Kamala Harris Is Joe Biden’s VP Pick, Despite Everything

Micah Uetricht
Meagan Day

Joe Biden’s choice of running mate Kamala Harris reveals a bleak truth: nothing the Left has done, from two Bernie Sanders campaigns to the biggest uprising in US history against police brutality, influenced his thinking at all. Big-money donors, on the other hand, did.

Former vice president Joe Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, deliver remarks on August 12, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Contributors
Micah Uetricht (MU)
Meagan Day (MD)

Despite everything that’s happened in American politics in recent years, the 2020 Democratic ticket is Biden-Harris. For the Jacobin podcast The Vast Majority, staffers Micah Uetricht and Meagan Day discussed their unexpected feelings of despair at this fact.

You can listen to The Vast Majority by subscribing to Jacobin Radio here, and listen to this episode here. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


MD

Micah, how are you taking the news that Kamala Harris is Biden’s vice presidential pick?

MU

These past few months have been dark, so this news is a nice pick-me-up.

MD

Things are finally turning in our favor.

MU

The literal opposite of what I just said is true about my feelings about Kamala Harris as the VP pick.

MD

Thank you for clarifying.

MU

Harris has a pretty bleak record from a leftist perspective. Let’s start there before we talk about her nomination and what it means.

MD

I think that it’s important to begin by establishing that she was not a progressive prosecutor. The whole idea of a progressive prosecutor is something that comes after Black Lives Matter in 2014–15. Before then, certainly, some prosecutors were more progressive than others. But the idea that there was going to be a movement of progressive prosecutors is a more recent phenomenon, exemplified by people like Larry Krasner and Chesa Boudin. So when Kamala Harris talks about herself as a progressive prosecutor, she’s rewriting history.

MU

That was the headline of a New York Times op-ed last year: “Kamala Harris Was Not a ‘Progressive Prosecutor.

MD

That article helped bust the myth, and I think it really compromised her presidential campaign. It contained information such as, for example, that she fought very hard to keep innocent people in jail. When she was presented with evidence that people were innocent or probably innocent, she frequently saw it as her mandate to fight as hard as she could to make sure they stayed behind bars. She fought against ending the death penalty. She was opposed to the legalization of marijuana and reclassifying various felonies to misdemeanors.

When I say that the idea that she was a progressive prosecutor is a myth, that doesn’t mean that she didn’t occasionally do progressive things as a prosecutor. But fundamentally she was actually a tough-on-crime, law-and-order–style prosecutor.

MU

Our staff writer Branko Marcetic has a very long piece in Jacobin, from when the rumors about her first running for president started, that goes through her entire career. He doesn’t say that she has never done a good or progressive thing in her entire political career. His basic argument is that for every progressive accomplishment she has, there are reactionary ones to pair it with — often directly undercutting the progressive thing that she had done not long in the past.

Here is somebody who’s willing to move in a reactionary direction whenever she thinks that the dictates of an election or reelection might require it.

MD

She’s a political player who’s keenly aware that it’s important to keep key constituencies happy and is triangulating constantly to do that. Those constituencies would include, for example, police unions or the Catholic Church. There was a horrifying story reported in the Intercept about how she ceased the investigation and prosecution of church sexual abuse, which had been underway prior to her assuming office as the district attorney in San Francisco. The speculation is that this was a political maneuver on her part.

From Branko’s most recent article about Harris:

She fought to keep innocent people in jail, blocked payouts to the wrongfully convicted, argued for keeping non-violent offenders in jail as a source of cheap labor, withheld evidence that could have freed numerous prisoners, tried to dismiss a suit to end solitary confinement in California, and denied gender reassignment surgery to trans inmates. A recent report detailed how Harris risked being held in contempt of court for resisting a court order to release non-violent prisoners, which one law professor compared to Southern resistance to 1950s desegregation orders.

So no, Kamala Harris was not a progressive prosecutor.

MU

And all of that’s just on the prosecutorial front. The New York Times published an article about Harris being chosen; the first sentence of the second paragraph reads, “Wall Street is happy about the signal it sends.”

MD

Let’s talk about that, because that’s really key to understanding why we’re in the situation that we’re in right now.

