Features » August 23, 2017
Don’t Coddle Liberal Politicians Like Kamala Harris—History Shows They Should Be Pressured
While some media commentators want to shield Democrats from criticism, holding politicians’ feet to the fire is a longtime successful tradition on the U.S. Left.
History shows that criticism of politicians, far from undermining them, makes them more responsive to popular demands.
It turns out we’ve been getting the debate over safe spaces all wrong. It’s not college students we should be talking about, it’s politicians.
That’s apparently the message from the world of some liberal pundits as the Great Kamala Harris Debate continues. The news that the former California attorney general and current senator is courting Hillary Clinton’s donors for a possible 2020 presidential run has ignited an intense discussion over her merits as a candidate.
Many on the Left and on the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party have criticized Harris’s record as a prosecutor, including her defense of California’s severe three strikes law and civil asset forfeiture. Some have pointed out her refusal to prosecute Wall Street firms—including OneWest, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s former company—for foreclosure fraud. Other critics have chided her embrace of wealthy donors.
These critiques occasioned a furious pushback from members of the centrist wing of the party, who expressed their outrage that anyone would dare scrutinize the record of a potential future candidate. It was a signal that “the dis-unity commission will get to work sabotaging her,” wrote the Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky. Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe falsely accused Sanders himself of “going after” Harris (“At long last, Senator, have you NO shame?”).
This trend reached its apogee with a segment on Joy Reid’s MSNBC show, featuring The Root’s Jason Johnson, former Vermont governor and current health care industry lobbyist Howard Dean, and Sirius XM’s Zerlina Maxwell, a former Clinton campaign staffer. During the segment, Reid and her three guests put forward a bold new journalistic strategy for covering political figures: Don’t report anything negative about them if they’re Democrats.
“There has always been a section of the Left, which I call the ‘whiny party,’” said Dean. “We need to get a life, and pull together and do what’s right for the country, instead of having these silly fights among ourselves.”
“We need to give her a chance to shine or not shine,” said Maxwell. “We shouldn’t undercut her before she even begins.”
“Rather than being critical,” said Johnson, “let her do her job.”
Let's be clear: Harris is not some rosy-cheeked youngster who just needs a chance to pad out her resume. Her defenders take an oddly infantilizing approach that treats Harris as less than the experienced public prosecutor that she is. In fact, Harris sports a more than decade-long record in law enforcement—a record that, alongside its bright spots, has some worrying signs for progressives.
For instance, while Harris says all the right things about criminal justice and mass incarceration now, she frequently worked against reform in California. She repeatedly opposed meaningful reform of the state's uniquely harsh three-strikes policy, putting her to the right of her Republican opponent in 2010, and championed a policy that sent parents to jail for truant kids. She also resisted efforts to make her office investigate police killings, to the frustration of many Californians of color. Her critics in the state saw her as a cautious, ambitious politician who stood on the sidelines on criminal justice reform.
It's also telling what Harris was and wasn't zealous about prosecuting. Harris repeatedly worked to keep an innocent man in jail who had already served more than a decade for a crime he didn't commit. She defended a prosecuting attorney who slipped a falsified confession into an interrogation transcript and later went after Backpage—an online classified website used by sex workers—during an election year, putting them back in harm's way, looking for work on the streets. And while she now touts her toughness on bankers, her Mortgage Strike Force prosecuted a troublingly small number of cases—less than some county district attorneys in other states.
Feet to the fire
There are clearly legitimate reasons for concern about Harris’s record. But put aside the question of whether or not her flaws do or don’t disqualify her from being a worthy candidate. What Reid and her panel were proposing in the exchange on her show is that, for the sake of electoral victory, the media, activists and voters themselves should avoid inspecting and criticizing a candidate’s record. Instead, they should simply allow politicians to operate free of scrutiny.
This is a bizarre point for any journalist to make. But it’s especially odd coming from individuals who would self-identify as progressives. Throughout recent history, major figures on the U.S. Left have understood the importance of holding political leaders’ feet to the fire.
Take Dr. Martin Luther King. Rather than meekly stand by and instruct his followers to give Democratic leaders the benefit of the doubt, King risked his reputation to excoriate the U.S. government’s—and, by extension, President Lyndon Johnson’s—prosecution of the Vietnam War.
In his famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech in 1967, King called the U.S. government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” He accused U.S. soldiers of being forced to be “on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.”
At the time, some questioned his boldness. Other civil rights leaders immediately distanced themselves from King, including the NAACP, whose board of directors unanimously voted that mixing civil rights and the antiwar movement was a “serious tactical mistake.” The Pittsburgh Courier, a black paper, accused him of “tragically misleading” African Americans.
The turn against King was most pronounced among the white community, the mainstream media and the political establishment. The New York Times and Washington Post both ran editorials harshly criticizing King, with the Times claiming that “to divert the energies of the civil rights movement to the Vietnam issue is both wasteful and self-defeating”—in other words, urging him to stop being critical and let the administration do its job.
President Johnson, once King’s ally, echoed this sentiment, appalled that King would criticize him instead of being grateful. “What is that goddamned nigger preacher doing to me?” he erupted upon hearing the speech. “We gave him the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we gave him the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we gave him the War on Poverty. What more does he want?” It marked the end of King’s relationship with the White House.
