Do We Need a New #PeoplesPlatform? Tulsi Gabbard, Kamala Harris, and Social Justice in the Progressive Left

Events of the previous weeks have shown that the persistent divide on the left between the progressive movement and the “old guard” have not gone away. Discussing this divide, Paul Rosenberg recently wrote that the “burning question is how to bring this divide about, and a large part of the answer to that lies in listening and learning from grassroots activists.” Significant amount of ink has been spilled on the subject, yet too many words are devoted to sanctifying and defending the merits of the respective sides of the division, and not enough to discussing the problematic ideological blockages that are standing in the way of reconciliation.

First, it is important to isolate and identify the respective views of the two camps. The language of those within the Our Revolution / Bernie Sanders camp has been to pit “progressives” against “the establishment.” In many ways, this is a false distinction. A more proper understanding is that the wings of the party are dividing between “economic justice” and “social justice.” This division does not mean that the social justice camp does not support economic justice (and vis versa), but rather that the camps are divided on issues of primacy, their respective “litmus tests.” Many progressives will protest that their economic platform is critical to achieving social justice. While this position holds some truth, it is incomplete. More on this later.

Second, it is important to disengage from the partisan divisions of the 2016 presidential primary. Bernie Sanders supporters have significant and meaningful objections to the conduct of the Democratic National Committee during the course of the primary campaign, and can point to instance where the DNC, as an organization, stacked the deck and put its finger on the scales during that campaign. Yet, at this juncture, it is important that partisans for Bernie Sanders not mistake their problems with the DNC proper for problems with individual voters and activists who support Hillary Clinton yet share a significant amount of values with the progressive movement. It is equally important for backers of Ms. Clinton to avoid allowing the bad blood of the primary to interfere with the vitally important work of building bridgers with Mr. Sanders’ supporters. The support of the progressive wing for Kimberly Ellis, a Hillary Clinton delegate, is a positive step in this direction, and should be treated as a sign of cooperation moving forward.

Third, and most significantly, the proper way to mend the gap is to cease with internecine fighting, and begin examining shortcomings, where they exist, on the policy level. Politics is, after all, a debate about policy. The current partisan battle risks deteriorating into an irreparable ideological rift if a certain level of soul-searching is not conducted first. This examination must necessarily include an interrogation of the current core values of the progressive wing, which demonstrates the way in which social issues are largely falling behind economic issues in terms of emphasis and priority. By re-examining the progressive core positions and platform, this offers an occasion for progressives to open up their platform and move towards the creation of a more broad-based and powerful coalition — without compromising on core issues of economic justice that currently define the movement.

The Progressive Platform and Social Justice: How We Got Here, and Where We Can Go

The progressive wing has coalesced around a discrete set of policy concerns: universal healthcare, free higher education, a $15 minimum wage, tougher financial regulations, a stronger policy against climate change (including a ban on fracking), a “green new deal” jobs program to boost renewable energy production, and an end to mass incarceration. These provisions are itemized by the #PeoplesPlatform, supported by Our Revolution and various progressive organizations, which also includes provisions for voters rights and women’s rights.

The fact that the overwhelming core planks of this platform are oriented around economic justice, rather than social justice, is hard to miss. Significantly, on the issue of “Criminal Justice and Immigrant Rights,” the platform cites to HR 3227, a bill that bans the practice of federal contracting with private prisons will reinstating certain parole provisions. The platform also contains a reference to voting rights, yet supports this plank by point to HR 2840, a bill which provide for automatic voter registration for all individuals who provide identifying information to the DMV. It is significant to note that the platform conflates “criminal justice reform” with “ending private prisons,” rather than rolling back federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws and seeking to decriminalize nonviolent crimes, while the voter rights plank contains no provisions regarding an end to targeted voter suppression in minority communities — and leave entirely uncovered and unprotected any individuals who do not interact with the DMV (as it should be noted that Republican voter ID laws have traditionally targeted individuals who do not possess driver’s licenses, a problem that this bill would seem, at least not at first blush, to directly attack).

Similar criticisms can be levelled against calls for free higher education, universal healthcare, and tough stances on climate change to the extent that those policies are not buttressed by equally strong demands to ensure that the benefits of these policies are equitably and evenly distributed. Free college is perhaps the most glaring issue, in that many poor and non-white communities lack access to quality K-12 schools that would put children in the position to succeed before they are admitted to colleges and universities. The disproportionate representation of white students at the highest tiers of higher education cannot be ignored. Racial disparities in access to health care remain a reality, and the fact remains that race is the single best predictor for whether you live near pollution. While the importance of a $15 minimum wage cannot be downplayed, neither can the fact that discrimination in hiring at every level must be addressed — exemplified by the fact that white men account for 72% of leadership positions in the Fortune 500. The failure to meaningfully integrate policies and platform planks aimed specifically at issues of social justice around these issues runs the serious risk of the progressive platform falling into a complacency with a form of “trickle-down justice” if it does not incorporate policy proposals serious barriers to access to justice that currently and undoubtedly exist along the social axis.

