data. As political scientist Charles Lipson wrote last week, “Polls show [Harris] is personally unpopular, and the approval numbers keep dropping as voters see more of her.”
Understanding Harris’s path to her current post sheds light on the reasons for her unpopularity. Even among politicians, not exactly known for their honesty and integrity, Harris appears to be uniquely unscrupulous.
Although it’s an oversimplification, there are at least two types of politicians: the true believers and the power-lusters. In the former category, we might include Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and the Squad on the left and former Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.) on the right. Whatever one thinks of the true believers’ substantive positions, you can feel their sincerity, the earnest hope that good-faith debate and public service can make our government – and, with it, our society – better.
Kamala Harris may be one of the best modern examples of the power-luster — the political careerist who loves power for its own sake, whose ultimate goal is to climb as high as possible. Americans, at least those not completely brainwashed by partisan team affiliation, know the power-luster well, the politician who will say or do almost anything to stay in power.
Harris’s prosecutor past is well-known, particularly among Black Americans. As Camille Squires observed in Mother Jones, many of the best and earliest critical reevaluations of Harris emerged from “Black communities, in particular Black women.” But throughout both her presidential campaign and her time running as Biden’s running mate, Harris refused to take responsibility for what happened to Californians trapped in broken criminal justice and prison systems on her watch.
Harris’s response was to call concerns “overblown,” digging in her heels and playing the part of the pragmatic problem-solver who couldn’t afford to be a naive idealist. Many of the country’s most prestigious sources of news and opinion gave her an easy pass, dismissing these concerns with some version of “But she had a really tough job.”
Attorney General Harris presided over a system that disproportionately targeted Black Californians with extremely harsh prison sentences and arguably used coercive plea bargain tools to deny them their constitutional rights. Perhaps most infamously, Harris resisted the constitutionally necessary release of thousands of California prisoners convicted of nonviolent offenses.
In 2011, the Supreme Court, with Justice Kennedy writing for a 5-4 majority, concluded that the “medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons falls below the standard of decency that inheres in the Eighth Amendment.” Noting that “[p]risoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons,” the Court affirmed the lower court’s decision, ordering California to depopulate its prisons to deliver livable conditions and adequate medical and mental health care to their inhabitants. Evidence presented in the case showed squalid living conditions and “exceptional” overcrowding resulting in “grossly inadequate provision of medical and mental health care.”
Beyond the facts of the case, Harris’s actions struck a serious blow to the rule of law in the country: As the attorney general of the nation’s most populous and arguably most powerful state, Harris openly and obstinately defied an order from the highest court in the land. As attorney general, Harris’s response to the Court’s decision was to do everything possible (up to and including the presentation of “obstructionist, bad-faith, and nonsensical” arguments in court) to avoid complying with the order.
So ridiculous were Harris’s arguments that the district court nearly held the state in contempt. Some legal experts have even argued that she could have violated her ethical obligations as a member of the bar. It would be bad enough if a kind of benign neglect of ongoing rights violations were the best we could hope for from politicians. But Harris actively sought the perpetuation of the mistreatment at issue in the case.
Still, in a way we can’t really blame Harris. She wanted to be president, and she may someday get her wish. We must blame both ourselves as citizens and a host of political journalists who would rather heap praise on the powerful than subject them to meaningful scrutiny.
For people like Harris, all that seems to matter is knowing which way the wind is blowing and understanding which voters you may be able to win on Election Day. Journalists, though, are supposed to care more about the truth and speaking it to power. Indeed, many of the writers and pundits who took it easy on Harris were the very same people who (quite appropriately, it should be noted) spent the Trump years loudly lecturing on the importance of truth, our shared reality and holding people in positions of power to account.
It is, of course, great to see women of color in positions of power, but only to the extent that they undermine tiered hierarchies of power like racism. One doesn’t challenge such entrenched hierarchies merely by ascending to the highest tiers of power, by becoming a prioritized beneficiary of the system of power.
Our sickness is one of the soul — our obsession with power and our adulation of those in power. Of that sickness, Harris is only a small symptom. But if we can recognize it for what it is, then we can get back to electing honest people with a good-faith desire to serve.
David S. D’Amato is an attorney and a policy adviser to the Future of Freedom Foundation and the Heartland Institute.