Politics & Policy

Is Kamala Harris the Future of American Politics?

Then-California attorney general Kamala Harris in 2011 (Reuters photo: Mario Anzuoni)
We should all hope not.

Democrats may not have gotten everything they wanted out of a series of recent televised Senate Intelligence Committee hearings that ostensibly concerning Russian interference in the 2016 election. But as the party of the ‘resistance’ shifted its focus from alleged collusion between Moscow and Republicans to President Trump’s alleged obstruction of justice, the hearings also produced a new heroine for the anti-Trump Left.

Senator Kamala Harris emerged from confrontations with the three national intelligence chiefs and Attorney General Jeff Sessions with her reputation enhanced. Her manner of attack was praised and she was acclaimed as a victim of sexism on the part of her colleagues. Harris may lack the talent to fulfill her not-so-secret desire to emulate Barack Obama by parlaying a single unfinished term in the Senate into a successful presidential bid. But there’s no question that on the strength of these hearings, she can lay claim to a style that is the future of American politics: Her combination of incivility, bullying, and victimhood makes her the perfect reflection of our current moment.

Harris’s new celebrity stems from two incidents in which Republicans criticized her manner of questioning witnesses during an Intelligence Committee hearing. Her rapid-fire interrogation of Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein prompted Senator John McCain and then committee chair Richard Burr to reproofs in which she was cautioned to allow the witnesses to answer her questions. Harris clearly tried to bully both Sessions and Rosenstein, cutting them off as they spoke and not giving them a chance to speak before she moved on to a new insinuation. But you wouldn’t know it from reading the mainstream media or the liberal Twittersphere. As the New York Times headline on the incidents put it: “Kamala Harris Is (Again) Interrupted While Pressing a Senate Witness.”

The essence of the surge in support for Harris was not so much that she had scored points at the expense of either Rosenstein or Sessions as that she had been a victim of sexism if not racism. The headline of another, later Times article proclaimed that what had happened illustrated, “The Universal Phenomenon of Men Interrupting Women.” The intervention of Senators McCain and Burr was said to betray male contempt for women. Others, noting Harris’ multi-racial heritage, characterized the senators’ pushback as a defense of white privilege against the heroic efforts of minorities to be heard.

The exchanges turned Harris into a liberal star on Twitter, where an avalanche of support for her as a black women assailed by white men came crashing down in the days that followed. Sessions’s simpering confession that she was making him nervous was the icing on the cake; to her fans, it made her the newest “nasty woman,” a cause célèbre. Before the day was done, she was sending out a fundraising appeal to supporters that grandiloquently promised, “The women of the United States Senate will not be silenced when seeking the truth.”

Male chauvinism is real and deplorable, as is racism. But what actually happened in the committee hearings bore little resemblance to the narrative that quickly took hold about them. Harris was not the victim here; a former district attorney, she was actually the one throwing her weight around in questioning Rosenstein and Sessions. McCain sought Burr’s intervention to begin with because in both instances, Harris had interrupted the witness, badgering him and rudely refusing to let him answer as she sought to produce damning clips for viral consumption.

By deliberately flouting conventional notions of civility in her questioning, Harris gratified the desire of liberals for their political leaders to get rough with the opposition.

Harris is obviously not the first grandstanding senator in history to bully a witness in this manner. But it is, to put it mildly, unusual for cabinet-level officials to be treated like mafia dons. Even if one accepts Democratic arguments that Sessions, Rosenstein, and other administration officials are required to relate all the details of their private consultations with the president — an argument no Democrat seemed to embrace when it was Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, in the witness chair — there was no doubt that Harris was playing to her party’s base rather than “seeking the truth.”

Yet if the claims of Harris and her supporters were pure bunk, they were also brilliant political theater.

McCain’s and Burr’s pleas for civility in the committee — especially when a former colleague was being questioned — may have been easy to spin as racist or sexist, but they were really a feeble gesture of dissent against a sea change in American political culture. While events such as yesterday’s shooting of Representative Steve Scalise may still prompt pious invocations of the need to avoid treating opponents as enemies, Harris’s bullying attacks speak to the intolerance for opposing views that is really driving American politics on both sides of the aisle these days.

By deliberately flouting conventional notions of civility in her questioning, Harris gratified the desire of liberals for their political leaders to get rough with the opposition. But in then posing as a victim who was being silenced — despite her own attempts to cut off Rosenstein and Sessions as they tried to answer — she appealed to another key Democratic constituency. As the party that has linked itself inextricably to identity politics at the expense of its traditional working-class base, Democrats are particularly charmed by the idea of a minority woman standing tall in the face of abuse from white, male conservatives.

How much political hay can Harris make of the resulting publicity? Probably more than many of her similarly ambitious Democratic colleagues might think. In theory, Harris could ride some combination of an Obama-style appeal to minority voters, her newly burnished credentials as a feminist victim, and an appeal to the appetite of more militant “resisters” for total war on the GOP all the way to the Democratic nomination in 2020.

Of course, Harris still has a long way to go before she can put that theory to the test. But as the new avatar of the anti-Trump Left, she’s already more than just another Democratic presidential hopeful. Her incivility and appeal to identity politics may be everything that is wrong with contemporary politics. But all that is wrong with contemporary politics shows no signs of righting itself anytime soon.

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