Magic Eight Ball Politics: Kamala Harris and the Success of Oligarchy

Emmet Penney
6 min readAug 13, 2020
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At the beginning of the campaign season, I worked as a tutor in Los Angeles. I spent my nights threading my disintegrating 2000 VW Beetle through rush hour traffic to arrive at the mansions of various wealthy elites so that I could help their children organize their binders, write papers, etc. It paid poorly and eventually the woman who ran the company had a mental breakdown, leaving me out of a job and out of clients.

But a couple of months before that happened, I pulled into a driveway where the manager to a famous popstar waxed his Aston Martin in the languid, hazy sunshine. I waved, he waved. The pure breed terriers sniffed my shoes as I stepped out of them and made my way from the welcome mat to his daughter’s room to help her with an English assignment. Over the weekend, she’d put up a delegate counting chart on the wall; politics had become a new interest for her. Kamala Harris was, she said, “her girl.” President or Vice President “at least” she stressed. She thought Kamala would win because her parents loved Kamala and so did her parents’ friends. “How couldn’t she win?” she thought.

And this fourteen-year-old girl ended up being smarter than me and many pundits out there because, despite the dysfunction that eddies around our ankles, we still believe in the standard physics of campaign season: you have to mobilize people, you need to raise a shitload of money, you need delegates, etc.

But we’ve left that behind. Now, we’re in the world of magic eight ball politics. How did so many people, myself included, miss it?

Anyone who watched the Hillary campaign at a reasonable distance, or read the post mortems like Shattered or this damning piece from Politico, for example, came away with some basic lessons: Hillary’s campaign raised tons of money, but Robbie Mook mismanaged it; Hillary’s campaign had no ground game; people hated Hillary because they knew who she was and that made her uniquely weak against Trump. To beat Trump you’d need a candidate with the kind of integrity and authenticity that could neutralize Trump’s savant-caliber shit-talk, who could raise money outside the Zerg spawning pool of the DC donor clique and then put that money to good use mobilizing previously disenfranchised non-voters. In other words, you’d need the Bernie Sanders campaign, whose volunteers valiantly tried to execute this meat and potatoes strategy. Go out there, knock on doors, connect with people, and bring them into the fold. Rack up votes, rack up delegates, win. Politics, right? Wrong.

I’m not here to do a belated post mortem on the Bernie campaign. Those exist all over. Bernie didn’t lose so much as he quit, making fools of all of us who supported him with our money and time. Instead, it’s important to look at what’s happened since he lost: the complete destruction of whatever potential the left had to make inroads beyond the sphere of culture in America’s political system. The democratic oligarchy successfully consolidated their position against “progressive” (whatever that means) candidates.

Let’s look at the tape: Elizabeth Warren screwed up her own career after getting successfully played and now lives in the outer dark of the party, Bernie’s been the Biden sycophant he promised he’d be, Andrew Yang gave up his campaign to get a speaker spot at the DNC convention (he’s not speaking at the convention), Tulsi, who, unlike Kamala, actually won delegates, remains as she was: in the background. On top of that, the DNC hasn’t even granted Sanders et al. the symbolic concession of incorporating Medicare for All (in the midst of a global pandemic) into their party platform. And Biden has listed his laughable climate plan (an argument for another time) which incorporates much of the Green New Deal while using none of its language.

Even with the recent Squad victories, the honest reading is a rout. After all, AOC has secured a handsome sixty seconds of podium time for herself at the upcoming convention. And John Kasich, a Republican, has been given more speaking time at the upcoming convention than the entire Squad combined.

Instead of buckling under or accommodating its left wing, the Democratic Party has all but shut out the opposition. And in doing so it’s revealed the new political world: the world of magic eight ball politics. But to explain that, I need to explain some basic expectations about presidential primaries.

First, campaigning ought to matter. As I mentioned above, Hillary’s biggest mistake was not doing her job. Second, the candidate needs to remain in the public eye so as to remain relevant. Where’s Biden? Third, Vice Presidents are often supposed to help you secure a state or suture party division going into the actual race to get numbers on the board and/or bolster party unity. Biden, for example, was Obama’s pick because he was to the right of Obama and made more conservative Democrats feel welcome.

None of that has mattered. Biden barely campaigned, barely mobilized, and still won. And since the virus broke out, he’s only made appearances here and there to fuck up even the most kid-gloved interviews. Lastly, if the Democratic Party was seriously worried it might not have the votes in California more of its staffers would be taking long walks on short piers. And Harris “resolves” the party’s internal conflicts only in so much as she signals that the party’s closing ranks around its donor base and leaving everyday Americans in the cold once and for all.

And that’s what I mean by magic eight ball politics: there are only a few possible options, but the selection mechanism, its rationale, and thus the legible chain of cause and effect go obscured from the beholder. The answers simply appear. It looks and feels chaotic because the process has come unmoored from the norms that passed for what America called a democratic electoral process.

But chaos is rarely ever just chaos. Often, it’s the sign of power being consolidated. Kamala was more or less chosen three years ago by the Clintons. Bill Clinton overshared at John Lewis’s funeral and let slip that Clyburn had succeeded in stopping Bernie in his tracks in the south. And Obama made the phone calls that corralled the candidates on Biden’s side. And when Kamala was announced at the VP pick, Wall Street rejoiced. She never polled above 2% and Biden was no one’s first choice.

We could have just not had the primaries. What we’ve just witnessed is the Democratic oligarchy solidifying its position.

The democratic party is now entirely severed from the working class. It’s been a long process, but it’s finally reached completion. What should middle-class suburbanites and coastal elites care about unemployment? Their money’s in the market. And as long as the market does okay, then America’s doing okay as far as they can tell. And why would the Democrats need the working class anyway? What threat do they pose to their power if out from under their aegis? None. Biden and Kamala aren’t even running on an idea or a vision or a real platform. Biden’s campaign slogan has changed eight times since it began. Clinton’s changed but four. The election’s about intra-elite conflict between “Left” Technocratic Neoliberalism and “Right” Populist Neoliberalism. It doesn’t have substance because it doesn’t need to. It’s not responsible to the people. That’s why a wealthy teenage girl polling the other wealthy adults in her life had a better read on what would happen than anyone I know.

And the second takeaway should be to distrust anyone publicly announcing they’re “amazed” that the DNC would offer someone with a police record like Kamala’s in the era of mass protest against police. What’s amazing about that? They don’t need you and they don’t want you. They don’t want the left to share in power with them and they’ve successfully achieved that. It’s only amazing if you’ve been naive about the stakes.

This also means that anyone who’s peddling anything that looks like “we’re winning,” needs to be laughed out of the room. We aren’t. We haven’t even “won the battle of ideas,” the consolation prize awarded to the politically impotent. That’s not pessimism, that’s demystification. The next few years will be worse than this one and we can’t afford to lie to ourselves about what’s happening before our very eyes.