Politics Is Not a Comic Book

Politics Features Kamala Harris
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Politics Is Not a Comic Book

Lauren Duca, who made her name writing thoughtful political essays for Teen Vogue and ably defending herself from Tucker Carlson’s smirking broadsides on Fox News, tweeted this yesterday:

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She later deleted the tweet for reasons that aren’t clear—maybe she regretted it, or maybe she was just sick of the leftist backlash filling up her feed—but deleted or not, the tweet is instructive of a certain kind of mentality in American politics that has become increasingly prevalent on the liberal left. It’s certainly not new, but the persistence of the worldview, and the fact that it’s clearly going to become a dominant motif of the 2020 campaign, is particularly dispiriting. In short, there’s a significant chunk of the electorate that takes a “comic book” view of the American political scene, and sees our central narrative as a conflict between villains (Trump) and superheroes (anyone who fits the bill on a given day, with little to no vetting required).

This is not to say that Trump isn’t a villain (he is) or that politicians can’t be heroes (they can). It is to say that subscribing to a simplistic Manichean perspective, where heroes and villains are the entire story, is a mental and emotional crutch. It’s a way of ignoring the difficult and pervasive systemic problems that plague our country, which are going to be far more difficult to overhaul than a single bad actor, and will require much more than a presidential election. It’s a way of ignoring the complicity of both parties in the military-industrial complex, along with their failure to take any serious action to stop climate change or reduce the power of Wall St. or represent the forgotten American working class. In a more practical sense, it’s a way of eschewing the candidates who propose sweeping changes to our flawed system in favor of the ones who stick to simpler—and, I think, shallower—themes.

It’s interesting and alarming and finally predictable to watch how quickly former Hillary Clinton supporters have circled the wagons behind Kamala Harris. We’re still a year away from the Iowa caucuses, but the old 2016 battle lines seem to have been re-drawn at great speed, and it looks like we’re in for a protracted battle between Harris and Bernie Sanders. The rules of engagement are the same, the people are basically the same, and the talking points are clear echoes of what we heard the last time. Just as the less attractive and more conservative parts of Hillary Clinton’s record were excused by her supporters (when they weren’t ignored) with “idpol reductionism”—in other words, giving her a free pass because of the difficulty of forging her political career as a woman in an unfriendly atmosphere—so Harris’ supporters are defending her actions as a prosecutor on the basis of gender and race. Examples like this abound:

Terrell Starr has been on the “Bernie Sanders is not a good candidate for black voters” beat both before and after the last election, and the tweet above, despite its promise to “review” her time as prosecutor, is a clear indication that he—and many others like him—are building the framework for the justifications that will excuse her. Like Hillary, she had to do it for identity reasons.

The difficulty in confronting these tactics as a white man is that I'm easily swatted down: I don't understand the unique pressures facing a black female politician (100% true), and therefore it's unfair at best or outright racist at worst to hold Harris' record against her…in which case it's fundamentally impossible to legitimately criticize Harris, making the logic at play a perfect closed circle. It's an easy gambit, but it gets harder when the one doing the criticizing is another person of color, like former Paste contributor and current Intercept writer Briahna Gray, who has brilliantly confronted Harris' prosecutor past and just as brilliantly tackled the broader theme of weaponized identity being deployed against the progressive left. In these cases, the voice is either passively ignored or aggressively erased. Gray herself anticipated these reactions:

If people are defined by their demographic characteristics, they can be reduced to those characteristics in a way that obscures differences within groups. If “identity” becomes synonymous with “perspective,” dissenting members within the identity group risk having their viewpoints erased and their humanity diminished. And when used cynically, as a political weapon, a simplistic view of identity can allow people of a particular political faction to wrongly imply that they speak for all members of their racial or gender group.

The only way to combat this kind of bad faith is to rely on truth, so let's talk about Kamala Harris' record. Lara Bazelon, the former director of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent in Los Angeles, wrote the most comprehensive breakdown of Harris' problematic career as a prosecutor and attorney general in California for the New York Times. Among other complaints, she criticizes Harris for:

—Opposing criminal justice reforms, and actively fighting to uphold wrongful convictions obtained through misconduct in her own office, as well as known evidence tampering and false testimony, to the point that one judge actually “condemned” her.

—Being a very public advocate for prosecuting the parents of truant schoolchildren, a policy that overwhelmingly targets poor people of color. Since Bazelon's article, video has emerged of Harris defending that policy (and laughing about it), and it's a terrible look:

—As attorney general, Harris fought against removing the death penalty, reducing low-level felonies to misdemeanors, and legalizing marijuana (a position that has very recently changed). She also stood against a bill that would compel her to investigate police shootings, and opposed uniform standards for body cameras.

—Most egregious of all, per Bazelon, is Harris' repeat experience fighting against overturning wrongful convictions, even in the face of hard evidence. Bazelon provides four specific examples where Harris refuses to budge in cases of extreme misconduct. In one, it took a Times expose to force her to reverse course.

Meanwhile, when a chance presented itself to prosecute Steven Mnuchin's bank, she refused.

Would Kamala Harris be a bad president, from a progressive viewpoint? Maybe not. She has recently come out in support of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez's Green New Deal and she supports Medicare for All. People can change. But we don't know. That's a point important enough that it bears repeating—we don't know. We can only judge by her record, and if you support her tactics in her political life to date, that's fine, but a huge majority of progressive voters will not.

Harris' “toughness” may appeal for the comic book liberal, but for those who look beyond the shallow image, hers is a record of enforcing a criminal justice system that oppresses Americans, particularly if they're poor Americans of color. Her good intentions don't matter, because there are other candidates with good intentions who have walked the walk for decades.

Her response to the rumbles of discontent is telling:

This is a meaningless platitude masquerading as a profound statement of character. It is a comic book response. Who cares what your parents did, when your own record is so abysmal? In certain lights, Harris’ conduct as prosecutor and AG looks even worse when you consider that background.

We don’t live in the pages of a comic book. Super heroes are not real. The fight to reform the system will be long and arduous, much of it will happen at the grassroots, and the best president for that movement is a president who has never been a tool for the worst aspects of that system. If you consider yourself progressive or leftist and you find that Kamala Harris appeals to you, you need to ask yourself why. If the honest answer boils down to a superficial yearning for an imagined savior, and if that impulse leads you to ignore the details of her political career—details that really matter—it may be time to open your eyes and step into the real world.