Did Kamala Harris just become a Bernie Bro?

The centrist embraces a winning idea

Sen. Kamala Harris
(Image credit: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni)

How should Democrats position their party to restore their catastrophic losses from the last eight years? The same factions from the 2016 primary have continued to slug it out, with the leftists arguing for more economic populism and the centrists arguing to stay the course.

Now Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), a centrist darling, has taken up the major proposal of the left, by becoming a co-sponsor of Bernie Sanders' Medicare-for-all bill. She may have become ... one of the Dread Bernie Bros.

This is interesting, and not a little amusing, on multiple levels. But it's also a good opportunity to drive home the fact that the largest beneficiaries of an agenda of economic populism would be oppressed minorities, especially black and Latino Americans.

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Some weeks ago, I incautiously waded into this debate, in a piece somewhat clumsily suggesting that if more centrist-aligned minority candidates wanted to try to bridge the left-liberal divide, they could start by coming clean about past failures and by endorsing clearly needed policy. Or if they wanted to deepen divisions, they or their supporters could simply accuse anyone who doesn't support them of being racist.

A gigantic swarm of centrists on social media — the worst pile-on I've ever experienced, including from the Gamergate crowd — opted for the latter strategy, calling me racist, comparing me to neo-Nazis, and so forth. An occupational hazard for writers these days, alas, but no real harm done in my case. (Mysteriously, two black women who wrote similar articles — indeed, both of them superior to my piece — were almost totally ignored.)

More interesting was the response from high-profile Harris supporters, who clearly thought that she was on Team Centrist. Joy Ann Reid dedicated a segment of her MSNBC show to defending Harris from my column, summarizing my argument as saying that Harris was "the problem." Panelist Zerlina Maxwell argued that this supposed demand for "ideological purity" was a "manifestation of privilege," because women and people of color simply have to take big donor money to win. Howard Dean cast the left as a "whiny party" which doesn't care about winning — and in the process "leaves behind the people who really need their help," namely black and brown people.

Then on Wednesday of this week, Reid went on The Daily Show and argued that economic populism was a losing strategy for Democrats. They must become an "ethnic" party of black, brown, and gay people, and cannot use populist policy to cater to the mythical Joe Sixpack of the white working class, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon or Coors Lite, because "those voters are Republicans. They just are."

Now it seems that Harris — who clearly has ambitions for higher office of some sort — disagrees! Perhaps she has been sampling too much cheap macrobrew.

Jokes aside, what matters about this move is how it clarifies both recent history and the policy stakes. The problem with the argument about political success from Reid and Dean is that it's completely at odds with recent electoral results. Democrats just ran a compromising, centrist, big-donor candidate with a 3-2 money advantage and lost to the biggest buffoon in the history of presidential politics. Overall, the party is in its worst shape since 1928. If anybody is calling for a "purity test," it's people continuing to cling to such a world-historical failure.

Given recent events, I think nobody should be confident in their ability to predict the future course of politics (instead one should run on good policy). But it can't be ignored that Medicare-for-all is popular, higher taxes on the rich are very popular, and Bernie Sanders is the most popular working politician in the country. Harris, it seems, has also noticed this, which only makes sense. Why on Earth would someone ambitious look past that to step into the path of failure blazed by Hillary Clinton?

And regarding the policy merits, one of the biggest reasons to support Medicare-for-all is precisely because it would disproportionately benefit oppressed minorities. ObamaCare narrowed the racial coverage gap somewhat, but did not close it. The uninsurance rate among black Americans is 50 percent higher than among whites, as of 2015 — and 113 percent higher among Hispanics. That means thousands of preventable deaths and millions enduring untreated illness, every year.

Because minorities are clustered at the bottom of the economic ladder, something similar holds for every part of a populist agenda, from stimulus to reduce unemployment to new programs to eliminate poverty.

President Obama — a black man, it may be necessary to emphasize — won two terms with a mildly populist campaign, constructing a coalition that was about one-third white people without a college degree. Conversely, Hillary Clinton lost in part because she did not match Obama's margins among the working class of all races.

There is every reason to think that a populist platform can both pay electoral dividends and go a long way to reduce racist oppression. After the abject failure of Clintonism, it's at least worth a shot.

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