What Kamala Harris' Critics Don't Understand About Female Politicians

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It hasn’t even been a year since the 2016 presidential election, and it already feels like we’re gearing up for the next one. Trump’s re-election campaign has already kicked off, the Bernie 2020 crowd is gearing up for another go, and another prominent female politician is getting dragged over social media for being a “neoliberal corporatist” who’s more interested in “identity politics” than economic justice. Only this time, that woman is Kamala Harris, a senator from California who – like Hillary Rodham Clinton before her – seems doomed to fail a variety of punishing ideology tests put forth by the American left.

Based on everything we (and Clinton) saw in 2016, the slams against Harris seem like obvious sexism. A recent piece from Mic noted that Harris gets criticized for refusing to support universal healthcare, free college, a federal $15 hour minimum wage, criminal justice reform, and the expansion of social security programs — in spite of the fact that she’s on the record supporting all of the above. For feminist commentators, this misrepresentation of Harris’s beliefs stems less from her actual actions and more from a fundamental unwillingness to see women as trustworthy.

But for many leftists — even self-identified feminist ones — the idea that it’s Harris’s gender that’s the primary concern is laughable. After all, they point out, there are a number of significant black marks on Harris’s record. As California’s Attorney General, she oversaw the state’s brutal criminal justice system and was seen as half-hearted in her reform efforts. Critics say that her refusal to prosecute Steve Mnuchin for violating foreclosure laws, and Mnuchin’s subsequent donations to her campaign, suggest a willingness to bend the rules for big business so long as big business is willing to line her pockets. On Twitter, The New Republic’s Sarah Jones argues that, “The reaction to Kamala Harris a potential nominee is not really proof that the evil sexist left has a problem with female candidates...People have articulated very clear concerns about her political record. but sincerely: if anyone's put forward sexist reasons I want to know.”

But a lack of explicit sexist attacks on Harris doesn’t automatically mean that the distaste for her isn’t gendered in any way. This distinction between a candidate’s record and their gender — this argument that a woman in charge would be fine, if only she’d support the right issues —  is one that approaches the political landscape and how politics work in our country with extreme tunnel vision. The reality is, there’s a reason why the most prominent women in politics all seem to be ones who, like Clinton and Harris, have made compromises in order to advance their careers: Women who aren’t willing to play that game rarely get elected.

Missteps that might be forgiven (or not even considered missteps) from a white man can be career derailing for anyone else.

In politics — as in corporate America, Silicon Valley, and most areas of professional life — the deck is stacked against women from the start. Our sexist (and racist) notions of what a leader looks like give an unfair advantage to white men. If you’re born into this select group, your ability to capably lead is assumed from the start; for everyone else, it’s a trust that must be earned.

Earning that trust can be a tricky process. Missteps that might be forgiven (or not even considered missteps) from a white man can be career derailing for anyone else. In areas like crime and defense, for example, women are under extraordinary pressure to prove that they’re tough enough to protect both communities and the country. In The Washington Post, Will Englund notes that women “have to deal with skepticism that they’re tough enough to protect American interests and American citizens. Can a woman be ‘as strong as a man’? That puts them in a position of having to prove their toughness, which in turn puts them at risk of being declared overly aggressive.”

As a woman in the criminal justice field — and a woman of color at that — Harris may have battled the assumption that she’d naturally be soft on crime. If so, it’s unsurprising that, like the “hawkish” Hillary Clinton before her, she may have felt a need to overcorrect and prove that her race and gender would not be an impediment to her commitment to eradicating illegal behavior.

...though being 'beholden' to corporate interests is frowned upon, corporate interests are one of the few groups capable of providing the capital to launch a woman of color into national office.

Harris’s connections to corporate interests are even easier to understand. Political campaigns are an expensive pursuit, particularly in Harris’ home state of California, which boasts the largest population of any state in the nation. To pull off a statewide campaign, you need to come from money or attract it. As the daughter of immigrant academics, Harris is disqualified from the former group; and though being “beholden” to corporate interests is frowned upon, corporate interests are one of the few groups capable of providing the capital to launch a woman of color into national office. This is a drastic juxtaposition to the campaign Bernie Sanders ran out of Vermont, which has the second smallest population in the country. Part of why Sanders was able to run a national campaign while eschewing corporate funding is that the set up of the presidential primary system is relatively gentle on upstarts with small budgets. The first events take place in smaller states, which allows candidates with shallow pockets to mount a smaller campaign and — if their message resonates — attract more donors. Hailing from a state with a population larger than Canada, Harris is at an obvious disadvantage here.

"Right now, money wins elections."

No one is more familiar with the compromises required of women in politics than women in politics. Mallory McMorrow, a graduate of political training program Emerge Michigan who’s currently exploring a run for office, is intimately familiar with the kind of tradeoff that’s plagued women like Harris and Clinton. While McMorrow and her peers would love to be able to sail through their careers untethered to big money, “We'll never even win elections to get more seats at the table if we don't take advantage of every opportunity out there,” she tells Bustle. “Right now, money wins elections.” Unfortunately, getting access to that money can require sacrificing one’s commitment to a pure leftist ideology.

The alternative, McMorrow notes, is far more unappealing: she cares too much about making change and helping to fix the broken political system to be willing to “just sit back, pick apart every woman or non-white candidate, and continue to let old, rich, white guys make all the decisions.”

"If you are a straight white man you can afford to be ideologically pure and not compromise because you currently exist in a system in which imbalance benefits you."

For Debra Cleaver, a long time political activist and founder of voter registration and engagement nonprofit Vote.org, the refusal to acknowledge that compromises must be made on the road to progress — and that getting more women, and more people of color, in leadership positions means accepting women and people of color with flawed records — comes from an extreme place of privilege. “Ideological purity tests are things that are raised by people who have nothing to lose if the status quo is maintained,” Cleaver tells Bustle. “If you are a straight white man you can afford to be ideologically pure and not compromise because you currently exist in a system in which imbalance benefits you.” Under Trump, it’s women and people of color whose rights have primarily been stripped away; white men who refused to support Clinton haven’t truly been harmed — and many benefit as government programs that assist marginalized people are defunded.

Dismantling our country’s combined legacies of racism, sexism, and classism is a complicated process. It’s going to be messy, it’s going to be hard, and, yes, it’s going to require uncomfortable compromise and getting our hands dirty. For Cleaver, the very notion of any kind of “purity” test is an unsettling one. “Who else talks about purity?” she asks.