This is not to say that the progressive movement is racist, or to attempt to reinforce the glaringly false “BernieBro” smear frequently levelled against individuals in the fight for economic justice. The diverse makeup of the movement and the overwhelming popularity of Mr. Sanders across all demographics (with him finding himself with the least support among white males) makes the smear such a transparent falsehood that it hardly needs to be addressed, at least in terms of the demographics of the movement itself.

There is a very simply and logical reason that the current de facto progressive platform has coalesced around the issues discussed above. These New Deal-style issues have largely been ignored by the Democratic Party for decades, and are of vital importance to the strength of the American economy and the well-being of the American people. To that end, there is an urgent need for a call to action centered around those issues. The strength of Mr. Sanders’ 2016 campaign was, no doubt, his consistent and thoughtful focus on these issues. Mr. Sanders’ campaign was the clarion call for the creation of a new movement, as Mr. Sanders articulately and forcefully put forth the case for the reintroduction of a certain set of economic policies into that national narrative that were notably absent before the emergence of the movement surrounding his campaign.

In the aftermath of the 2016 campaign, and as the progressive movement seeks to unify and grow into a force than can win election after elections in the decade to come, it is time for the progressive wing to examine its own platform, and to challenge itself to incorporate a focus on social justice, in addition to economic justice, and to stand as strongly on those issues as it does on economic issues. To illustrate the gap in the current progressive movement, I will next examine several hot-button issues that have lit up (or failed to light up) the progressive left, in an effort to demonstrate areas where the platform can and must be expanded in order to take on critical issues and grow into a fighting force for all people.

Tulsi Gabbard and Kamala Harris: A Space for Interrogation of Social Justice Issues within the Progressive Left

The most immediate objection from progressives reading this piece will be to point out that progressives support and are fighting for the social justice issues that have discussed above. While this is undoubtedly true for millions of progressives on the individual level, it is equally true that the progressive movement has coalesced for and against certain politicians and political candidates on the basis of economic issues alone, without giving consideration to social justice issues that do not fit neatly into the economic matrix created by the current iteration of the progressive platform. This tension on the progressive left is best illustrated by the disparate treatment by the progressive wing of two politicians who have been frequently discussed as potential presidential contenders in 2020: Tulsi Gabbard and Kamala Harris.

Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard has received warm support from the progressive wing of the party, and is frequently cited, alongside Nina Turner and Kimberly Ellis, as receiving strong progressive support in an attempt to debunk the “BernieBro” narrative. Gabbard was described in The Daily Beast as “a Bernie Sanders supporter and rising start in her party’s progressive wing.” Activists have declared their support for her, citing that Ms. Gabbard “campaigned very strongly for Senator Sanders, helping him to win her diverse home state of Hawaii,” as well as her support for progressive taxation, stronger financial regulation, green energy, Medicare for All, and opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Yet continuing progressive support for Ms. Gabbard betrays something of a blind spot created by the progressive left’s current political matrix oriented around economic justice. Ms. Gabbard has a history of espousing anti-LGBT rhetoric in her public life (which has since been walked back, to a small degree), as well as a history of voicing anti-Muslim sentiments (which are still going strong). Ms. Gabbard’s checkered history has been fully documented by Branko Marcetic in Jacobin Magazine and by Zaid Jilani, writing for AlterNet.

Ms. Gabbard has frequently condemned Barack Obama on Fox News and other outlets for not using the phrase “Islamic Terrorism.” She has also frequently peddled the narrative that “the war on terror is a war against an ideology.” Tulsi also refers to “the cost of war” only in terms of American lives, while encouraging continued drone strikes and limited interventions in the Middle East. She does not speak out against violence against Muslims, but against “nation building,” which is particularly egregious given that the rise of the Islamic State can be directly traced to the failure of the civilian administration in Iraq (people like Paul Bremer) to actually put the work in to rebuild civil society there. Instead, the American administrators short-circuited the constitutional process and instead created a sectarian government that ignored the needs of many Northern Iraqis, while disbanding Iraq’s public infrastructure and failing to ever bother to rebuild it.

