If you believe the polls, Kamala Harris has a better than 50% chance to become the most powerful woman of color in American history. This is an unprecedented and barrier-shattering event, one that could change the lives of generations of girls and people of color. Let’s take a look at how this happened.
Throughout this piece, I’m going to stray into areas of discomfort for me as a white, Jewish male. Can’t be avoided with a candidate this far from the norm for her intended position. I’ll be discussing race, religion, and gender as political characteristics, not as deep matters of consequence to individuals. I’ll aim for respectfulness, but if I miss, you have my apologies in advance.
On night 4 of the remarkable online Democratic National Convention, Cory Booker led an even more remarkable Zoom call of seven candidates who ran against Joe Biden in the primary. To Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Yang, Booker kicked it off with this line: “You can think of this like Survivor, on the out interviews of all the people who got voted off the island.” Yes, ha-ha funny, but this tribal council ignored a reality that none of them mentioned:
Kamala Harris, the VP nominee they would all praise mightily, got voted off the island before nearly any of them. She played the game with abysmal results and didn’t make it to the first vote. Yet here she was, back in the game.
Now, Survivor does this trick a lot. The 22nd season introduced a gimmick called Redemption Island, where those voted off dueled each other to be “resurrected” and have another shot at winning the game. There have been entire seasons devoted to previous losers getting another go at the prize. Bringing back former contestants is just good business for Survivor. They’ve invested in these personalities, so why not reward fans for investing in them?
This what advertisers call branding. It has worked for as long as there have been brands to invest in. The Mesopotamians put logos on food and drink to identify the qualities their purchasers desired. A curvaceous woman on a bottle meant something different than a virile man. This is no different than what we do in advertising today. Nike knows what it’s selling when it markets Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars high-tops—classic, dependable, always the height of cool—and you do too. That’s why Kamala Harris has so many of them.
Troublingly for this uncomfortable metaphor about a Black woman, the concept of branding came from physically applying brands to living beings in bondage. They are declarations of ownership. Branding often isn’t voluntary; it can be applied to you by those you don’t want to define you. Their intentions might be totally contrary to yours.
In politics, branding can be both dehumanizing and humanizing. The masters of political branding control their brand decisions, if they can. Bernie Sanders may be the most anti-corporate presidential candidate ever, but he’s one of the best at branding himself. You know exactly what you’re getting with Bernie; he’s never going to make a decision that isn’t tied to the agenda he has clearly articulated. The woman who followed his speech at the DNC, Michelle Obama, is a master too. Her brand is defined perfectly as the politician who hates politics, by the motto she invoked at the 2016 DNC: “When they go low, we go high.” So if something enraged her enough to go even slightly low, she was going to destroy that thing. Boy, did she.
Those politicians who don’t control their brands have it controlled for them. John McCain was a war hero and a statesman, but he let it slip away when he chose Sarah Palin as his vice presidential nominee; the media turned on him, painting him as a fool who was being controlled by the Tea Party. Democratic candidates Gary Hart and John Edwards didn’t control their brands, so both were easily felled by mild sex scandals. Mike Bloomberg wanted to be seen as a climate defender and a gun control advocate, but he got tarred as just another out-of-touch billionaire with more money than sense.
The 2020 primaries were all about the battle of brands: progressive versus moderate, old versus new, issue-driven versus heartstrings-driven. Enter Senator Harris, who had a fighting shot. While it is totally unreasonable to expect the followers of one woman of color to transfer to another, it’s worth pointing out that Michelle Obama was probably the most popular political figure in America as the 2020 primaries got going. America was the readiest it had ever been for a Black woman to run for president.
If you weren’t from California, what you probably knew most about Harris was that she was a brutal cross-examiner of Brett Kavanaugh during his contentious confirmation hearing. I had forgotten this amazing exchange between her and Kavanaugh—interrupted by two different protesters and multiple senators—where she made the judge look like an evasive criminal. (I’ll leave it to others to decide whether this was a reflection of reality.)
This exchange led some idiot to tweet that
Hey, it was my birthday, so I was probably intoxicated. Anyway, that didn’t exactly happen. Harris had trouble defining her brand to anyone in the presidential race. On several different measures, she fell victim to consistently misperceiving or being perceived incorrectly in the Overton window of the Democratic party, and often misjudging the approach needed.
The late policy wonk Joseph Overton envisioned his “window of discourse” to mean the range of policies and positions that is deemed acceptable by the population (or a subset of it). Fall inside it, whether more liberal or more conservative, and everybody says “Sure, okay, what else should I know about you?” Fall outside it, and you’re a dangerous kook.
This window moves a lot. Some obvious examples are that abortion was viewed as far outside the mainstream until suddenly it was the law of the land, and marriage equality forged a similar path. Now, it’s nearly impossible to be a Democratic nominee for anything without complete adherence to these positions. The window shifted and the party shifted with it.
