The Big Reason Lefties Aren’t Upset About Kamala Harris

They’re hoping that the vice-presidential nominee will be as malleable as Joe Biden.

Kamala Harris speaks in front of a crowd
Nati Harnik / AP

The far left of the Democratic Party spent much of the primary attacking Kamala Harris, decrying her as an untrustworthy “cop” whose overtures to the left were half-hearted and opportunistic. But with Joe Biden naming the senator from California as his running mate, some progressive leaders and activists, including Harris skeptics, sound reluctantly optimistic about what the pair could achieve.

The progressives I interviewed seem to view Harris and Biden as similar figures, occupying an “in-between space” in American politics, as one activist put it to me. Their political identities and agendas are a muddled mix of the old establishment Democratic politics and the progressivism of the surging Millennial left—a combination progressives believe they can work with. They think that, just as Biden has already welcomed progressive input in his campaign, Harris could be malleable, a potential vice president they can push in their ideological direction.

“The same guy who was willing to sit down with Strom Thurmond is now talking like he wants to be the 21st-century FDR,” Julian Brave NoiseCat, the vice president of policy and strategy at the progressive polling firm Data for Progress, told me. “A savvy politician like Harris is going to see where the winds are blowing and move in that direction.”

Harris, who joined the Senate four years ago, described herself a “progressive prosecutor” in her previous career, but many lefties have never claimed her as one of their own. That’s largely because of her long and complicated record in law enforcement. As California’s attorney general, a position she held from 2011 to 2017, Harris repeatedly declined to investigate officer-involved shootings. Activists in California also criticized her for not supporting reforms that would have increased police accountability; for championing an anti-truancy law that disproportionately affected parents of color; and for aggressively prosecuting misdemeanors and so-called quality-of-life crimes, such as panhandling and graffiti.

More recently, during the 2020 primary, lefties argued that she wasn’t sufficiently committed to progressive reforms. After initially backing Medicare for All and the elimination of private health insurance, for example, Harris walked back those commitments and developed her own health-care plan. “A lot of why she floundered in the primary was that it was unclear where she stood on a number of things,” Waleed Shahid, the communications director for the progressive organization Justice Democrats, told me.

But Harris does have some clear progressive bona fides. A GovTrack analysis showed that she had one of the most liberal voting records of any sitting senator in 2019. She announced her support for the Green New Deal early that year, and this month teamed up with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York on a bill that would require the federal government to consider the effect of any new environmental legislation on marginalized communities. Throughout the summer, as protests against racism and police brutality erupted in cities across the country, Harris advocated for banning choke holds and no-knock warrants, and called for “reimagining how we do public safety in America.”

The progressives I spoke with don’t really care if those moves were genuine or motivated in part by politics. They just want Harris to make more of them. “Her collaboration with AOC on the Climate Equity Act shows that she can take some fairly left-wing and justice-oriented conversations to the highest office in the land, and that’s a good thing,” NoiseCat said.

Others framed her leftward shift more cynically: “While her penchant for taking positions broadly palatable to the corporate donor class raises concerns about her dedication to progressive principles, her habit of aligning her stance with the prevailing political winds gives us some hope,” the leaders of and Progressive Democrats of America said in a statement yesterday.

Harris’s potentially pliable ideology, in other words, could prove useful to progressives. It’s also something that she has in common with her running mate. When I asked him to define Harris’s politics, Larry Cohen, the chairman of Our Revolution, the political-action committee spun out of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign, described her the same way one might describe Biden: “a centrist Democrat who has shown willingness in the past to consider progressive ideas.”

At one point, a Biden nomination was a nightmare scenario for many American progressives. Yet in the past few months, the former vice president and his fiercest critics on the left have reached a tentative détente: Biden has adopted some of the most liberal policies proposed by his former primary rivals, including Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy plan, and he invited a group of Sanders-aligned activists to advise his campaign. The $2 trillion climate plan he announced in mid-July was met with glowing praise from influential lefty groups such as the Sunrise Movement, which first came to national prominence after its members held a protest outside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office on Capitol Hill.

“Some of our administrations who have been the boldest haven’t always been the most progressive,” Tory Gavito, the president and co-founder of the progressive Way to Win network, told me. Many liberal Democrats were skeptical of Lyndon B. Johnson’s commitment to progressive reforms when he arrived in office, given his southern background and establishment ties. But Johnson was responsible for “some of the most levelizing, equalizing policies in recent history,” Gavito noted, adding that progressives shouldn’t underestimate the potential for similarly ambitious legislation from a Biden-Harris administration.

Many progressives, though, are still highly skeptical of Biden’s VP pick. Some of the activists and organizers behind this summer’s protests believe that Harris is exactly the wrong person to lead the country through this pivotal moment. (Even some statements in support of Harris’s nomination alluded to this concern.) Given Biden’s age, his vice president would likely be viewed as a “potential president-in-waiting” and “a signal for the Democratic Party’s agenda in the years to come,” as my colleague Christian Paz wrote last month. While that’s exciting for progressives eager to see a Black woman occupy the highest office in the land, the idea that Harris represents the party’s future is a worrying prospect for others who are focused primarily on pushing radical change. The next generation of voters “wants a more forceful progressivism that’s grounded in racial justice and economic populism,” Shahid said. “I don’t know if she has proven that she’s able to do that.”

There’s no pretending that Harris was their ideal candidate for vice president, the progressives I talked with acknowledged. They still want and expect Biden to demonstrate his commitment to party unity by appointing more liberal Democrats to key roles in his administration, such as tapping Warren to oversee the Treasury Department. And they’re prepared to apply constant pressure to extract the most progressive policy outcomes if the ticket wins in November. “Harris didn’t run on big reforms and neither did Joe Biden, so progressives are going to be pushing them to go as big as they can,” said Charles Chamberlain, the executive director of the lefty political-action committee Democracy for America. But the former vice president has surprised them so far. The next one might too.