At the beginning of 2019, I did not know who Senator Kamala Harris was. I knew her face from videos of her questioning people in the Senate Intelligence Committee, but I did not know her name or title on the committee. Then I heard from a friend that she was considering running for the Democratic nomination for president, and I immediately got excited. What could be more appealing than replacing Donald Trump with a sharp-witted, professional black woman in the Oval Office?
Of course, the conceptual appeal of a politician’s identity is not enough to vote on. In early 2019, even before Sen. Harris officially announced her campaign for the presidency, disclaimers from criminal justice activists and articles in major news outlets began circulating with criticism of her time spent as California’s Attorney General. According to these claims, Sen. Harris had failed to be the “progressive prosecutor” she claimed to be, and had upheld wrongful convictions on multiple occasions.
For me, a progressive voter who wants to see a federal criminal justice upheaval that does not prioritize vengeful punishment or fall heavily upon racial and class lines, I began to look for a candidate who might better reflect my values. Sen. Harris was too moderate or unclear on too many issues. But for a white critical mass of the Democratic party who seems to be clambering for a moderate who can “beat Trump,” I was not surprised to see her polling numbers rise to the top tier of candidates in the early summer.
This week, Sen. Harris dropped out of the race.
Sen. Harris was at her best when she criticized former Vice President Joe Biden’s long history of troubling racial politics in a nationally televised debate. But progressives, troubled by her own history, started supporting other candidates. More moderate Democrats, troubled by her identity, started supporting white men with far more troubling pasts.
Sen. Harris is not perfect. But more importantly to the fate of her presidential campaign, she is also not a man, or white. What was the most diverse pool of candidates just months ago is now led by a handful of wealthy white people.
The term “electability” has a long history of discrediting women, people of color and anyone else who are deemed unable to handle the responsibilities of an elected office. Electability plagued Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016 — Russian interference or no. Donald Trump repeatedly made efforts to invalidate her campaign, and it worked. The same logic: questioning whether other people in the same demographic as you will vote for a candidate that has been historically underrepresented at an institutional level is impacting the 2020 race. Sen. Harris has dropped out, many of the same questions are looming over Sen. Warren’s head and Joe Biden is more than happy to continue positioning himself as the only Democrat capable of defeating President Trump.
If the only politicians who can compete with white men are other white men, what does that tell us about our idea of “electability”? How far have we really come?
This is a question that college students should take very seriously. In college, students have the opportunity to absorb new ideas and perspectives that have deep impacts on our society. Accompanied with that privilege is a duty to interrogate and think critically about the world at large, especially where history and politics are inseparable.
The 2020 race feels like an exciting opportunity to vote for the first openly gay candidate running a major campaign — even though mayor Pete Buttigieg has his own fraught history of leaving residents of color behind in South Bend, Indiana, saying “All Lives Matter” in blatant ignorance of the largest modern movement for black liberation of the 21st century and supporting homophobic organizations.
Among the other top polling candidates are Sen. Sanders and Sen. Warren, who, while appealing to a wide range of voters, are both white intellectuals who may not resonate with white working class voters that comprise Donald Trump’s base. Ideologically, they should be more “electable” than Sen. Harris.
As student voters, we have the opportunity to support political candidates we identify with in deep ways. If we only support the politicians that history has taught us will win, history will only repeat itself.