2020 elections

Kamala Harris Embraces Populism — and Tries to Define What That Means in 2020

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Senator Kamala Harris’s goals for her presidential campaign launch rally in Oakland on Sunday became increasing clear as one approached the event. The massive, diverse crowds lining up in the streets around city hall, for one, foreshadowed her intention to announce herself as a candidate to be reckoned with. (Message received: over 20,000 Californians showed up.) The staging — looking not terribly unlike a presidential inaugural address with the grand white granite building in the background, plastered with American flags — underscored the political point.

As the program began, her intention to associate her bid with one description (“FEARLESS,” the word that the sign on her lectern instructed the crowd to text to sign up for her campaign list) and a set of core concepts (“truth, justice, decency, equality, freedom, democracy,” as her kickoff video listed) revealed themselves, too. “We are here because the American dream and our American democracy are under attack and on the line like never before,” Harris soon said.

And, as the senator spoke bluntly of racism and inequality, her promise to lead with “moral clarity” rang clear, an obvious implied rejoinder to a president lacking in that quality. “America, we are better than this,” she insisted.

Yet it was toward the end of her 35-minute speech when her choice of a particular quotation helped illuminate one last goal.

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly,” Harris said, quoting Robert Kennedy as she introduced her finale. “He also said, ‘I do not lightly dismiss the dangers and the difficulties of challenging an incumbent president, but these are not ordinary times and this is not an ordinary election.’ He said, ‘At stake is not simply the leadership of our party and even our country. It is our right to moral leadership of this planet,’” she continued.

The selection of Kennedy, often remembered as a hero of a broad Democratic populism, to be the only elected official mentioned by name in the speech was telling. Choosing to quote the U.S. attorney general-turned-senator’s 1968 presidential campaign announcement (a primary challenge to Lyndon Johnson, the leader of his own party), doubly so for the California attorney general-turned-senator. That’s because much of Harris’ address appeared loosely to be an attempt to define, or at least describe the outlines of, her own version of a populist message amid a broader populist moment. That message is, roughly, moving “the people” toward justice.

“I do not run for the presidency merely to oppose any man but to propose new policies. I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I’m obliged to do all that I can,” said Kennedy in his speech, 51 years ago. “I run to seek new policies — policies to end the bloodshed in Vietnam and in our cities, policies to close the gaps that now exist between black and white, between rich and poor, between young and old, in this country and around the rest of the world.”

Harris — who chose “For The People,” a reference to her prosecutor days — as her campaign slogan, on stage framed her career up to this point as a struggle on behalf of everyday citizens. To her, she told the crowd, “for the people” meant advocating for survivors of sexual assault, for middle-class families who’d lose their homes, against gangs, and for a fairer criminal justice system.

“In our system of justice, we believe that a harm against any one of us is a harm against all of us. That’s why when we file a case, it’s not filed in the name of the victim. It reads, ‘The people,’” she explained, “My whole life, I’ve only had one client: the people.” (By my count, she said the word “people” 33 times on stage.) Speaking in the plaza where Occupy Oakland began in 2011, Harris described policy plans in terms of fundamental rights: to Medicare for All, universal pre-K, and debt-free college, for example.

And, seeking to position herself squarely on the side of “the people” against elite wrongdoers, she faulted not only the Trump administration for a range of injustices, but large pharmaceutical companies for their role in the opioid crisis, and bankers for their “arrogance of power” and their catalytic part in the Great Recession.

That Harris would try and, as an aide put it before her speech, “claim [the] mantle of a new populism … rooted in serving and representing the needs and lived experiences of all Americans” is not, itself, surprising, especially at a time when the term itself now feels nearly ubiquitous in political commentary.

In the public mind, “populism” is now both open to interpretation — if not downright vague, beyond a general “for the people, not the elites” principle — and susceptible to claiming by pols of many different kinds, sometimes as a compliment, often as an epithet. (It is by now detached from its roots in American politics. No contemporary American politicians are more frequently described as populists than Trump and Bernie Sanders, and they obviously agree on very little; Barack Obama in 2016 said he might have qualified as a populist, too, but warned of misusing the term.)

But it’s a development that stands to play an important, maybe definitional, role in shaping the Democratic primary. After all, Harris is far from the only candidate framing him or herself as the tribune of “the people” in some specific way, but she is, for now, perhaps the most explicit about it.

Elizabeth Warren, for one, has long advocated for structural change of a rigged system, and has leaned hard into this pitch in her policy-focused campaign ramp-up, which has been heavy on direct contact with voters at long events in Iowa and New Hampshire. Sanders seems increasingly likely to try running again as a working class hero, this time aiming for a broader appeal. And Sherrod Brown, speaking of the “dignity of work,” has written extensively about the importance of reclaiming the populist title from Trump and the far-right.

What we will likely soon find out is how compatible all these visions of “populism” are with one another — which ones actually resonate with “the people.” We’ll see whether there’s room in 2020 for everyone to have their own definition.

Kamala Harris Tries to Define Her Own Version of Populism