Kamala Devi Harris is born to first-generation immigrant parents. Her mother is Shyamala Harris, born in Chennai, and father is Donald Harris are from India and Jamaica respectively. She has recently been chosen as a Vice-Presidential candidate for the Democratic party for the United States Presidential election this year being the first African American woman or Asian American or person of Indian ancestry to have reached such a position in American history.
The American Vice-President
Vice Presidents are supplements to the Presidential candidates. To understand the Presidential politics of the United States, one has to note three things:
First, the American political process is unique as both its primaries and its final elections are open to the public. This means that before running for President, the two major political parties open prospective candidates to an election to people who are registered with the party. Any citizen can register with the party, and registration does not come with any additional requirements. In this way, the Primaries act as a first-round election.
Second, America employs the Electoral College system when choosing a President and Vice President. This means that people vote for the candidates that their state supports. Every state has a certain number of votes roughly proportionate to their population. Of the two major political parties, Democratic and Republican, some states consistent
Third, American Vice President have very few official powers. Their position is mostly ceremonial. Informally, a vice-president might be able to influence policy by their proximity to the President, and if the President is unable to act as President, the Vice-President is the successor, but during the term of the President, they have very little power. The Vice President also acts as a signal that the person will pursue the President’s office in a future election.
Why Kamala Harris?
To understand why Harris was chosen as a Vice Presidential candidate, it is important to understand her as someone who balances the image of the Presidential candidate, Joseph Biden Jr. To win the election, Biden will need to balance his vote-banks, as well as undecided voters who live in critical areas of the country vital for the election. The electoral system of America makes it difficult to win by focusing on one at the expense of the other.
During the Primary elections, Biden promised to choose a woman as his Vice-President. This seems to be a response to the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, where the American polity, particularly the vote-banks of the Democratic party, became more concerned about the politics of representation.
Biden is also seen as more appealing to the undecided voter, being able to generate consensus across different conflicting political terrains. This ability has recently become a liability as it has alienated the traditional support-base of his party. Racial minorities have noticed his willingness to compromise with racists. The poor and the indebted middle class have noticed his willingness to give concessions to big business. Since he is seen as part of the Obama administration, he also carries the baggage of that administration, which gave large subsidies to large private banks, and was unwilling to end the prolonged American wars abroad. This willingness to compromise makes Biden a weaker candidate amongst his traditional voting base, which could easily cost him the election.
During the primary elections, Kamala Harris was one of the sharpest critics of Biden. She openly accused him in debates of working with racists to promote segregationist policies.
This election also comes in the context of a very divisive issue- the Police Violence.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by police officers, two critical vote banks have come at odds with each other, African Americans and the Police. While the Police population is much smaller, they are evenly distributed across districts in the United States. In many districts, especially those White-dominated who have not seen the racialized violence and might even support it, alienating the police force can cost the party critical votes. At the same time, African Americans, a traditional vote bank for Biden’s party, have been losing faith in the party owing to its lacklustre record on racial issues, particularly police brutality. In recent times, it has been highlighted that many of the policies that increased police violence against African Americans came from Democratic politicians and Presidents.
Harris threads between these two identities. First, she is the first African American woman to be either a Presidential or Vice-Presidential candidate in history. She is very vocal about how her racial identity informs her politics, though, in terms of actual policy, her positions have not been particularly forward. Second, she is also seen as part of the police establishment. Surveys done during the Democratic primaries found that she is less popular with African American Democratic voters than Biden.
Biden’s choice of Harris as a Vice-President seems to reflect his image more than hers. His campaign has included a desire to increase the visibility of women and people of colour, and the ability to reach out and negotiate with people in the opposition, contrasting the Trump establishment that is primarily white men reluctant to negotiate.
Biden is 77 years old, about 3 years older than Trump. The youth are a strong vote bank for the Democratic party, but surveys have suggested that they might not vote for Biden in large numbers. Harris, being relatively young at 55 years, a woman, and a person of colour are supposed to be a signal of change in the party, without being a commitment to change in policy.