Senator, Interrupted

Kamala Harris got shushed and became a liberal hero. Do progressives want to hear what she has to say?

California Sen. Kamala Harris heads to a weekly policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on May 16.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Kamala Harris had a simple question: Would Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein sign a letter granting special counsel Robert Mueller full investigative independence? As Rosenstein explained that this question was actually quite complicated, Harris pressed him to stop hemming and hawing. “Either you are willing to do that or you are not,” said the junior senator from California. At this point, Sen. Richard Burr stepped in to gallantly defend Rosenstein’s honor. “The chair is going to exercise its right to allow the witnesses to answer the question,” he proclaimed, while Harris squinted in disbelief. “The committee is on notice to provide the witnesses the courtesy—which has not been extended all the way across—extend the courtesy for questions to get answered.”

This was a maddening moment, a Pleistocene demand for female “niceness.” No other senator had been tut-tutted in such a way, scolded by a colleague for daring to seek a straight answer to a crucial question about the FBI’s Russia investigation. And then, a week later, it happened again. When Harris urged Attorney General Jeff Sessions to name the specific policy undergirding his choice to withhold the details of his conversations with President Donald Trump, Burr and Sen. John McCain double-teamed her. “Sen. Harris, let him answer,” the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee commanded.

Progressive viewers were at once nauseated and enthralled. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, muse of the “she persisted” meme, sent Harris a supportive tweet: “Keep fighting, Kamala!” A former Trump adviser, meanwhile, declared her “hysterical,” which only burnished Harris’ #nasty bona fides.

It wasn’t the precision, doggedness, and skill of the former prosecutor’s inquisitions that brought her accolades—at least, it wasn’t exclusively those traits. Harris’ first zinger of the week—she noted that when a robber holds a gun to your head and says he “hopes” you’ll hand over your wallet, “hope” isn’t the operative word—failed to spark the same kind of breathless coverage. The radiantly “uncourteous” novice senator became the latest liberal hero by virtue of being shushed. As a woman of color admonished, chastised, hushed, and scolded for not falling into line, Harris confirmed an infuriating narrative about who wields power in Washington and how that power gets deployed to silence those who dare to speak out. While Harris may not have asked for the symbolic mantle she now wears, it has already hastened her political rise. The progressive cause needs fierce, avenging angels. Harris, outspoken and scrappy, filled the available vacancy.

In Greek mythology, the Eumenides were three goddesses tasked with protecting the cause of justice. They originally redressed wronged womanhood, pursuing the prince Orestes after he murdered his mother. In Aeschylus’ tragedies, they are chthonic, ambiguous forces. They do not tire and they do not stop; their persistence—at least in the imagination of the male playwright—feels almost monstrous. Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Kamala Harris have become the Eumenides of the U.S. Senate, summoned by the blood of Hillary Clinton, formed from liberal feminists’ desire for a reckoning.

In Harris’ case, her positioning as a resistance hero flattens out complex views and a tortured rise. The 52-year-old spent 25 embattled years in law enforcement before winning a seat in the Senate in 2016. During her two terms as the district attorney of San Francisco and five years as the attorney general of California, she amassed legions of admirers and almost as many enemies.

In the criminal justice world, Harris is a divisive figure, too progressive for the law-and-order diehards and too draconian for those who embrace comprehensive change. A New York Times Magazine profile from May 2016 said she “embodies the [Democratic] party’s ambitions and contradictions” in the age of Black Lives Matter. Harris believes in addressing crime’s underlying causes, but she also defended convictions secured by prosecutors who lied under oath. She launched a program that offered first-time drug offenders the chance to earn high school diplomas instead of going to prison. She also battled the release of inmates from California jails the Supreme Court had pronounced overcrowded. While one wing of her party vowed to remake the system, she worried about achieving a more modest seat “at the table where decisions are made.” Her aim, in the words of the Times’ Emily Bazelon, was to “chart a middle course.”

Yet Harris is also a trailblazer, her resume a riot of firsts. She is the first black woman from California to serve in the Senate (and the nation’s second), as well as the state’s first female attorney general, its first black attorney general, and its first attorney general of South Asian descent. (Harris’ mother was born in India.) She is the first Indian American senator in U.S. history. She was San Francisco’s first female district attorney. She was also, according to President Obama in 2013, “the best-looking attorney general in the country,” though he later apologized for saying so. (Obama, who also described Harris as “brilliant,” “dedicated,” and “tough,” reportedly placed her on his shortlist to succeed Eric Holder. Then he considered her for the Supreme Court seat vacated by Antonin Scalia.)

Like so many women in politics, Harris did not find success easy to come by. She’s been pummeled in the public arena for decades, starting early in her tenure as attorney general of San Francisco. In 2004, Harris refused to seek the death penalty for a man who’d shot and killed a police officer. Speaking at the officer’s funeral, Sen. Dianne Feinstein exhorted the young AG to reconsider, prompting rows of law enforcement employees to surge to their feet. But Harris, whose mother later sent her a bouquet of white roses with a note reading “courage,” stood firm. The move cost her considerable political capital, which she rebuilt painstakingly thanks to years’ worth of performative toughness on sentencing reform.

As a congresswoman, though, Harris’ position seems less ambiguous. Once criticized for excessive caution (her office was known for a politic “reluctance to push forward” on messy homicide cases), she now takes every opportunity to challenge an administration she deems as bigoted and blighted as the racists her parents protested on the steps of the Berkeley courthouse in the 1960s. “If you’ve ever wondered what you would have done during the Civil Rights Movement,” Harris tweeted on Feb. 3, “this is your opportunity to find out.”

She is particularly ardent about sheltering Muslims and undocumented workers from the cruelties of the administration’s immigration policies. When Trump signed the administration’s first travel ban, and chaos swept through airports across the country, Harris phoned Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly at his home on a Saturday night, imploring him to intervene. She used her maiden speech on the Senate floor to denounce “policies that demonize entire groups of people based on the god they worship,” noting that such laws “have a way of conjuring real-life demons.”

Harris pointedly held her first public appearance as senator-elect at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. “Today we are re-dedicating ourselves to fighting for the best of who we are,” she told the audience, adding, “When our ideals and our fundamental values are being attacked … I say we fight.” Her eight-minute speech contained more than 33 variations on the verb to fight. Her website characterizes her as “a fighter—I’ve fought for the people of California, especially those most in need. And now I’m ready to take that fight to Washington.”

If she once evoked Hillary Clinton through her delicate balancing of political imperatives, Harris now embodies the progressive feminism that Clinton symbolized during the 2016 campaign. In a way, this trade-off (from mirroring a human to mirroring a movement) is the smartest play Harris can make. But it elides her complexities and threatens to reduce her to her gender and racial identity. She is more than a Wonder Woman meme, despite the left’s well-meaning efforts to smooth her into a type. Of course, politics is a long game, and Harris remains in the early stages of what seems likely to be a lengthy career in public office. If she runs for president in 2020 (she denies even thinking about it), we’ll have the opportunity to hear a more nuanced story.

The question lingers, however: Do we want to hear that nuance? Democrats are desperate for agents of cosmic justice—the kinds of politicians who are willing to fight Trump in 33 different ways. This has led them to treat a hardline disciplinarian with a complicated record as if she were a cardboard cutout of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Perhaps Kamala Harris has enough magnetism to inspire the Democratic Party. Perhaps her hesitant and halting approach to criminal justice reform can be integrated into the party of Black Lives Matter. But in placing Harris on a pedestal, it feels like the left may be building up one of its own as a prelude to knocking her down. It almost sounds like the beginning of a Greek tragedy.