How the stars could align for Kamala

A powerful vice presidency plus identitarian priming could be a game-changer.

Hello friends,

This edition of the newsletter has a 4 minute read time:

(1) I offer observations on signposts that Kamala Harris is well-positioned to become a natural successor to Joe Biden.

(2) What I’m reading.

How the stars could align for Kamala

During the transition between the Trump and Biden administrations, I often found my mind skipping ahead to the future. Specifically, how the stars are aligning for Kamala Harris to succeed Joe Biden as the party’s leader should he decline to run for reelection. 

If Democrats perform well on the economy — a very big if — Harris could be well-positioned to renew the image of a creaky Democratic establishment which narrowly won 2020 on the back of anti-Trump sentiment instead of evolving in response to populist energy in the body politic. And a great deal of that renewal could be predicated on an Obama-era value system that substitutes symbolic catharsis for substantive liberation. 

There are both political and cultural factors which could contribute to Harris’s emergence as a powerful player. On the political front, it’s clear that Harris could end up being an exceptionally involved vice president. Since the Carter presidency, vice presidents have been wielding increasing levels of influence in their administrations. Dick Cheney and Joe Biden in particular played tremendously important roles in their respective administrations as vice president.    

Biden not only has first-hand experience with the idea of a veep who has a meaty policy portfolio and plays a critical role in corralling lawmakers for important legislation, he’s also specifically thinking about setting up Harris to take the reins for him, potentially after just one term. Harris’s aides are saying she’ll be “a full governing partner rather than sticking to a limited set of portfolio issues.” This theme will likely be a recurring focus for White House reporters. The more policy successes that Harris owns — or can lay claim to — the more credibility she’ll develop as a successor.

The 50-50 senate composition is also going to give Harris outsized prominence for a vice president. She’s likely to play tie-breaker on some big bills, and will have her imprint on some signature laws in a way that most veeps wouldn’t. 

Then there are the cultural forces. Throughout the transition and up through the inauguration, it’s difficult to overstate how central the theme of diversity has been to the administration’s narrative about itself and liberal media framing of the meaning of the administration. As I wrote for The Intercept, both the Biden administration and the media have played a role in advancing a crude and uneven notion of diversity, but I don’t think my skepticism of their execution is widely held.

Harris specifically has featured front and center in these narratives. With a general consensus that Biden was a bulwark against Trump, much of the mainstream liberal excitement surrounding the historical weight of the transition coalesced around Harris. The fanfare surrounding Harris was so central to the inauguration that some (ridiculous) critics slammed Bernie Sanders’ iconically cantankerous look at the inauguration as a sign of disinterest in a historic moment for women of color. 

There are growing signs that Harris could hold appeal for moderate Democrats in a manner that echoes the way that Obama represented redemption for America’s racial sins for Democrats in ‘08. In her vice president-elect acceptance speech, Harris seemed to embrace that idea: 

And what a testament it is to Joe’s character that he had the audacity to break one of the most substantial barriers that exists in our country and select a woman as his vice president.

But while I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last.

Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.

And to the children of our country, regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they’ve never seen it before.

Note the Obaman use of “audacity” and “dream” and the emphasis on possibility. 

From a left standpoint it’s fascinating to watch the way many liberals seem primed to make the same muddled analytic leaps that they did during the Obama era, confusing symbolic firsts with systemic change. 

In this popular meme, Harris’s candidacy is conceived of as carrying the baton of systemic social change from Civil Rights era champions. It’s reminiscent of popular t-shirts from 2008 depicting Barack Obama alongside Martin Luther King (and sometimes Malcolm X).

These formulations present an incoherent account of the process of racial progress, somehow placing mainstream Democratic politicians with unremarkable to retrograde records on racial justice (consider Obama’s hand in the destruction of Black wealth in the wake of the financial crisis, or Harris making her name as a harsh official within an institution that many consider the darkest legacy of the Jim Crow era) in the same tradition as radical grassroots activists looking to upend the laws, power dynamics, and economies that produce systemic racial domination. The fact that they’re not involved in the same kind of game doesn’t seem to register. And it allows many liberals to retain faith in American meritocracy while feeling that they are participating in extending the work of counterculture and the Civil Rights era.

Now there are, of course, many variables that will shape perception of Harris, and many are not favorable. While she’s got great positioning to make a policy splash and take credit for well-liked policies, she’s also disproportionately vulnerable to being blamed for things that don’t go well. And while we’re witnessing ideological priming for Harris in liberal circles, none of that changes the reality that she will still face sexism and racism on the job and in media scrutiny. If she becomes a major lightning rod for right-wing media (which seems inevitable), I could see some Democrats fearing counter-mobilization efforts against her.

But broadly speaking, the sign posts are interesting. It is now normal to hear Democratic strategists, talking heads and lawmakers talk about how a nominee for a cabinet position “has to be” from X marginalized community; using diverse leadership and symbolic milestones to signal antiracism is becoming a liberal cultural mandate. Establishment Democrats have interpreted and appropriated the 2020 wave of Black Lives Matter protests by focusing on handling antiracism through leadership optics, without absorbing the demands for changing the structural conditions that gave rise to them. All this points to the path through which neoliberal politics may seek to evolve and renew itself even as the neoliberal consensus among the public dissipates.


What I’m reading

On GameStop: James Surowiecki: The meme-stock boom is different from typical speculative bubbles and a “remarkable testament to the internet’s ability to facilitate collective action.” Doug Henwood: The GameStop bubble is a “lesson in the absurdity and uselessness of the stock market.” Yves Smith: “This episode, including the grotesquely disproportionate amount of attention it is getting, is an indictment of American capitalism.”

Biden could force drugmakers to produce approved vaccines.

Political philosopher Charles Mills thinks liberalism still has a chance.

The plague year may have marked, for climate change, a turning point, and for the better.

“Anthony Fauci is no doubt a dedicated public servant, respected by his colleagues, beloved by many Americans. But the puzzle remains: why has the man most closely associated with the public health response to the pandemic entirely avoided accountability for its failure?

Mark Zuckerberg’s pledge to depoliticize Facebook hits grassroots movements.

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