Issue 7

The Biden-Harris Campaign: Representation or Presentation?

On 20th January, as Joe Biden was sworn in as United States of America’s 46th president, Democrats celebrated Donald Trump’s departure from the office while also rejoicing in Kamala Harris’ entry. Kamala Harris, the vice-president with several firsts, has been the talk of the news cycles ever since she was picked by Joe Biden as her running mate, after she suspended her own presidential campaign in August.  USA’s first woman, Indian-American, Asian vice president’s candidacy has added onto the world’s fixation with US politics because of the position and the power the country holds in global affairs. It is extremely important to acknowledge and appreciate Harris reclaiming space where women, especially black and other women of colour are constantly overlooked, silenced and shut — as also noted by Harris in her speech. This joy gets doubled when one looks at it as a victory that comes off at the heels of an administration that has  enabled white supremacy. 

Though Kamala’s Harris’ entry is a historical win for the United States of America in most means, people of the country are looking at Kamala Harris unidimensionally, and reducing her existence to only her identity:  Indians, both in USA and abroad, have been quick to claim her as their own, just like they have always been with every successful member of the diaspora, with remote links that root them back to the homeland. The internet is flooded with people from all over the world, especially Indians reacting to someone who “looks like them” making a place for herself in a majoritarian white-male office. From people calling her “Kamala Aunty” to Mindy Kaling claiming that her toddler does not see a difference between Harris and Kaling herself, Indians, mostly Hindu, out of which a significant portion is upper caste, immediately appropriated every aspect of Kamala Harris’ existence to make it their own. Many feminists are referring to Harris as “girlboss”, a term most commonly used to describe women in power, that has been criticised time and again for straying away from activism. 

Such a reductionary approach to a politician is definitely not new but it is dangerous as it tends to be used as a weapon by the candidates to mask their intentions and mislead the voters into buying a revisionist identity. Kamala Harris’ campaign is often seen focusing on Harris “going back to her roots”, whether it is making dosas with Mindy Kaling or talking about the importance of idlis and festivals in her mother’s house, time and time again we have seen Kamala Harris’ identity been marketed as an identity tool to appeal to a particular kind of vote bank — the upper castes from the Hindu diaspora through quick and lazy surface level tropes. Identity Politics, that is crucial for bringing forward a diverse panel to avoid trampling of minorities in the country, is increasingly being misinterpreted and reduced to a marketing tactic that caters to the “feel good” sentimentality without actually bringing any tangible change. 

Representation holds concrete value, however, only when the candidate reflects back onto the struggles of the community they claim to represent. There is nothing about Kamala Harris’ candidature that separates her from her white colleagues and opponents. . It is extremely hypocritical of Harris to bring up her “Jamaican roots” and talk about smoking pot as a youngster and claiming to be for the legalisation of the same. when she saw around 2,000 marijuana related convictions during her term in San-Francisco.  All this is just talk that profits off people’s struggles by giving them a false sense of relatability when in reality it is hollow, keeps stereotypes alive,while enabling divide and rule of the proletariat. This kind of playing on the sentiments of the voters also helps the public hold their representatives less accountable — the marketing strategies of the campaign are rolled out in such a manner that only diverts all attention to just one part of the candidate, their persona, completely taking away the focus from their policies and ideology.  

During the peak of Black Lives Matter movement in America, the Jamaican side of Kamala Harris’ identity was brought out time and again. She called herself a proud black woman, talked about her experience as a black student in college, told the public about the societies she was a part of in college that helped her get a deeper understanding of her community and its struggles, she calls herself a “progressive prosecutor”. However, if one looks at her past actions, we can see how during her term alone in California, more than ⅔ of the men killed by police officers were people of colour, of which a majority were unarmed. She was also responsible for holding black men longer in jails when they were eligible for release just to extract cheap labour out of them. It is disheartening to see an important movement that seeks to bring resolution to racial disparity in the country being twisted to fit a political campaign and agenda, when the candidate does not comply with anything that the movement stands for. Kamala Harris’ campaign runs in a similar manner to that of any big co-operative, where they take people’s real struggles, and capitalise on them under the false pretense of bringing forward a social change — like how brands do with LGBT struggles during the pride month.   

Kamala Harris has also constantly referred to herself as a feminist beacon, who purportedly understands women’s struggles when her activites have shown otherwise. Harris has not done much that aligned with the feminist movement, more so, she has been dangerous to the sex workers and the trans community alike. In 2008, Kamal Harris opposed the Proposition K, which was directed at decriminalisation of sex work and prevention of STIs. She argued that Proposition K unfurled “a welcome mat for pimps and prostitutes to come into San Francisco”. Her campaign completely ignores this past of Kamala, which had put women into danger and continues to show her as a feminist crusader and a “girlboss” who would bring a fresh perspective and voice into the US politics. She willingness of people to selectively see their candidates as it seems fit to them, makes it even more convenient for the campaign to do so. She also claims to be pro-decriminalisation of sex work but has not even commented to make amends to this action she undertook as an attorney general. 