First, I think I speak for both of us when I say that whoever Joe Biden picked as VP, this was not going to make an enormous impact on the course of Biden’s tenure. It’s not like we had high hopes and those hopes were dashed. It was always going to be pretty mediocre, and we were always going to have to pressure the administration to get anything done.

But as for why it was Kamala Harris, I think the answer to this question is found in what has happened since the announcement. In twenty-four hours, Joe Biden’s campaign raised $26 million. I feel pretty confident that this is not mostly small-dollar donations from very enthusiastic supporters of Kamala Harris — though, to be clear, she has extremely enthusiastic supporters, and we’ll get to that later.

Whatever ordinary people threw in, I suspect it didn’t match the money thrown in by billionaires. Observe this CNBC article: “Wall Street executives are glad Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris to be his VP running mate.”

In it, the national finance chairman of her presidential campaign, Jon Henes, who also happens to be a partner at a corporate restructuring firm called Kirkland & Ellis, is quoted as saying that Harris’s supporters — big donors — “are ready to give Democrats the backing they need to defeat Trump. ‘Vice President Biden’s first decision is the perfect one and demonstrates his excellent judgement,’ Henes said. ‘Kamala’s supporters will follow her lead and work non-stop to help Biden and Harris win this historic and critical election.’”

This is the finance chairman of her presidential campaign. He’s the one who knows all the rich people who donated to Kamala Harris. He’s letting on here that they were leveraging billionaire donations to compel Biden to choose Harris. And now that that’s happened, they have the green light, and the billionaire money is rolling it.

That is why Biden chose Harris at the end of the day. People are talking about geographical this, and race and gender that. Those factors play some role, but ultimately she has one of the fattest Rolodexes of top-dollar donors in American politics. I mean, her entire presidential campaign was just basically being on a phone with the richest people in the richest state in the richest country in the history of the world. She’s got the backing of California old money, Hollywood film and entertainment, Silicon Valley. These people came with her. It was a package deal.

MU

And it’s not like Wall Street wasn’t giving Biden money before this. A few days before the VP announcement, the New York Times published an article that’s actually kind of a sad read: “The Wallets of Wall Street Are With Joe Biden, if Not the Hearts.”

MD

Oh god. Not even Wall Street can muster the enthusiasm for Joe Biden.

MU

For Joe Biden, who as Branko makes very clear in his book on Biden, Yesterday’s Man, is a steadfast supporter of Wall Street.

MD

He’s their guy!

MU

But despite him being their guy, the article starts with a sad anecdote about how these Wall Street people are showing up to these fundraisers for Biden and the staffers ask them, “if they wanted to sign up for pictures with the candidate. More than a few of the bankers and private equity investors politely declined, opting to mingle over glasses of wine instead.”

MD

That’s brutal.

MU

But they were still showing up to fork over the money to him. And apparently his campaign said to them that he was only going to do in-person events where they fork over serious money: “The giving has been so robust that the Biden campaign is now asking for at least $1 million in donations before it will confirm the former vice president’s attendance at an event, say bundlers.”

So even if they were a little cold to Grandpa Joe, they were with him. But now they’re all aboard the Biden-Harris train. Because clearly Harris is the signal they want that there’s not going to be a significant curtailing of their power and wealth.

MD

This is actually in that CNBC article, too. There’s this man named Charles Myers, who is the founder of Signum and former vice chair of Evercore, which are finance companies that sound evil to me. This man told CNBC that the choice “eased the nerves” of his clients, “who were questioning whether Biden would stay in the moderate lane. ‘Our clients really wanted to know if Biden was going to stay in the center, and his pick of Harris reinforces that,’ he said on Tuesday.”

MU

As you said, I didn’t have high hopes. But still, I was kind of surprised at my own reaction. It was not disappointment, more like despair at what this means about the Democratic Party. Because this was a choice that was made after everything that’s happened in the last few years in American politics.

This comes after Bernie running two very credible and serious presidential campaigns, during which he became a major player in American politics and made possible a real political alternative to the kind of neoliberal centrism that Biden has been at the forefront of his entire political career. People like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar have been elected, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and DSA-adjacent people are getting elected all around the country in small but important numbers.

