When Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden selected Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as his running mate for the 2020 Presidential Election, the general consensus was that the pick represented a moderate but safe option. In their headline, the New York Times described it as such, saying “In Harris, Biden chooses ideological match even as party tilts left.” Unsurprisingly, some progressive Democrats decried the move, claiming that Harris was disappointingly centrist and that in picking her, Biden and the Democratic Party were ignoring their more left-wing supporters. However, there is one problem with this accusation: Harris is actually a very progressive candidate. The discrepancy between Harris’s moderate reputation and progressive political agenda shines light on a concerning problem with contemporary American political coverage. Too often, political journalism evaluates and analyzes candidates based on narratives and rhetoric instead of actual policy, misrepresenting candidates and leading voters astray.
Harris is the premier example of a politician who is portrayed as moderate because of her incrementalist rhetoric and narratives about her past, a method of evaluation which disregards her actual political stances and instead plays into the perception that the Democratic presidential primary can be cleanly divided into two lanes: moderates and progressives, with only Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., representing the progressives. In reality, Harris’s reputation as a moderate Democrat is not backed up by actual evidence and portraying her as such does a great disservice to her Senate voting record, which is consistently exceedingly progressive.
Through her two terms in Congress, Harris has been one of the most left-wing senators, even when compared to others within the Democratic party. According to one analysis of her voting record, Harris has been the second-most progressive senator in both the 115th and 116th congresses, sitting behind only Warren. Interestingly, this places her further to the left than self-proclaimed democratic-socialist Sanders and noted progressive Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. According to the analysis, her record is more closely aligned with Warren’s than either Sanders’s or Markey’s.
Another similar study of her voting record places her as the fourth-most progressive senator, closely aligned with Sanders and again further left than Markey, but only by one place. Digging deeper, a 538 analysis aimed to calculate how often each United States Senator should hypothetically vote with or against President Donald Trump, based on the senator’s partisan alignment and the political composition of their state. Harris voted against Trump even more than the measurement projected she would, serving as a notice that Harris’s progressivism is rooted in her actual political beliefs, not simply in being a senator from California.
Harris’s progressive Senate voting record also aligns with her public stances on hot-button policy issues, something which is often ignored or overlooked. In June of last year, Harris and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., introduced the Climate Equity Act, a bill which aimed to ensure the “key principle of justice for frontline communities” and to “guarantee that the policies comprising a future Green New Deal protect the health and economic wellbeing of all Americans for generations to come.” Later, Harris went even further, saying that were she elected president, she would eliminate the filibuster in order to pass the Green New Deal itself; she also stated that she supported banning fracking. Harris also outlined her ideas for a Medicare for All plan in a Medium post, a policy proposal which aligned her more closely with Sanders and the progressive wing of the Democrats than with Biden.
Given the evidence that Harris is a consistently progressive legislator, a question naturally arises: Why, then, is she considered to be a moderate Democrat? There are two major reasons for this, both of which focus on points of limited relevance to her actual record as a legislator and policy-maker. First, there is her history as a public prosecutor. Harris served as San Francisco’s district attorney from 2004 to 2011, and then as California’s attorney general from 2011 to 2017. Her time as a prosecutor has received mixed reviews: Some believe she was “often on the wrong side of history,” while others describe her as “the most progressive DA in California.”
However, criticisms of Harris’s record as a public prosecutor are often overblown and reductionist. Public opinion on crime, justice and policing has shifted dramatically in the 16 years since Harris first became a prosecutor, and many of her critics ignore the difficulties and political realities of winning elections as a Black woman during a period in which voters (even Democratic ones) demanded their politicians be tough on crime. Put simply, had Harris not been willing to take a more conciliatory approach during her time as a public prosecutor, she would never have been afforded the opportunity to become a senator or vice-presidential nominee. Furthermore, this type of attack seems to be leveled exclusively at Harris; until 1996, Elizabeth Warren was a “diehard conservative,” yet today there is no discussion of whether or not this clouds her progressive credentials.
Similarly, another reason Harris is consistently labeled a moderate is because the media often focuses on the type of rhetoric she uses instead of her actual policy ideas. For instance, in her closing remarks at the first Democratic debate, Harris said, “We need a nominee who has the ability to prosecute the case against four more years of Donald Trump, and I will do that … I promise you, I will be a president who leads with a sense of dignity, with honesty, speaking the truth, and giving the American family all that they need to get through the end of the month in a way that allows them to prosper.”
Compared to Sanders’ calls for a “political revolution” or Warren’s demands for “big, structural change,” Harris’s political rhetoric, as exemplified by her closing remark at the debate, is undeniably more restrained. However, by basing their evaluations of Harris’s politics on her rhetoric and not her policies, many journalists ultimately end up misrepresenting her values and incorrectly describing her as a moderate. While her political speech may focus more on incrementalism than Warren’s or Sanders’s, it is imperative to remember that policies, not rhetoric, are what actually become law.
Ultimately, Harris’s perception as a democratic-moderate is based on a disproportionate focus from political media outlets on the type of rhetoric she employs and on narratives about her career, an approach which does a disservice to her actual policy record. For progressives who are frustrated with Biden’s decision to pick a moderate as his running mate, it is important to dig deeper into Harris’s actual policy agenda in order to better understand her positions, instead of simply relying on lazy coverage of the measured rhetoric she uses to frame her political approach. While Harris may appear to be a moderate on the surface, she is, in fact, an excellent and highly progressive candidate for the vice presidency, and one that should advance the goals of the Democrats’ more left-wing voters.
Zack Blumberg is a junior in the College of Literature, Science & the Arts and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.