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Kamala Harris’s Surprising Take On Identity Politics Could Make Her A Formidable Candidate

With the right balance, Kamala Harris’s progressivism could be powerful when coupled with a willingness to address the hard left’s electoral flaws.


“We, as Democrats and progressives, cannot afford to be guilty of putting people in these narrow boxes based on what we have decided is their identity instead of seeing that they have lived full lives. They are full people, as multifaceted as the other people we know.”

If someone told you that quote came from a 2020 candidate, the smart money would be on Joe Biden.  It’s actually from one of the field’s most progressive candidates.

With an eye on the White House, Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democrat from California, has intentionally “plant[ed] her flag on the far left,” as my colleague David Marcus outlined yesterday. It’s a self-branding campaign clearly aimed at courting the party’s progressive grassroots, which will exert a great deal of influence over the primary process. But over the past two years, Harris has quietly made a point of practicing her pitch to the center as well.

The quote excerpted above came from a Los Angeles Times profile of Harris, published in the spring of 2017, just months into her term as California’s junior senator. As did this one: “When we wake up at 3 in the morning or something is troubling us, it is never through the lens of, ‘am I Democrat or Republican,’ or on our identity based on what other people have decided is our identity.”

Her audience in that speech wasn’t the crowd at a red-state fundraiser, but a room full of progressive activists, people “who did not want to hear that,” Harris told the LA Times.

Here’s another quote from the profile, in which the senator defended former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, (D-ND), and Sen. Joe Manchin, (D-WV), against the Resistance:

“We can’t afford to be purists. You have to ask that question of yourself: Are we going to be purists to this resistance to the point that you let these guys go? Or can you understand that you may not agree with 50% of their policy positions, but I can guarantee you will disagree with 100% of their replacements’ policy positions. So that is part of the question. What do we have to do in this movement to be pragmatic?”

Harris echoed that sentiment a year later, in a Politico profile published last March. “Harris wants to be a part of the campaign to save her party’s endangered moderates and is enthusiastically backing Feinstein against a liberal challenger,” the outlet reported. “And Harris is prepared to campaign for senators whose views on climate change, immigration and social issues diverge from her own.” Sure enough, Harris helped raise money for Heitkamp and Sen. Joe Donnelly, (D-Ind.), last fall.

This all may sound ordinary enough coming from a popular senator. Given the base’s demand for purity, however, it’s actually downright subversive for a candidate staking her bid on building a reputation as a progressive champion.

That, of course, doesn’t mean any of it’s sincere. Harris is not a moderate. Marcus described the decision by the “queen of the ban” to roll out an “a la carte menu of progressive goodies” in a CNN town hall just this week. “Along with banning private health insurance,” Marcus noted, “Harris also wants to ban for-profit colleges, assault weapons, fossil fuels, personal cars, and presumably members of the Knights of Columbus serving as federal judges.”

She’s a progressive, but also a pragmatic one, which is more than can be said of most of the Resistance. Still, if Harris swipes at the hard left’s identity politics and purity demands on the campaign trail, she will find herself between a rock and a hard place––an enemy of the base she risked alienating moderates to embrace, but too liberal for those moderates because of her strategically far left platform. It’s a hard line to toe, which may be why Harris she ultimately decides to abandon the approach altogether.

But if she’s able to strike the right balance, her base-friendly progressivism could be powerful, coupled with a willingness to address the hard left’s electoral flaws, particularly between the coasts where purity isn’t possible and identity politics are often unpopular. Whether that’s actually possible for a 2020 Democrat to get away with remains to be seen.