Could Kamala Harris Help End the 2016 Primary Wars?

A while back I wrote a fairly well-received piece about what would need to happen to unite the left after the bruising 2016 primary. It focused principally on Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, both of whom are among the candidates seemingly preparing for a 2020 run, and the gist of it was that both class and social justice warriors would need to respect each other’s red lines and cease bad faith attacks on one another.

Of course, it’s impossible to corral the most rabid supporters of each side, and some people in what I like to call the wars of the donuts and the roses are hopelessly partisanized, endlessly taking receipts and trying to eliminate perceived standardbearers and lieutenants on the other side.

But those who would like to see significant advances made toward both transformative economic justice and broad-based social justice know that for real progress to be made, not only must Trump and his allies be defeated, but the old battles of 2016 must be quelled enough for the left to cooperate on some unified goals.

One of the more unfortunate developments in the 2016 primary was the factioning along unnatural fault lines in the party. In 2008, Barack Obama ran an insurgent campaign against the “inevitable” Clinton, cobbling together a base of young people, progressives and people of color. In Clinton’s corner were more moderate and older voters aligned with white working class Democrats. In 2016 Clinton was again the inevitable nominee, but rather than a charismatic younger African-American her opponent was a septuagenarian Jewish man with an attractive economic message for young disaffected voters, but a tendency to misstep when talking about social justice issues. This led to an awkward and unusual coalition of older people of color with the political establishment moderates for Clinton, while young people of all races and genders found themselves weirdly and uncomfortably aligned with some older rural conservative Democrats and a few somewhat deplorable “bros” who helped give the whole movement a bad name. This was a toxic dynamic for both sides, and the left hasn’t yet fully recovered.

In 2020 there will (thankfully) be no inevitable candidate fielded by the establishment. There will likely be a host of candidates across the spectrum, including multiple women and people of color, as well as a few white men from various geographic and ideological backgrounds. Potential candidates include Cory Booker, Deval Patrick, Andrew Cuomo, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Eric Garcetti, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and perhaps others as well.

Unlike in 2020, it’s hard to see any single candidate from this crowded field sweeping the South in the Democratic primary. It’s also hard to see how any one candidate dominates the caucus states, or runs the table on delegates from states with big media markets. Millennials may converge more closely on one or two candidates, but they too will be up for grabs even as they form an ever greater share of the electorate. It’s also highly probable that people of color as a whole–particularly the ever-growing Latinx population–will not again align with the more economically moderate side of the aisle. All of which is to say that the deeply entrenched battle lines of 2016 will be heavily scrambled in 2020.

Which candidates will likely benefit from all of this? Well, no one has a perfect crystal ball, but a few educated guesses can be proferred.

First, the insurgent progressives and young people who put their faith in the Sanders campaign in 2016 not only haven’t gone away, their anger at the status quo has intensified. But there’s no guarantee that they will remain in Sanders’ camp: unlike the common stereotype of a cult of personality campaign, people whose main concerns were student debt, healthcare, the high cost of living versus wages and the predation of the financial sector were intensely focused on those issues and chose their candidate for those reasons, despite his age, identity and other challenges. It’s completely possible that if other candidates without those challenges center those issues equivalently, they could attract the support of a considerable amount of Sanders’ base.

Second, women who were deeply disappointed in not getting the first Madame President in 2016 will be looking forward to achieving the dream in 2020–and who better to achieve it against than the likes of Donald Trump and Mike Pence? It seems probable that a woman candidate will be well poised to take the inside track next time around.

Finally, people of color will want to see a candidate who understands and is sensitive to their pressing priorities–particularly after four years of ugly overt racism from Trump and his minions.

Of all the candidates in the field, the one who best checks all of these boxes is California Senator Kamala Harris. While she has some issues in her past that annoy Sanders-style progressives on Wall Street and a few other issues, Harris has taken some fiercely progressive stances on issues like immigration, cannabis decriminalization, corporate money in politics, and much else. She is also modeling her small-dollar fundraising campaign after the Sanders operation.

She is also a woman of color and a former prosecutor who understands the inside workings of our Jim Crow criminal justice system better than most.

And it would be quite restorative in light of the endless “racism versus economic anxiety” debates for a woman of color from California to humiliate Trump electorally and win back a large number of Obama-Trump voters, while running on both progressive anti-prejudice social justice and a Sanders-style platform of free college and universal healthcare.

There’s no guarantee that all of this will happen, of course, or that the 2020 primary will play out this way. It’s a long way off, and 2018 is right around the corner first. Still, it’s something to seriously consider.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.