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Accountability Can’t Wait

Elections don't mean that we have to suspend our right to critique powerful people.

For the past few days, celebrities, politicians, writers, and pundits have been celebrating Joe Biden’s announcement of Kamala Harris as his running mate, often framing the argument around the duo’s potential to essentially fix everything that Donald Trump’s administration has broken.

Biden and Harris do represent that possibility for millions of people living on the margins who have been directly harmed by the Trump administration’s open persecution and defiance of both political norms and objective morals. But often, the argument for voting for Biden and Harris has devolved into something twisted and bizarre, in which Harris’s role as a public servant in a representative democracy is erased. The best example I’ve seen is this Instagram post by acclaimed director Ava DuVernay:

The core of DuVernay’s argument is this: the problematic or not-progressive parts of Harris’s career are immaterial, as the only priority right now is ending the depravities of the Trump administration. To lift the relevant parts (emphasis mine):

Oh but, Kamala did this or she didn’t do that. I hear you. I know. And I don’t care.

Because what she DIDN’T DO is abandon citizens in a pandemic, rip babies from their mother’s arms at the border, send federal troops to terrorize protestors, manufacture new ways to suppress Black and Brown votes, actively disrespect Indigenous people and land, traffic in white supremacist rhetoric in an effort to stir racist violence at every turn, attempt to dismantle most American democratic systems of checks and balance, degrade women all day everyday, infect the Supreme Court with another misogynist hack, demolish America’s standing on climate, actively cultivate and further white supremacist structures and systems across all aspects of American daily life. I mean, that’s what she DIDN’T do. 

I don’t wanna hear anything bad about her. It doesn’t matter to me. Vote them in and then let’s hold them accountable. Anything other than that is insanity. It’s ego. It’s against our own interests. It’s selfish. It’s disrespectful to our elders. It’s nonsense. It’s talking to hear yourself talk. This is a matter of life or death.

This is, unfortunately, absolutely not how politics should work. Accountability does not start when someone is elected to office. Yes, Kamala Harris was not responsible for Stephen Miller’s family separation policy, but she was a senator at the time! She has held offices of extraordinary power for the majority of two decades now! If holding her accountable has to be put on pause until she’s vice president, what the hell is the point of representative democracy?

I understand where the sentiment comes from. Harris is arguably the strongest vice presidential candidate the Democrats have had in years. She is young, by politician standards, clearly and dazzlingly intelligent, and broadly popular within the party.

She is also a multi-ethnic Black woman who, if elected, would come closer to the presidency than any woman of color, or any woman at all has been in the history of the country. Her place on the ticket with Joe Biden is a long-overdue step toward further representation for the millions of Black and Asian Americans who have been overlooked and underserved in electoral politics for centuries.

We—especially white commentators like me—have to take these factors into consideration when discussing Harris. The consequences if we don’t are very clear: already, the GOP has started to trot out familiar racist, nativist rhetoric against Harris, claiming that she isn’t fit to hold office, that her personal background is amoral, that her very identity is in question. What this means is that yes, we do have to be careful in the framing of our critiques in a way that we don’t for Biden, the embodiment of generations-long white political privilege. If the left’s messaging around Harris strays too close to the personal attacks that will be leveled by the right over the course of the general election, we’ll be working against ourselves.

But none of these qualifications or considerations should make her immune from criticism, which is a vital part of the political process any whatever function shreds of democracy we have left. To argue that the threat of Trump outweighs our duty to criticize elected representatives is, to paraphrase DuVernay, insanity, ego, against our own interests, selfish, and disrespectful to our elders. Once you start going down the “this is a bad time” road, it’s hard to stop. There’s never a perfectly risk-free moment to hold people accountable. There’s always an election down the line, someone worse who could swoop in. But willingly giving up your right to demand something of the people who govern you is a way to ensure that they never take you as seriously as they should.

Like DuVernay says, this is a matter of life or death. We owe it to ourselves to fully examine the people we give that power. After all, the past four years have taught us what happens when we don’t.