All of that happens, and yet they choose Biden to be the one to coalesce around to defeat Bernie in the 2020 campaign. So that’s depressing enough. But you’re still thinking, maybe they’ll throw us a bone somewhere. But that doesn’t seem to be happening in the policy and platform discussions leading up to the Democratic National Convention.

And then we have the most massive protest movement in the history of the United States in the form of the racial justice protests that came after George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer. You would think that would factor into their decision-making. You would think that the cop would not get the VP slot. Yet here we are.

You and I wrote a book that talks in detail about what the problems are with this Democratic Party that we’re stuck with, that it’s not a left-wing party, it’s not a working-class party. But it’s still surprising when the party does not respond at all to any inputs of any kind — no matter the historic left-wing campaigning, no matter the millions of people in the streets, none of it. That’s a pretty bleak political situation.

MD

Like you, I was not really invested in this whole VP pick process, and then I was kind of surprised by my reaction to it being Kamala Harris in this moment. I mean, in 2015, on the heels of the first Black Lives Matter protests, she opposed a bill requiring her office to investigate shootings by police officers. This was after Ferguson. She was digging in her heels all the way up to her final days as California attorney general.

Additionally, it should be clear to anyone who pays attention to politics that Bernie Sanders’s base does not like Kamala Harris. This is just a basic observation that you can get from looking at the Internet, but also polling during the primary, everything. It’s obvious. So we just had a primary contest in which Bernie nearly walked away with the nomination, but the Democratic Party just doesn’t seem to be interested in keeping this constituency happy.

The choice of Kamala Harris shows that neither the Bernie movement nor the Black Lives Matter movement are factoring very much into the Democratic Party calculus. This means a couple of things. First, I think it’s partly a reflection on us. We want to be able to make a dent. Not because we think that we can appeal to the hearts and minds of Democratic Party top brass but because we understand that they’re opportunists, and we would like for them to see some opportunities in placating us. That would be a sign of our power. And because that’s not happening right now, we have to interpret that as a sign of our weakness.

We need to ruminate over that. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to go back to the drawing board. Maybe we in fact need to press harder on some things that we feel are working best for us overall. But in any case, I don’t think that we can just chalk it up to the Democratic Party’s flaws. We know they’re terrible. We also need to look in the mirror a bit.

The second thing, however, is that it’s also true that there are a lot of us. There are a lot of people in this country who want to pursue a robust social-democratic political program, who want true transformational economic and social change. There are a lot of people who voted for Bernie, and a lot of people in the streets. So the Democratic Party establishment is no doubt being a bit obtuse by not trying to placate us, which might actually help us in the long run.

Whether it does or not is in some ways up to us. It’s not going to be automatic. We have to develop a strategy in order to take advantage of their obtuseness. But it seems to me that, our own failings aside, they also have pretty thick skulls, and we should try to use that to our advantage.

MU

The Democrats are heightening their own contradictions.

MD

So if you take all of what I said together, it’s an exhortation for us to develop a better strategy, and to factor in their recalcitrance, and their blindness to the political phenomena around them, as an important piece of that strategy.

MU

That’s all long term, but the question is: What do we do right now? I feel like they’re goading us. I feel like they’re rubbing our faces in it. It feels as though they’re doing a little victory dance over our crumpled bodies, like, “You tried a whole range of strategies: you tried to go the electoral route, you got millions of people in the street, and guess what? We don’t give a shit about it. We’re going to just do whatever the hell we want.”

I would like to see Trump lose, obviously. But I would also like to have a shred of dignity. And when people rub my face in shit, I would like to say, “Fuck you.”

MD

As for what we do in the short term, I’m going to continue saying out loud that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are representative of the Democratic Party’s embrace of neoliberal, pro-corporate politics that have actually enabled the rise of a completely out-of-pocket, reactionary Right. These two things rise in tandem, and therefore I’m not obligated because of Donald Trump to refrain from criticizing Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and the Democratic Party establishment.

MU

Well, you say that now, Meagan, but I think there’s one thing that you’re not taking into consideration, which is that this choice means the return of the KHive.

MD

That’s true. I forgot that if you tell the truth, the KHive will firebomb your house.

MU

We recently interviewed historian Matt Karp, and we asked him about the Wide Awakes, which were this paramilitary-like formation that were associated with Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party. The KHive in the twenty-first century are like the digital Wide Awakes.