Ms. Gabbard’s rhetoric has been directly reinforced by her actions in Congress, including introducing a bill that would have de-prioritized the admission of Muslim refugees suffering Islamic State violence, while also breaking ranks with Democrats to vote for a Republican sponsored bill that would impose further restrictions on the admission of refugees from Iraq and Syria. At the time of the appoint of Steve Bannon by the Trump Administration, Tulsi refused to join 169 of her colleagues in the House in signing a letter denouncing the hiring of Mr. Bannon, at the same time that Mr. Bannon expressed his admiration for Ms. Gabbard’s hardline stance on “refugees and Islamic extremism.” Shortly thereafter, Tulsi Gabbard took a meeting with Donald Trump to discuss foreign policy, at the same time that it was widely reported that Ms. Gabbard was under consideration for a cabinet post. Ms. Gabbard then received an endorsement from KKK leader David Duke for Secretary of State. Tulsi did, to her credit, disavow this endorsement — but only three days later.

Despite these massive red flags, Tulsi Gabbard continues to be heralded as a hero for the progressive movement. Meanwhile, the rising profile of newly-elected Senator Kamala Harris of California has sparked an immense discussion amongst progressives, traced back to Andrew Joyce’s Mic article discussing Ms. Harris’s “Bernieland” problem. Joyce’s article presents a fair-minded and balanced critique of Ms. Harris: as someone who has expressed support “in one form or another” for universal healthcare, free college, a $15 minimum wage, criminal justice reform, and the expansion of social security programs, while also giving voice to progressives and their concerns regarding her perceived ties with Wall Street and the insufficient strength of her statements supporting policies such as single-payer healthcare. Ms. Harris, for her part, has publicly stated: “as a concept, I’m completely in support of single payer . . . but we’ve got to work out the details, the details matter on that.” In a vacuum, such a statement is rather non-controversial — details do matter when it comes to single payer, as is easily evidenced by the plethora of distinct single payer systems throughout the world. Regardless of the fact that single-payer systems uniformly achieve better results than the American system, the implementation of single-payer in the United States will, nonetheless, require an attention to detail that is alluded at by Kamala Harris’s comments.

Of course, healthy skepticism of Democratic politicians on single payer is warranted, especially in the aftermath of California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon’s decision to shelve progress on the state’s single-payer bill without debate. Yet a larger question looms as to the fairness of imputing the sins of the Democratic Party entirely on Ms. Harris (who has been a legislator for less than a year, and spent the entirety of her prior career in law enforcement, where she had relatively limited power to effect legislative change).

Here, the criticisms of Kamala Harris become more troublesome. In her piece “Get Off Kamala Harris’s Back,” Brittney Cooper acknowledges both the good and bad of Ms. Harris’s record — including her failure to prosecute Steve Mnuchin’s OneWest Bank while also pointing our her record of fighting for homeowners in support of her argument that this “is not actually a debate about Kamala Harris or her policy propositions.” Ms. Cooper situates the central problem as one of an expectation that black politicians should come to the aid of the progressive left, writing:

Ryan Cooper tries and fails to preempt arguments about his response to Kamala Harris, saying that critics might argue that, ‘The left just doesn’t like minority or female candidates because they are racist and sexist.’ He characterizes these arguments as trying to ‘win dirty.’ White men on both the right and the left always like to remind us, when they are disagreeing with black candidates, that everything is not about racism. They can disagree with people’s policy positions on the merits. That is, of course, true.
But a dirty win is actually one predicated on blaming black women and black politicians more generally for failing to save America from itself once again, and then claiming that race and gender have nothing to do with the targets of your ire. Sanders Democrats are mad that black women didn’t think a critique of capitalism absolved the radical left of needing to deal forthrightly with racism and sexism.

Ms. Cooper’s arguments are powerful, in that the progressive economic justice-oriented left seems to expect that a message of economic justice alone is sufficient to win voters of color. Offering a limited defense to many on the progressive left, I would only highlight that many progressives do not seem to be criticizing Kamala Harris herself as directly, but are more voicing a criticism of a fear that the establishment Democratic party will use Kamala Harris as a tool to bludgeon the progressive left — perhaps betraying an anxiety that Bernie Sanders would suffer defeat at the hands of Ms. Harris, a woman of color who is imminently more likeable, charismatic, and poised than Hillary Clinton.