The window can also move on concepts a candidate can’t control. Where was the window on “a Black president” in the 1980s? The Reverend Jesse Jackson was a popular figure in 1984, but wasn’t given much of a chance in 1984. But then he won five primaries and caucuses, and the window started moving. In 1988, he won eleven such contests, and was briefly the frontrunner. (He beat Joe Biden! On a perhaps related note, our nominee is old.) Jackson moved the Overton window on whether an African American man could be elected in America, though it took 20 years for that to happen.
So let’s look at how the Overton window affected Harris on several issues, some of policy, some of performance, and some of straight discrimination. I’ll talk about how these issues affected her negatively in the primary and are now advantages in the general election.
Issue #1: A female candidate’s electability
Harris found herself in a crowded primary, with more than 20 candidates. Six of them—Senators Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Kristen Gillibrand, and Elizabeth Warren, plus Representative Tulsi Gabbard and guru Marianne Williamson—were women. Each one of them claimed a brand space quickly: Klobuchar was the folksy and pragmatic Midwesterner, Warren the plan-conscious super-teacher, Gillibrand the connection to suburban moms, Gabbard the fed-up combatant, Williamson the space case. Some of those brands worked better than others, but all connected with a subsection of voters.
Harris claimed a spot early, and it might have killed her campaign. With her “That little girl was me” attack in June 2019, she went after Joe Biden in a way that led the pundits to believe she was the most likely front-runner. This led to an immediate and premature reckoning on whether a woman, especially one who stood up to powerful men, was “electable.” Because Hillary Clinton lost, the window on whether America would accept a woman president had narrowed. Before we knew Harris, we were already telling her she wouldn’t win. It seemed to affect her greatly. She responded poorly to being atop the polls, because she couldn’t punch up. Without being able to attack other candidates, she found no purchase, and surrendered ground fast.
As Joe Biden’s vice presidential nominee, though, that electability argument goes out the window. Biden essentially made the case that he couldn’t win without a woman on the ticket. He’s probably right. Undoubtedly there are still people who won’t vote for a woman who could become president, but there are a lot of women out there who will be happy Biden kept his promise. This is seen in their polls, where Biden is crushing Trump among women, so it’s working.
Issue #2: An African American’s electability
That electability discussion also revolved around whether America would vote for a Black candidate. This discussion dominated pundits’ analysis of the African American voters in particular. Why, when presented with two Black candidates in Booker and Harris, were they not backing them in large numbers? The general conclusion was that Black voters believed white America wouldn’t vote for another Black candidate after the Trump backlash to Obama. This might have been a correct reading of the Overton window moving, but ignored a critical reality.
There’s a concept in Black America called the “cookout,” and I am not in any way qualified to discuss it. I first saw members of Black Twitter discussing it years ago, suggesting that certain white celebrities (Adele, Steve Nash) were invited to the cookout, and others (Kylie Jenner, Donald Sterling) were not. One defining feature of many “invited” people was giving due props to their Black coworkers, and no one is more known for that than Joe Biden. For a powerful white senator to serve as a younger Black man’s wingman for eight years spoke volumes to Black voters, especially older ones. African Americans supported Biden in droves. It’s not that Kamala Harris was necessarily a bad candidate to Black voters; it’s that she wasn’t Joe. Unable to make inroads in that community, she had no base.
In the general, Biden needed a woman of color. Prominent African American leaders were not a bit shy about that. Rep. Maxine Waters told Essence that Biden “can’t go home without a Black woman being VP.” The implication was that African Americans gave Joe Biden the nomination, noting Jim Clyburn’s endorsement in South Carolina. But more specifically, the George Floyd protests made it clear that certain parts of America needed to see representation at the top. Harris was the candidate many of them pushed, and got her.
Issue #3: She’s a “progressive”
Some progressives don’t like it when I tell them Kamala Harris is a progressive. But she is. Harris’s voting record in the Senate is near spotless; she’s among the top five most progressive senators. She has supported the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, universal basic income, legal marijuana, and ending the death penalty. The window shifted on progressive ideas, with the 2016 Sanders campaign showing a substantial number of voters wanted those ideas to become reality. Harris was a vocal proponent of those ideas.
But she wasn’t the progressive. That was Sanders, with Warren on his heels. There was no room for her in that lane. Thus, when pushed on Medicare for All, she caved. Harris was falling in the polls and flailing for answers. That is not a good look. It suggested that she was a progressive when she needed to be a progressive and a moderate when she needed to be a moderate. In other words, nobody’s candidate.
In the general election, that is working for her like nothing else. The Trump administration keeps trying to pin Biden as a Trojan horse for liberals. Trump called Harris “the most liberal person in the US Senate.” It rolls right off Biden because of his moderate record, and Harris doesn’t seem to folks like she’s a Warren or a Sanders. The attacks are not working, and Biden’s poll numbers haven’t suffered. Harris just wants the job. That’s her platform.