MD

In terms of their incredible militancy, absolutely. This is clear to anyone who’s even glanced at political Twitter in the last six to eight months. All of the stuff about Bernie bros being deranged harassers — sure, when millions of people are passionate about something as high-stakes as politics and have Internet access, you’re going to find bad behavior. But I genuinely think that KHive is a better embodiment of what people say about Bernie bros, but doubled in intensity and completely given a pass by the media.

Did you see those two headlines side by side from that writer at the Daily Beast, Scott Bixby? One was from a while back about how Bernie bros are toxic and are harassing everyone into submission, and the other is recent and about how Kamala Harris has built a very enthusiastic digital army, and now she gets to use it to defeat Trump, you know, thumbs up.

So when you try to tell the truth about Kamala Harris, you’re going to face pushback from some regular concerned liberals who are worried that you’re actually feeding into Trump’s agenda. You’re also going to face some really intense — I hesitate to use the word “harassment” because that’s tossed around so casually these days — but I have seen some stuff that does rise to that level, from Harris supporters.

In 2008 a lot of Hillary Clinton’s primary voters voted for John McCain. Those people had a little acronym for themselves: PUMA, which stood for “Party Unity My Ass.” It was the kind of dynamic that you’re observing now with Bernie-or-bust, but larger and driven by the conservative elements of the Democratic Party electorate. The reason I’m saying this is because the KHive is the new face of this strain in the Democratic Party that’s very conservative, but also very enthusiastic about identity politics. There’s a through line from PUMA to Khive, and in many cases they’re actually the exact same people.

MU

I just pulled up that article about the KHive you’re talking about. It’s called “Kamala Harris Built a ‘Digital Army’ — Now She Gets to Use It.” And the graphic is an illustration of her face, and then there are these like beams of light shooting out in a circle, like the sun. It’s a GIF, and the beams light up in a counterclockwise motion over and over. And the Daily Beast has these little tags that they have affixed to articles, and the tag affixed to this one says, “No choice but to stan.” No choice but to stan the digital paramilitaries.

MD

And if you violate these orders, you will face dire consequences.

MU

It seems like the lesson to take from this is to realize that this is a basic tactic of political warfare in the twenty-first century.

MD

We’re going to be stuck with the KHive for a while yet. The militant centrists predate Kamala Harris’s rise, and they will be with us so long as these contradictions in the Democratic Party remain unresolved, which they will as long as the party contains constituencies with diametrically opposed political programs within it. The Democratic Party is a cross-class coalition, which means it will be riven with conflict for the foreseeable future.

We do have to tune them out and understand that this is part of the package. This is just going to be a part of the political landscape, and probably manifest in a culture of fandom around Kamala Harris, for a long time to come. Because in reality, Kamala Harris is here to stay. She’s probably going to be our president.

MU

It’s not even clear that Biden will be able to make it through the end of the first term, much less run for a second one. So obviously she’s being set up to run in 2024. And of course, I want her and Biden to beat Trump, but we need to be laying the groundwork to win the argument in the 2024 Democratic Party primary that Kamala Harris should not be our president.

MD

I think it’s possible that she will be with us for twelve years, vice president for four years and then president for eight years. And that we will have over a decade of Kamala Harris, bearing in mind that Joe Biden is basically incapacitated, and Harris is going to assume a much more visible role in his administration than he did in the Obama administration. She’s the more charismatic person in that duo. Once again, Joe is overshadowed.

MU

She might be more competent than him as a politician and administrator. Kamala Harris could be his Dick Cheney.

MD

Actually, if you looked at some of the reporting that was coming out during the VP pick process, some people who were close to Biden were actually concerned about the level of Machiavellian scheming that Kamala Harris has demonstrated herself to be capable of. Not necessarily competently — I mean, obviously her presidential campaign was a disaster — but it’s clear that she’s a striver and a climber, that her ambition is enormous. And some people close to Biden were saying that she could hijack his administration, and he would be almost powerless to do anything about it because he appears to be in cognitive decline. That’s important to take note of, because now it has transpired that she’s his running mate, and I think that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are going to the White House.

MU

Well, it’s a rosy picture for the future of American politics, especially when you factor in a world-historic pandemic and economic collapse.

MD

Things are really looking up.

MU

At least we’re on this journey together.