What I’m Reading: The Truths We Hold

The surest sign somebody’s considering a run for executive office is the publication of their combination memoir/manifesto. The Truths We Hold follows the model of Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope even more closely than I expected–it’s as though it’s been updated to critique the Donald Trump years instead of the George W. Bush years. Both books do a beautiful job of capturing the massive scale of contemporary problems we face while still expressing optimism and an unshakeable faith in American values. If you, like me, question that such values still exist in post-2016 America, it’s good to be reminded of them as we go into the next election.

After admiring Kamala Harris’s skillful questioning of people like Brett Kavanaugh, I was excited to see her amongst the 2020 Democratic primary candidates and I was keen to find out more about her. There are definitely some similarities between her upbringing and Obama’s. They were both raised by strong, academic (Shyamala Harris was a breast cancer researcher, Ann Dunham had a PhD in anthropology and worked in microfinance development) single moms, both of whom they lost to cancer in the early stages of their political careers. They both grew up travelling internationally and developing a worldview that’s more cosmopolitan than that of the average American (she visited grandparents in India and Jamaica, Obama lived in Indonesia). They both earned law degrees and have a strong public service ethos.

Significantly at this stage in the primaries, both candidates have been considered “unelectable”. Back in May, Samantha Bee pointed out that questions of “electability” only seem to face the female candidates, like Warren, Harris, Gillibrand and Klobuchar. Early polls ranked Biden, Sanders and O’Rourke as the most “electable” candidates, despite the fact that they have all lost elections and primaries in the past. The ladies have not.

Kamala Harris has won every race she’s ever run–for San Francisco’s District Attorney, California’s Attorney General, and her current U.S. Senate seat. Yet the pundits still say she’s not as “electable” as Biden or Sanders (who’ve both lost previous bids for the presidency). Harris addressed this claim at a recent rally in Iowa:

I’m not the only one who’s noticed the similarities between Harris and Obama–a few months ago, this Vanity Fair piece described Republicans who feared the prospect of Harris running for president because they saw her as “the next Obama”. In the same way that it would have been great to see Obama debate Trump and stand up against his birther conspiracy mongering face-to-face, I would love to see Kamala Harris use her prosecutorial skills against Trump in a debate. She speaks so eloquently and persuasively in her book about his litany of crimes–intentionally cruel policies of separating families and detaining kids in cages, Islamophobia, cuts to public services and tax breaks for the wealthy, transphobia, sexism, racism, actual confession on tape of sexual assault, unwillingness to condemn white supremacists/KKK/neo-Nazis, etc. It was sometimes overwhelming to read this book, to see it all written down in one place, rather than just getting a constant trickle from the 24/7 news cycle. But her no-nonsense approach, her determination and her optimism helped to balance that out and restore some degree of hope in the end.

While there are several candidates in the primaries that I would be quite excited to support in next year’s election, Kamala Harris is my current frontrunner.

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Back Where I Come From

It’s been a very ugly week in U.S. politics, with Trump doubling down on his racist tweets about the four progressive American Congresswomen known as The Squad. It was unbelievable, and yet completely typical of him. This Anderson Cooper clip summed it up nicely, pointing out that Trump’s racism is just who he is:

The argument of “If you’re not happy here, you can leave” goes against fundamental American values. In 1776, unhappy colonists didn’t “go back” to Europe–they fought for independence. In 1861, when the Confederate states tried to leave a country they didn’t like, the Union didn’t let them. Suffragettes, labor reformers and civil rights leaders didn’t “just leave”–throughout American history, progressives have stayed right where they are and made the country better.

For my own part, as a white American with British ancestry living in Britain, I kind of did “go back” where I “came from”…And it’s not as easy as it sounds! It’s been a lengthy and expensive process that will never really be over, even if I live here for the rest of my life. Even after 10+ years, I still get asked where I’m from on a regular basis. People mean it in a nice way, (they’re usually just showing a genuine interest in America because they’ve been there or have family there) but it gets old–and I can’t imagine how painful and annoying it must be for long-term residents who are asked that question in a racist/discriminatory way.

Election Day

Overlapping deadlines and teaching have kept me away from the blog recently, but I couldn’t let today go by without writing about the election.

It’s always a strange experience to watch the election from overseas–I’ve been here for 3 Presidential elections and today makes my third midterm. Despite having been through so many elections over here, it’s still surprising how much news coverage is devoted to US politics in the UK. It’s on the BBC every day. The BBC Facebook page cover photo features Emma Gonzalez, Gloria Allred at a #MeToo demonstration, and Trump.

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In 2010 I got a taste of comparative grassroots politics first-hand–I interned and canvassed for my local MP in Leeds during the UK general election, then canvassed in the summer for my senator and representative in Washington state ahead of the US midterm. People typically don’t care as much about midterms as they do for Presidential elections–turnout is always much lower, and it was particularly skewed towards older, conservative voters in 2010. Samantha Bee did a fantastic piece on it during the primaries in 2016:

This piece highlights the problem of voter apathy–the feeling disconnected and unengaged, of thinking that voting doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t make a difference.

It’s also well established that certain demographics are far less likely to vote than others, and they track closely with class status. Jonathan Nagler, the director of New York University’s Politics Data Center, told the New York Times last month that more than 80 percent of college-educated Americans turn out to vote, compared with about 40 percent of Americans who do not hold high school degrees.

“There is a class skew that is fundamental and very worrying,” Alexander Keyssar, a Harvard historian and social policy expert, said in the same article. “Parts of society remain tuned out and don’t feel like active citizens. There is this sense of disengagement and powerlessness.”

It’s something my students discussed last week in a seminar on the public sphere. Nancy Fraser‘s critique of Habermas pointed out that some voices don’t get included–when the public sphere is dominated by college-educated, middle class, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, male, WASP voices, it’s to the exclusion of other voices–the working class, LGBTQ+, women, people of colour, disabled, immigrant, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, atheist, etc.

Obviously I have certain causes and candidates that I want to win tonight, but my biggest hope, as with every election, is that people VOTE. I don’t want to see a repeat of this map, created by Philip Kearney. Just look at Arizona and West Virginia…Shocking. And the US goes around the world preaching about democracy…

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It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens tonight!