Viewpoints on Energy, Geopolitics, and Civilization
Margaret Talbot/The New Yorker: Kamala Harris
the future of the Democratic party?
What the choice of Kamala Harris does, and doesn't,
tell us about the future of the Democratic Party.
Do V.P. Picks Matter?
Nowadays, the consensus seems to be that a Presidential contender's running mate doesn't matter in any direct, instrumental sense. In the endless rehashing of Hillary Clinton's loss to Donald Trump, Tim Kaine plays barely a walk-on role. Vice-Presidential candidates can't be counted on to deliver their own states or regions or to balance the ticket in any reliably strategic way. Two political scientists who have studied the issue, Christopher Devine and Kyle Kopko, write, “While most voters say that the choice of a running mate will be important in deciding their vote, few can recall a time when it actually has changed their vote.”
But the scholars also conclude that the choice can produce a sort of halo effect. The selection of a running mate—sometimes called the first Presidential act—can influence perceptions of the candidate's own qualities of character or judgment, and this, in turn, can make a difference electorally. It's why John McCain's pick of the ill-qualified Sarah Palin is often thought to have done his campaign irreparable damage, no matter how many Republican men were convinced that she was winking at them.
Joe Biden's choice to fill the second spot on his ticket is, on that basis, a smart one. Senator Kamala Harris is a fifty-five-year-old woman whose debating and cross-examining skills outshine his. (“I'm not able to be rushed this fast,” then Attorney General Jeff Sessions complained when she questioned him about his contact with Russians preceding the 2016 election. “It makes me nervous.”) Her campaign's high point came when she attacked Biden himself on the debate stage, for his onetime opposition to school busing and his willingness to work with Southern segregationists in the Senate. So the choice marks a contrast with Trump, whose judgment of anyone's worth depends on how much they capitulate to him. Just as important, the choice also shows that Biden, who is seventy-seven, understands something more important than short-term strategy: that he is a transitional figure, and that the future of his party and of the country depends on diversity.
“Here's the thing,” Harris told Dana Goodyear, who profiled her for this magazine, in 2019. “Every office I've run for I was the first to win. First person of color. First woman. First woman of color. Every time.” There are plenty of people who are exhilarated by the barrier-collapsing force of her selection. Harris, born in Oakland, California, to Jamaican and Indian immigrants, will be only the third woman and the first Black woman to occupy the Vice-Presidential spot on a major-party ticket. “I'm jumping for joy,” Johnnetta Cole, the first Black female president of Spelman College, told the Washington Post . “Anyone who does not feel the significance of this, I have to ask, ‘Who are they? Where have they been?' ”
Even the fact that Harris seems, to many Democrats, like such a safe, almost conventional choice, could be read as low-key revolutionary. So could the fact that Biden, having signalled that he would pick a woman of color, had a demonstrably deep bench of prospects to choose from, including senators and congresspeople, a big-city mayor, and a former national-security adviser.
It didn't take long for conservative pundits and Trump surrogates to start twisting that symbolism in predictably ugly ways: questioning Harris's right to identify as Black, or—taking a page from the birther script concocted to smear Barack Obama—falsely suggesting that she is ineligible to be Vice-President, because (as was the case with George Washington and many of his successors) her parents weren't U.S. citizens when she was born. On Fox, Tucker Carlson griped about having to pronounce Harris's first name right, as though this were an intolerable exercise in political correctness. We'll be in for a lot of that sort of nonsense. With the pandemic raging and the economy tattering, in a campaign that will inevitably be a referendum on how the Trump Administration is managing these twinned crises, the President has little in his arsenal except the old rallying cries about beleaguered whiteness, immigrant invasion, and progressive subversion.
One quick and easy line about Harris's selection is that it was a kind of reward for, or, less transactionally, an acknowledgment of, the way that Black women voters have effectively mobilized for the Democratic Party. Turnout among Black women is consistently high, and they overwhelmingly side with Democrats. As many as ninety-eight per cent of Black women voters backed Hillary Clinton in 2016—the highest rate of any major demographic. They helped to deliver the Democratic victories in the last midterm elections and to secure Biden's win in the critical South Carolina primary. An analysis by the A.A.P.I. Civic Engagement Fund and the Groundswell Fund found that turnout in those midterms “was fueled by women of color mobilizing friends and family” to vote, and that “Black women led the way,” with eighty-four per cent of them reporting that they had done such mobilizing.
That line has some flaws, though. In the first place, Black women aren't uniformly enthusiastic about Harris. She has been criticized for her record as San Francisco's district attorney and as California's attorney general; she pursued cases aggressively, without the commitment to reducing mass incarceration that has become central to the anti-racist movement. (She declined to support mandatory reviews of police shootings and embraced a draconian initiative under which parents whose children were truant from school were subject to prosecution, a position for which she has since expressed regret.) If their main concern was having a Black woman on the ticket, Black voters could have come out more strongly for Harris in her own Presidential bid, and she might be at the top of the ticket today.
Like female voters in general, Black women are more likely than men to support the policies of the Democratic Party, regardless of the candidate. The gender gap in American politics has, in fact, only widened. More women than men favor government action to insure access to health care, child care, and a strong social safety net. Women, and particularly Black women, are more inclined to back gun-control legislation; eighty-two per cent of Black women voters think gun laws should be stricter, according to a recent analysis of polling data. Eighty-five per cent of Black women voters want to see undocumented immigrants given a path to citizenship, according to the same analysis. And their leadership in the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrates how important the issue of police violence is for them. The real reward would be a Biden-Harris campaign that counters Trumpism with a commitment to issues that Black women have reason to care about. ?
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
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Margaret Talbot joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2004. Previously, she was a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and, from 1995 to 1999, an editor at The New Republic. Petroleumworld does not necessarily share these views .
Editor's Note: This article was originally published by The New Yorker on August 24 issue, 2020. All comments posted and published on Petroleumworld, do not reflect either for or against the opinion expressed in the comment as an endorsement of Petroleumworld.
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