Newly elected to the Senate, Kamala Harris has, not surprisingly, garnered outsize attention as a potential presidential hopeful. She is a high profile presence at Senate hearings. She frequently uses social media to highlight her positions and concerns.
It's not surprising that there's been some negative feedback as well as positive.
What is surprising is both how Harris has shot to the top of these - generally premature - discussions, and how much her presence has ignited rage within the smoldering remains of Bernie Sanders failed campaign for the nomination. In these dog days of the disastrous Trump presidency, Twitter has become the angry outlet for many to rage post their political (and other cultural) hot takes. Stories and memes take off and reverberate at a speed so rapid, the descent into ugliness can be head spinning, outrageous... and yes, frightening. What may well have been intended as a casual effort to pump up Harris' name recognition and presence, has morphed into both a debate how candidates of color are seen and how the left can find consensus at a moment when ending this Trump farce is so paramount.
And all of that is kind of secondary to what prompted me to write this.
I fell into the maelstrom of this partly as contrarian, partly in my own naivete; a somewhat blithe tweet from Harris about economic inequality for black women struck me as a reminder that many Democratic leaders, Harris included, have a challenge in presenting their concerns about an inequality that they themselves don't really live in or experience. Harris has, in fact, enjoyed a fairly comfortable existence since her youth, as the child of two successful university professors, her own largely upbeat political trajectory, and the wealth of her husband, also an attorney.
I've discussed before the tension we're currently under culturally and politically in discussing the lived experience of ourselves and others. It's of a piece with a larger issue around "expertise" and use of statistics that's complicating all sorts of political discussions, especially in this democratized age of discussions via media like Facebook and Twitter. It's not a simple matter, and there aren't a lot of easy answers, though many would like to approach these dilemmas simplistically, and with broad brushed generalizations.
Historically, Americans aren't necessarily excited by wealthy people speaking as if they are one with the common man. The most obvious example against this - Franklin Delano Roosevelt - achieved his levels of support by representing himself as standing up to, and against, members of his own upper crust social class. He was seen, in turn, by other bankers and business leaders, as suspect and untrustworthy because of his stances for workers and people in poverty. And his success as President was likely because he could thread the needle of helping those in need because of his patrician education and political savvy.
There's a long - much longer - list of millionaires and billionaires who have failed as candidates because their wealth left them seen as out of touch with ordinary folks. Mitt Romney is easily a recent failure, but you could include Ross Perot, John Kerry, and others. Americans are leery of the patrician class, those born to great wealth, handed every opportunity, who assert confidently that they know what it is to work an hourly job, struggle to meet expenses, trying to get by on barely enough. In this age of high income inequality - the worst since the Gilded Age - the problem has become more pronounced, the dissonance shrill, and the tension high.
It's also the case that getting elected to statewide office - like Governor or Senator - hasn't had the same hurdles. The Senate has long been (indeed since the founders) an enclave of inherited wealth and privilege. And it's part of why, though many Senators have tried, few have actually jumped the hurdle into the White House. Those who have achieved the goal - Kennedy, Lincoln, Obama - are men who have paired their privileged aspects with emphasis on their points of commonality with the masses. Lincoln as a hard knock success story, Kennedy as the triumph of Irish Catholic immigration, Obama as a mixed race champion for the Rest of Us.
Still, the Obama example is noteworthy given the decimation and hangover of the Housing Crisis he walked into as President. Everything from Occupy Wall Street to that campaign Sanders ran in 2016 stems from feelings, deeply held on the left, that our last President wasn't in fact in tune with the economic problems of the have nots. It is an internal tension driven in part by the strange, bifurcated coalitions both political parties have within - Business owners and less educated white voters on the right, and coalitions of minority groups combined with the educated professional class that make up the left. The "privileged few" live in both parties. And the resentment simmers all around.
It can seem unfair to question Harris, especially this early, for the sense of her personal privilege. But it seems myopic to pretend that examination won't, or shouldn't, occur... as it should occur generally in the conversations about candidates in upcoming elections. It matters because the issues of economic inequality ought to be the one we put paramount in our election choices: affordable housing, quality education for all, decent healthcare, ways out of poverty, and on and on. It matters because Donald Trump skillfully deployed class resentment and rage as his tools to achieve a slim electoral college majority. And it matters because we ought to ask, reasonably, if the long held bias of American voters isn't correct - do members of the educated, patrician class really understand the needs of those who have less?
That questions like this get lumped into the shrill, unpleasant shoutfest around questioning or challenging Harris and candidates of color more generally is understandable, but a shame. There's plenty of unpleasant aspects to the denigration of Harris in recent days - around race, around gender, and the still ugly tactics employed by the Sanders supporting left - but it's not wrong to ask if she's ready for the big leagues, for prime time, for the role as head of our national party. There are fair questions to be asked of her, or anyone else. Those who want to defend Harris (myself included) from unwarranted ugliness, have to leave room for what our politics require, a healthy, sometimes difficult, debate.
"Do something about income inequality" is, and should be, a rallying cry for the organized left. It's fair to ask who is best positioned to do something, anything - but more importantly, the right things - to address inequality and to right what is a devastating set of wrongs currently at play in American life. I'm sure Kamala Harris has a tremendous role to play in this, as do others who come from similarly successful, privileged upbringing and backgrounds. That said, I think this conversation is hopeless if those without wealth and privilege are kept from having their voices heard. These are important questions. Surely some of the most important. The challenge, it seems, is finding the balance, as it ever was. And the music plays on...