Friday, November 29, 2019

Kamala Harris’ Judicious Use of Identity Politics

As this year comes to a close, the American people are constantly reminded of the upcoming 2020 election and many hopeful democratic candidates want a chance to challenge President Trump’s incumbency. One such candidate is Senator Kamala Harris. A successful lawyer and politician, Harris has received less than consistent support throughout the primaries, with polling numbers ranging from four to fifteen percent. Part of Senator Harris’ strategy to gain a stronger hold seems to involve comparing her rich intersectional identity to her less diverse opponents. While Senator Harris does not seem to hold any punches, there is one obvious target she refuses to acknowledge, Senator Elizabeth Warren and her alleged cultural appropriation.

Senator Harris has put in much effort to remind voters of her strong focus on Minorities and Women and the intersectional relationship these groups form. No matter what the subject matter, Senator Harris can always seem to highlight the effects that subject has on these groups. For example, with the exemption of one question regarding Trump’s foreign policy with North Korea, Harris was able to mention either women or minorities (if not both) in all of her responses in the recent November debate.

Harris not only targets systematic problems dealing with intersectionality but often criticizes her opponents on their inability to deal with such subjects. In the November debate, Harris criticized Mayor Pete Buttigieg as being a politician who merely show[s] up in a black church and want[s] to get the vote, but just [hasn’t] been there before” Additionally, Harris attacked Vice President Biden’s history with busing and school segregation, stating that if politicians like him had their way, she would not have been able to run for president.

Senator Harris’ strategy seems to be a perfect example of identity politics. In other words, Harris’ main affiliation is not with her party, but rather with the identity she carries, mainly an African American Woman. For example, in the recent debates, while Harris brought up the broad terms such as “diversity” when speaking about specific races, she mentioned the terms Black/African American ten times while she only mentioned other minority races (Hispanics and Native Americans) once respectively. What this shows is that while Senator Harris would like to be seen as a representative over all minorities and intersectional groups, when she must focus on one group, it is most often the group with whom she identifies.

Whether consciously or subconsciously this judicious use of identity politics is representative of Descriptive Representation. Descriptive Representation is the theory that voters feel a sense of trust and unity with a representative that looks like them and shares their unique identity. For instance, the theory would affirm that African American Women would be inclined to trust Harris because they share similar experiences and would do a better job representing them over a white male politician.   

As mentioned above Senator Harris shows how her opponents would not be as good as a representative as she would by highlighting their lack of experience and/or past blunders. That being said, Harris’ offensive use of identity politics is not unilaterally distributed among her opponents. In fact, most of her callouts are aimed at the white candidates, with minority candidates like Cory Booker and Andrew Yang walking away unscathed. This decision makes sense as a debate with other minorities over who is more privileged would be far from beneficial. However, Harris’ decision not to pursue Elizabeth Warren does not seem to follow any pattern.

On the surface, Warren seems like the most eligible candidate for Harris’ attacks. In October of last year, Warren was accused of falsely identifying as a Native American to gain a prestigious position at Harvard Law School. After much negative press from new sites and President Trump, Warren agreed to take a DNA test to prove her Native American Lineage. While not peer-reviewed, the test was not particularly useful to her defense. The test showed that she had a Native American Ancestor anywhere from six to ten generations ago. Warren also faced public criticisms from Native Americans in the Cherokee Nation stating that DNA does not equal identity and that no blood test could prove she was native American.

These serious allegations of cultural appropriations for personal benefit would seemingly serve as perfect ammunition for Harris to use, yet she has yet to mention it. While Harris’ lack of action could be explained by many theories (such as not wanting to mimic Trump), one possible explanation made via Identity politics. Harris’ inaction could be due to her personal intersectional identity not qualifying her to talk on the subject. Because Harris does not identify as Native American, she may not feel qualified to call Warren out on her alleged appropriations. Since Harris is not a Descriptive Representative of Native Americans, any actions she might take on their behalf could be seen as self-promoting virtue-signaling.

In conclusion, Kamala Harris is bringing a more advanced form of identity politics to the 2020 primaries. By focusing her efforts on her own intersectional identity and avoiding fights outside of her identity’s scope she works towards securing de facto legitimacy over the African American and female subsections of the electorate. 

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