King could have easily stayed silent. As some of King’s colleagues in the civil rights movement suggested, the political calculus indicated that saying nothing about the war to ensure continued access to the White House—not to mention supporting a politician enacting a slew of anti-poverty programs—was the rational thing to do. But King was so disgusted by the war, he reportedly at one point pushed away a plate of food after seeing photos of Vietnamese children burned by napalm.
It goes without saying that the same liberal commentators now wagging their fingers at Harris’s critics would consider King a hero. Yet by their own logic, King could have been considered part of the “whiny” left, engaging in “purity politics,” criticizing and undermining a Democratic ally over an issue not directly related to civil rights.
A proud history of dissent
King is far from the only progressive leader who recognized the importance of keeping those in power, including allies, accountable. In 1941, A. Philip Randolph threatened President Franklin Roosevelt with a 100,000-strong March on Washington by African Americans, out of frustration at blacks’ continued exclusion from federal employment. “We can’t have 100,000 negroes marching on Washington,” Roosevelt said, according to Randolph, before drafting an executive order banning racial discrimination in employment in the government and defense industries.
Roosevelt, while compromising with racist Southerners on certain issues, was sympathetic to civil rights struggles and had enacted policies that had broadly benefited the black community. It would have been easy to sit tight and simply let him off the hook. But Randolph shifted his tactics from letter-writing and meetings to a more confrontational approach, declaring that “nothing counts but pressure.”
It wasn't just black leaders who saw the importance of pressuring a politician who was ostensibly on their side. As Peter Dreier has pointed out, it’s unlikely that Roosevelt’s sweeping domestic policies would have gone as far as they did had he not been pushed by nationwide civil disobedience and protest from angry farmers, workers, veterans and the elderly.
Randolph would continue to put pressure on future Democratic presidents sympathetic to his cause. He confronted Harry Truman over his failure to desegregate the armed forces and threatened mass resistance to induction. Truman’s military desegregation, wrote historian William Berman, “was not simply an exercise in good will, but rather the product of political pressure … at a time when a presidential incumbent needed all the support he could muster in states with the greatest votes in the electoral college.” The 1963 March on Washington, which Randolph also helped organize, took place over President John F. Kennedy’s objections that it would turn some Congressmen against civil rights.
The impulse to close ranks around Democratic politicians that we’re now seeing in the uproar over Harris was in full force under President Obama. Al Sharpton, then an MSNBC host, vowed not to criticize Obama, for fear he would be aiding his enemies. Obama himself called his left-wing critics “sanctimonious” and too focused on “having a purist position.”
Not everyone listened. After Obama told attendees of a gala dinner of the Congressional Black Caucus that they should “stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying,” Rep. Maxine Waters, Cornel West and Tavis Smiley all criticized the speech. In fact, numerous other black leaders criticized Obama for his relative lack of progress on poverty and the needs of African Americans, including famed civil rights activist Harry Belafonte. Yet Belafonte rued the lack of popular scrutiny of Obama, which he believed allowed the president to get away with inaction:
“What is sad for this moment is that there is no force, no energy, of popular voice, popular rebellion, popular upheaval, no champion for radical thought at the table of the discourse. And as a consequence, Barack Obama has nothing to listen to, except his detractors and those who help pave the way to his own personal comfort with power … And it is our task to no longer have expectations of him unless we have forced him to the table and he still resists us.”
In fact, Belafonte wasn’t entirely correct. There was at least one “popular rebellion” that was a success story in forcing Obama to the proverbial table: the fight for LGBT rights.
Frustrated with his lack of action on LGBT issues, activists relentlessly agitated and pressured the Obama administration. Joy Reid’s fellow MSNBC host, Rachel Maddow, at the time criticized the administration’s “impossibly tortured logic” on marriage equality. The sustained agitation resulted in Obama’s sudden “evolution” on marriage equality, embracing the rights of LGBT Americans.
Other movements also had success in playing hardball with Obama. His rush to solidify a strong legacy on the climate in his final years led some to forget the less environmentally-friendly nature of most of Obama’s two terms, which included his initial support for the Keystone XL pipeline. The reason Obama rejected the pipeline in late 2015 was that the environmental movement embarked on a long-term strategy of mass civil disobedience, starting with more than 1,000 activists sitting outside the White House for two weeks in 2011, a tactic they would repeat over the following years.
A similar story played out on immigration reform. Obama's most meaningful actions on the issue, including DACA and DAPA, didn't come simply out of the goodness of his heart. In fact, Obama deported more people than any other president in history. But it's nearly universally recognized that pressure from immigrants’ rights activists—from staging sit-ins and rallies to consistently interrupting Obama and other Democrats during public speeches—helped push Obama to embrace stronger measures on immigration reform.
More recently, we saw the power of left-wing “whining” during Hillary Clinton's campaign. As leaked Clinton campaign emails have revealed, pressure from unions and the Left was a deciding factor in leading Clinton to take a firm stand of opposition against the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal. It's also unlikely that Clinton would have moved left on issues such as Social Security and Medicare without a disgruntled base that vocally noted its displeasure with her previous policy positions.
History shows that criticism of politicians, far from undermining them, makes them more responsive to popular demands. Rather than being dismissed by the liberal commentariat, the types of criticisms facing Kamala Harris today should be seen as part of an important tradition of American dissent in the service of progressive change. Politicians are not so fragile that critiquing their records will cause them to crumble into dust—if anything, it will make them better.
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Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019-2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of the new book Yesterday's Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, available now from Verso.