On Kamala Harris and The Interruptions

by Noah Daponte-Smith

It sure doesn’t take much to become a progressive icon these days.  

Take, in the most recent iteration, the case of Kamala Harris, freshman senator from California. Harris has the good fortune to sit on the Senate Intelligence Committee, where she has taken advantage of the opportunities for political grandstanding offered by the recent testimonies of various current and former government officials relevant to the investigation into ties between Russia and President Trump. After only months in the Senate, Harris has emerged as a star, winning her place in the national spotlight through a mixture of toughness and victimhood.  

Her recent fame stems from her prosecutorial inquisition of Attorney General Jeff Sessions during his testimony before the committee earlier this week. Judging by the mainstream news outlets, the main story from the hearing is that her male colleagues on the committee, and the witness himself, committed against Harris an inexcusable sin: They interrupted her. The New York Times has run at least two stories on the alleged transgression; one, “The Universal Phenomenon of Men Interrupting Women,” sees in Harris’s treatment an allegory for a broader female experience, one also seen in recent days in the boardroom of Uber. Stories of similar sorts – singing Harris’ praises and tut-tutting at the Republicans of the committee – have blanketed the media, from the Washington Post to CNN to Samantha Bee.  

Except the narrative doesn’t quite fit the facts. Harris is a former prosecutor and attorney general of California; she has spent years honing the art of questioning witnesses, of coaxing (or hounding) them into admitting what they would prefer not to. It was precisely that strategy which she employed on Sessions. Her questions came quick and sharp, scarcely a pause between the end of Sessions’ replies and the beginnings of her next round. They were often long and complex, aggressively stated, leaving Sessions with no room to breathe. If anyone suffered the scourge of interruptions, it was Sessions: In the seven-minute testimony, I counted 15 times that Harris interrupted Sessions, compared to only three the other way around. (John McCain and Richard Burr each interrupted once, both to let Sessions finish his response and to inform Harris that her allotted time had elapsed, and it is these interruptions on which media coverage has focused.) 

It’s not that there’s anything per se wrong with Harris’s style, though I find it somewhat too aggressive for my tastes. Individual senators have their individual styles of pressing witnesses; it’s entirely reasonable that Harris, a Democrat, forsook the more languid approach typical of her Republican colleagues. But it is to say that charges of rampant sexism on the part of the males of the committee are unfounded and in fact get the story backwards.  

The New York Times, proudly leading the charge of Harris’s admirers, knows this is true. Their article on the controversy admits as much, describing Harris’ “rapid-fire questioning pace more commonly seen in courtrooms – a style that at times has her interrupting witnesses, which is frowned upon in the Senate, where decorum is still prized.” Its transcript of a selected portion of the questioning contains two instances in which Sessions is unable to finish his sentence. But it blows past this explanation of the interruptions – that Harris had gone slightly too far in her pressing, and needed to allow Sessions time to speak – to suggest, by way of embedding various tweets to that effect, that Harris was the victim of sexist (and racist!) behavior. This is false, and its falsity is obvious to anyone who watches the video of the interaction.  

But facts are secondary. Finding a new progressive leader to lead the Resistance – preferably a young one, unlike the rather aged Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – is more important. Harris, a rumored presidential candidate before she even won election to the Senate, fills that role nicely, and claiming injustice at the hands of old, white, male Republicans is a good way to get your foot in the national door. Get used to her presence in the coming months – and years.   

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