The Democratic party during the Biden-Harris campaign has shown exactly what happens when neo-liberals twist the identity politics model, and reduce it to a weapon that centres itself around one aspect of an individual’s identity and uses it as a ladder while aligning with interests do nothing to dismantle a pre-existing model, all the while disillusioning the masses into believing that they would bring some concrete and effective change. 

Madhulika Agarwal is a third year English and Media Studies major who is interested in literature by children and for children. When she is not lamenting over her tiktok career that ended before it could start, she likes learning about animals and reading books with good art in them. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 4

Breathe Again

‘I can’t breathe.” That wasn’t just George Floyd. There were a lot of people who felt like they couldn’t breathe.” 

– Van Jones. CNN commentator/ Former Obama Administration Advisor. Nov. 7, 2020. 

George Floyd’s last words— a rallying cry, and an anthem for those protesting the injustices and discriminations of race and colour in America. Floyd, an African American, was killed during an arrest by the Minneapolis police in May this year, when an officer knelt down hard on his neck for over 8 minutes, suffocating him to death. The incident sparked off a summer of unrest, as racial violence erupted on the streets of major American cities. 

Unable to contain either his relief or his tears as Joe Biden was declared America’s new President-Elect, Van Jones said what was on the minds of 74 million American voters who cast their ballot for the Democratic candidate in this uniquely divisive election, held in the midst of a pandemic. “If you’re Muslim in this country, you don’t have to worry that the president doesn’t want you here. If you’re an immigrant, you don’t have to worry if the president is happy to have your baby snatched away or sent dreamers back for no reason,” Jones elaborated. His emotional response to the election result has gone viral on social media— evidence of the steam that’s been let out of the proverbial pressure cooker that America has been for the months during a tense, vitiated election. 

When Joe Biden launched his presidential campaign, he said he was launching a battle for the soul of America. When he chose Kamala Harris as his running mate he sent a message. Harris, who, with Indian-Jamaican roots identifies racially as Black and is married to a White American Jewish husband is a symbol for all — immigrants, African Americans, racial and religious minorities. And, when Biden accepted the office of President at a rally filled with honking automobiles in the Northeastern state of Delaware on Saturday night, he promised a return to decency in US politics. But how easy will this be to achieve? 

Four years was more than enough to see the divisions sown by an emboldened White Supremacist extreme right-wing rise to the surface of everyday America. Vitriolic campaigns, often dictated by hate-filled propaganda and misinformation have fed economic grievance and fear, created enemies where none existed and propagated the perception of White identity, faith and culture under threat. Trump’s supporters on social media and his allies in the mainstream media further weaponized hate to perpetuate his agenda willfully; discrediting Democrats, political activists, journalists — just about anyone who questioned him — along the way.

From the ban on travellers from six Muslim countries to Neo-Nazi rallies in Charlottesville to antisemitic attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh, and the most recent incidents of racial violence that sparked a reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement, to his deliberate characterization of #BLM protests as violence by ultra-left angry mobs, to his targeted campaigns against Joe Biden calling him a corrupt socialist who wanted to take away public wealth from the Whites for ‘others’, America’s spiralling descent into domestic chaos will perhaps be the abiding memory of Donald Trump’s single-term presidency. Even as he threatens lawsuits to challenge the result, Biden’s message to the public is one of unity. ‘We can be opponents, we are not enemies. We are Americans.’ he said. An important message— one that recognizes America’s current political reality. 

In his bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, conservative author JD Vance exemplified the rightward shift of the poor, white, blue collar American— originally largely Democrat, but one that felt left out of an inclusive politics that he suggests, seemingly prioritized racial minorities. If 74 million Americans voted for Biden, 70 million more chose, unsuccessfully, to re-elect Trump. The underlying message is this—  Trump’s win in 2016 was not a one-off. It is in fact symbolic of deep divisions within American society which is seeing both newer Democrats and newer Republicans push towards the extreme ends of their ideological compasses. 

Decency in politics demands empathy, integrity, courage and tolerance. It demands the ability to listen to your opponent, to live with differences and most importantly it urgently demands an expansion of a middle ground. Sitting halfway across the world, often forced to deal with the aftermath of the follies and misadventures US policy in lands far away from its own shores, one could argue that the soul of America was lost a long time ago, or that the Democratic party’s intentions of speaking for true democratic values are hypocritical. But if you’re in the continental United States, Biden’s pledge to engage and empathize in the wake of social conflict and armed violence in a population known globally for political correctness and liberal principle; and his pledge to rebuild partnerships with traditional allies around the world is an important, necessary step towards  America’s healing— both at home and abroad. 

Maya Mirchandani is a journalist, a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).