Issue #4: She’s a “cop”
First off, she’s not a cop, any more than our commander-in-chief is a soldier. But while Harris was attorney general of California, she supervised a lot of cops, and called herself the “Top Cop.” Progressives focus on her record on the issue of police brutality, which has become one of the most important issues of this election. It’s not great. She largely avoided cases of California police officers killing suspects, notably a string of 2014 police shootings in San Francisco, her former jurisdiction as district attorney. Even with national attention focused on the case of Michael Brown, she did not step in.
Since leaving for the Senate, Harris has sung a different tune. She’s been a voice for police reform, sponsoring the banning of choke holds, racial profiling, and no-knock warrants. She has pushed for the prosecution of Breonna Taylor’s murderers. She wants African Americans to believe she will stand up to the nation’s police. But being a cop doesn’t have the political cachet it had before this year’s protests. With her record, this is a tough sell.
Here’s what’s not. When Harris was selected as Biden’s running mate, Fox News hosts tried to paint her as anti-cop and pro-riot. They misquoted her interview with Stephen Colbert where she said of the protests, “They’re not gonna stop before election day in November, and they’re not gonna stop after election day.” That’s not about riots, but whatever, Fox. Anyway, Harris’s rep as a tough-as-nails prosecutor has deflected these critiques. You can’t make it stick that she’s both pro-police brutality and pro-riot.
Issue #5: She’s “not African American”
Harris is mixed race. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, is an Indian biologist of Tamil ancestry; her father, Donald J. Harris, is a Jamaican professor at Stanford. This has led Republicans to say she’s not African American. Radio host Mark Levin said, “Kamala Harris is not an African-American, she is Indian and Jamaican. Her ancestry does not go back to American slavery, to the best of my knowledge her ancestry does not go back to slavery at all.” To which I say, how do you think Black people got to Jamaica, Mark?
This critique, if that’s what it is, scored with some African Americans too. Obviously, it’s not my place to tell African Americans who they should think is African American. Harris was born in Oakland, was bused to public school, went to Howard University, and suffered discrimination for her skin color. But also she grew up in majority white institutions and has pursued a prosecutorial career. It’s complicated. The window is moving on who can speak for Black America, and for some, Harris was outside of it.
That said, her mixed heritage has helped her in the general election. The more people bring up her mixed race, the more it shines a light on the changing American electorate. She’s a voice for Black people in a summer of activity around race, if they want it. But she can do more than that. She can speak to the immigrant experience, speak to the growing Asian voting bloc weary of hearing about the “China virus,” and speak as part of the new face of America.
All of these issues have coalesced to finally define the candidate Kamala Harris is. Racist white people shouldn’t be frightened because she’s Black or a woman; they should be frightened because she’s the future. She’s not Black or white; she’s the whole tableau. She’s not pro-police or anti-police; she’s pro-safety in every respect. She’s not progressive or moderate; she’s ambitious and aggressive about getting whatever change she can get. She’s not easy to pin down because America’s not easy to pin down.
Here’s her defining quote of the year, the one that will resonate throughout the election. After she met with Jacob Blake, the victim shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, she said:
“People are rightfully angry and exhausted. And after the murder of Breonna and George and Ahmaud and so many others, it’s no wonder people are taking to the streets, and I support them.”
Kamala Harris’s brand is this: She’s the voice of exhaustion. 2020 has been an exhausting year, as the Overton window has moved on life. What is acceptable now is entirely different than it was at New Year’s. Day after day, it’s a new punch to the gut.
It’s hard to find anyone in politics who has been hit from more sides than Harris. You can’t land a blow on her because she has weathered everyone’s blows. She’s come through it. She speaks for a nation that is tired of all the bluster, all the racism and sexism and anti-immigrant bias, all the lies and corruption and failed leadership that has killed hundreds of thousands. She’s just done with it.
If you’re on the side of America that wants more chaos, she’s done with you too. Her running mate wants to reach across the aisle. That’s great. Let’s hope it works. If it doesn’t, Kamala will go in there with a bazooka. She’ll do it reluctantly, with that Marge Simpson voice and a “You know I gave you a chance” attitude. Then she’ll lace up her Chucks and do what needs to be done. She’s not who Republicans will want to see coming at them.
We’re all tired, Senator. Thanks for still having the energy to fight.
This is the 64th installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, Colin Kaepernick, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, the midterms, the Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third parties, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, the Trump mafia, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, the environment, Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s lies, Pelosi’s strategy, the impeachment inquiry, political outsiders, Rudy Giuliani, the Berlin wall, protest art, Boris Johnson, religion, engagement, Bernie Sanders, progressive unity, the Democratic nominee, the pandemic, unemployment, rioting, the Klan, the Confederacy, the GOP 2020 strategy, Biden’s strategy, the wildfire crisis, civil war, Kamala Harris, Trump’s COVID diagnosis, and Biden’s case. Most of these appear in my new edition of Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can get on our PledgeManager now.