Martinez: Deifying politicians will only hurt us more later

Marissa Martinez, Opinion Editor

Over the past few weeks, several Democrats have announced their exploratory committees, meaning they can begin to raise money and test the waters for their potential presidential campaigns. So far, eight candidates have made their intentions known, among them big names like, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Julian Castro, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary.

The most recent notable name: California senator Kamala Harris (D-CA).

Her announcement came during Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, as well as the anniversary week of Shirley Chisholm’s historic 1972 presidential campaign. (Chisholm was the first black woman to seek a major party nomination for president.) Many Democrats were excited by Harris’ potential run; having a black and Indian woman, the daughter of two immigrant parents, challenge Donald Trump, a president who has made his racist and anti-immigrant views well-known, is important. Her straightforward, no-nonsense questioning of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh went viral last year, and many correctly predicted that it signaled a potential 2020 campaign. Harris’ progressive stances on Medicare, marijuana legalization, immigration and taxation have also resonated with many liberals.

However, in the past few weeks, several (cherry-picked) references to Harris’ record as a prosecutor have popped up — specifically from her tenure as a lawyer and eventually California’s first female, south Asian attorney general. Some argue Harris did not properly fulfill her goals to reform discriminatory sentencing policies and that she defended “guilty” people despite mounting evidence. Harris took responsibility for these claims at a Howard University press conference Monday, but rebutted that she “couldn’t fire her clients” which led to her defending people who “took positions that were contrary to my beliefs.”

Those who wished to smear her campaign early on have a good strategy — while Harris has gained notoriety in the past year, the senator’s name recognition is still relatively low in comparison to some of her fellow Democratic contenders. Thus, she may have to rely on her experience as a prosecutor to build credibility. Bashing her record from this era of her life — a career off which she has built her slogan, “For the People,” — will at least slightly lower her chances this early in the campaign.

I’m not arguing that these critics’ claims are unfounded or unjust: voters should keep track of a candidate’s full track record before making an informed decision. While these revelations don’t necessarily faze me as a voter this early in the game, I can see how some would be taken aback by them.

However, this backlash to Harris’s past brings up another problem with similar campaigns: the building up and destruction of the hero politician.

Our society has the tendency to deify politicians — especially progressive ones. When they say something particularly witty or poignant, it blows up online almost instantly. Laptop stickers are distributed. Viral clips are shared, remixed and remixed again. Think pieces are penned. Campaigns are made.

But this rapid incline can come at a large cost. In the interest of creating a counternarrative, perhaps, or railing against a viral trend, social media users dig up past transgressions against the Democratic platform, saying, “But wait, what about when they did this?” These transgressions are talked about at length for a few weeks, then eventually fade like most social media phenomenons. This practice particularly hurts women of color and other marginalized politicians. They shouldn’t necessarily be held to different standards than, say, white men, but it certainly damages their chances in a way that it wouldn’t hurt members of the majority.

Whenever Democrats latch onto the virality of a politician, it makes their fall that much harder. Within the party, it feels like there’s a dual desire to uplift the special moments that catch the internet’s attention while trying to find something wrong with the politicians who participate in them. This displays a false sense of objectivity to everyone else, and it’s a type of performativity doesn’t help anybody, especially since the inconsistencies disappear not long after.

Problematic pasts and statements absolutely deserve to be discussed and analyzed as we approach the primaries. As the public, we need as much information as possible before heading into voting booths next year.

However, the construction of antiheroes and their subsequent dissections online lack context — these politicians all exist as part of the American government. Ours is a system that has been set up since conception to raise up certain types of people and hold down others. In Harris’s case, she was a black prosecutor working in a legal system designed to work against black people. While she did try to fight against police bias and keep first-time offenders out of jail, the nature of her job as lawyer meant that she defended people who betrayed the personal values she has publically broadcast — again, all within the context of a warped American justice system.

In addition, because politicians simultaneously represent their party, their region/state, their donors and other values, they’re going to mess up and do things we don’t like. Usually, this is in honor of a hidden quid pro quo, reelection or a long-term agenda — all of which are frustrating but inevitable, no matter the morals of the politician.

One recent example: Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) seemed to side with Big Pharma against a 2017 bill backed by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), most likely because of the large pharmaceutical industry in his home state of New Jersey and the donations from such companies. While he did slide back into popular favor after a series of, yes, viral moments, his “betrayal” of the Democratic party dominated news cycles for weeks, only to not be brought up again.

When we deify politicians like Booker and Harris, and they inevitably act human and break the typical mold of the “perfect” Democratic politician, the public immediately rushes to cancel them in hopes of establishing a neutral equilibrium of sorts, especially at the cost of women of color.

Everyone has had dozens of moments where they’ve changed their minds on important issues, whether it’s switching political parties or suddenly finding yourself agreeing with the points your uncle makes at dinner. But your inner thoughts aren’t on public record. For the most part, they don’t affect hundreds of thousands of lives at a time. So when a public figure changes and goes back on their former positions, the country and world take notice.

Of course, it’s more than fair to hold politicians accountable for their offensive statements, irresponsible decisions and misinformed votes — past or present. Their apologies and reparations should be viewed with a skeptic eye. We live in an era where social media can make or break someone’s career with a few tweets, and campaign managers know this. Always question whether a politician’s apology is genuine or just another step on the path to 2020, and hold them accountable to their words and actions in those crucial following months.

However, as a party, we need to accept it: politicians are not gods, nor should they be. They are allowed to have their own opinions, and as the public, most of us have the collective power to choose whether or not to support them in office again.

Within the 2020 progressive wave, we’ve picked up a lot of politicians who are pushing the status quo with their fresh and much-appreciated different perspectives. However, this wave ends up prematurely crashing on the shore due to a false sense of neutrality. This election, we have to focus on how politicians own up to their mistakes — and what they’re doing to fix them now.

Marissa Martinez is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.