Yet this defense of the progressive attacks against Ms. Harris goes only so far. First, it must be noted that Kamala Harris is not Hillary Clinton, and to impute the entirety of Ms. Clinton’s policy decisions and history upon Ms. Harris merely because they share donors is simply unfair. Second, and of far greater concerns, the critique of Ms. Harris as nothing more than a tool of the Democratic establishment unfairly erases Kamala’s own personal history and achievements. It cannot be lost in this discussion that Ms. Harris is only the second black woman ever elected to the United States Senate, and is the first black female Senator since Carol Moseley Braun served one term from 1993 to 1999. Those who would seek to downplay Ms. Harris’s achievement would do well to read Leah Scott’s piece, “How Kamala Harris Inspires Me as a Black Woman.” Ms. Scott’s entire piece should be read, including the author taking inspiration from seeing a female graduate of Howard University ascend to the Senate, where she has shown great poise in the face of condescending criticisms of her colleagues, to her final paragraph, in which Ms. Scott writes:

Currently, Kamala Harris is the only African-American woman in the upper house of congress, which means that she is the only person out of 100 representing the whole nation who knows first hand what its like to be a black woman in America, and witnessing Sen. Harris fighting to be heard on the hill has been awe-inspiring for me and other young Americans who want to affect real change in the country for the better of all. #KeepFightingKamala

Less any progressives level further criticism on the basis of tired (and frankly offensive) lines, such as ‘identity politics run amok,’ it should be remembered that under-representation of people of color — and women of color especially — is a very real and significant problem at every level of management in the United States, not just in government. Progressives would also do best not to forget that increased diversity in management settings has nearly universally been found to lead to improved decision-making and performance outcomes (which should, of course, be secondary to the moral and ethical issue of the under-representation of historically marginalized groups in positions of power in our society).

Reflecting on the arguments put forth by Brittney Cooper exposes a more troubling vein within the current matrix of values of the progressive left. Kamala Harris’s achievements — and her existence as a black female United States Senator — are reduced to the question of her fidelity and commitment on issues of economic justice contained within the current agreed-upon progressive platform. As Sarah Jones pointed out in the New Republic, progressives “could do worse than to campaign for candidates who are late converts to, say, free college or genuine universal health care. When a politician changes course, recognize this for what it is: a concession, won by a newly invigorated movement. It’s too soon to say #NeverKamala.” It is necessary to acknowledge Kamala Harris’s complex and flawed record, yet it is greatly concerning that too many in the progressive wing have written off her achievements, and instead chosen to marginalize her while touting progressive support for other women of color, including Nina Turner, Kimberly Ellis, and — perhaps most troubling — Tulsi Gabbard herself. This defensive maneuver reflects both an ideological rigidity — an inability to acknowledge the undoubtedly great achievements of Ms. Harris, including both her election to the Senate and her first major piece of legislation, a bail reform bill — while also displaying a sort of racial anxiety within the movement.

Where to From Here: Reforming the #PeoplesPlatform and Integrating Social Justice

There is a deafening silence on the issue of bail reform from the progressive left that has criticized Kamala Harris so deeply. As Taryn Finley points out in the Huffington Post:

Black and Hispanic people are more likely to be detained than white people and less likely to be able to afford bail. This unjust bail system is what kept then-teenager Kalief Browder locked away at Rikers Island for three years over a stolen backpack. He was released in 2013 but the unjust incarceration had a negative effect on his mental and emotional health. He committed suicide two years after his release.

It is further important to note that Ms. Harris also pushed for bail reform as Attorney General of California, backing a bail reform bill that was never passed by the California Legislature. While progressives call for a complete reform of the criminal justice system, the failure to credit Ms. Harris for pushing this significant bill should not be ignored. It is noteworthy, of course, that discussions of a complete dismantling of the prison-industrial complex are frequently couched in terms of wasted taxpayer dollars, whereas Ms. Harris’s bill would produce real benefits in the lives of people of color, even if it does not come with the massive spending relief that progressives seek on a total overhaul of the criminal justice system.

That is not to say that progressives do not care about the impact of injustice against people of color in the criminal justice system. Yet, as earlier discussed, the current iteration of the #PeoplesPlatform calls specifically for an end to the private prison system — which is undoubtedly rife with abuse, while also being a waste of taxpayer funds — yet contains no further detailed analyses of practices such as as unjust bail system, a fight which Kamala Harris is currently serving as a champion on. Nevertheless, Ms. Harris is given little to no credit for championing these badly needed reforms (which will disproportionately benefit communities of color), and is instead lambasted for not lending full-throated support to the economic justice policies of the #PeoplesPlatform (which provides badly needed economic relief to all Americans, without a thorough roadmap for dealing with racial disparities in the provision of benefits that it would provide).

In the aftermath of events in Charleston, it is no longer enough for the progressive left to identify establish Democrats and neoliberals as “the enemy” of the progressive movement. It is time to take stock of where we are as a nation, to build a more inclusive #PeoplesPlatform — one that is as thorough on social justice as it is on economic justice - and to begin rethinking our complex relationships with imperfect politicians such as Tulsi Gabbard and Kamala Harris.

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