Kamala Harris is struggling. Last week, Andrew Yang overtook Kamala Harris in the Democratic presidential race in the state of California according to polling data from Emerson Polling. The results showed Yang polling at 7% while Harris polled 6%. That is significant because Yang is seen as an underdog second or third-tier candidate nationally while Harris briefly looked like a top tier candidate after the first Democratic debate. Now, Harris is losing to Yang in her home state. The flip in fortunes comes after a heated round of political boxing between the two candidates following last week’s third Democratic debates, during which Harris laughed at Yang’s UBI proposal. She continued to chuckle at him following the debates during press interviews without responding substantively to the ideas in Yang’s platform, which obviously ticked off Yang and his fans. Then, in the days following the debate, a scandal involving an SNL comedian who made racist jokes against Asian Americans forced Yang to respond. He did so with magnanimity and by urging forgiveness for the comedian who had made the mistake.
Most pundits are not focussing on the dynamic between Yang and Harris. And why should they? After all, it isn’t clear that Yang’s rise in California has anything to do with Harris’s fall nationally. According to the media, Harris is stumbling at a national level for various reasons, none of which have to do with Yang. One mainstream explanation for Harris’ sinking polling numbers is that Tulsi Gabbard’s attack on Harris during the second Democratic debates brought her down. That does not square with the data, which shows that Harris’ fall in the polls started about two weeks before the second debate. Harris already started losing support in the days after July 15th, and the debates didn’t happen until the end of July. In any case, Yang’s rise has nothing to do with it. Another narrative in the media is that Harris as been falling in the polls in part because she has spent much of summer at fundraisers and less of the summer out on the campaign trail with the other front runners. According to NBC news, “When Harris returns to Iowa this weekend for the Polk County Democrats’ Steak Fry, it’ll be her first trip to the state in over a month. She’s visited just 18 of Iowa’s 99 counties so far. It’s been more than two months since her last visit to South Carolina, where Harris, who is African American, is counting on a robust showing among black voters, who make up the majority of the state’s Democratic primary voters. And Harris has been in New Hampshire just once in the last two months.” Again, none of this has to do with Yang in their view. A third, less commonly mentioned but still fairly popular analysis says that Harris and Warren share a similar target voter demographic and that as Warren’s popularity grows, she is siphoning off support from Harris’ base. Yang does not come into this story at all.
Strictly speaking, while the popular explanations for why Harris is not performing well in the polls are probably not too far off the mark even if they aren’t fully satisfactory, they are probably correct in that Harris’ polling numbers are probably not affected directly by anything Yang is doing. But the sparring between Yang and Harris last week exposed a deeper stylistic rift between the two candidates that is important to note and should worry Harris’ base a lot more than anything that Warren or Bernie Sander’s are doing. In fact, the way the Harris laughed at Yang during and after the debate belied a deep insecurity she may feel about him as he rises up in the polls. And she is right to be worried about Yang. He has something that she does not: a hopeful vision for race relations in America.
Harris is one of only two Black candidates in the field this year, and as a result, she faces a lot of pressure to show why she should follow Obama and who her vision differs from Obama’s legacy while not throwing out his legacy altogether. Biden, of course, is the Obama candidate, but he is not a Black candidate. Harris and Booker are the only Black candidates on stage, and neither of them has articulated a vision of race relations that has connected with people the way a “round 2” follow up act to the Obama administration would, which is what Americans expect to get with Biden. To add to the quandary, Harris has faced hard questions about why she put so many Black people in jail during her time as a prosecutor, and how someone with her background as a part of the problem could possibly allow her to be qualified to reform the prison system and the justice system in general. On stage, voters see that she takes evident delight in putting people like Yang down for his ideas, and they notice how ferociously she attacked Biden. The negative messaging would probably do OK against Trump, but when it comes to fixing race politics in America, it is only going to dial up the hate. Perhaps th'ats
In contrast, Yang has a positive, light-hearted vision for Americans who are feeling that the gravity and danger surrounding race politics in America is at the highest point it has been in years. Instead of stoking division and outrage, Yang offered forgiveness. Last week, SNL fired a comedian when videos of him surfaced in which he called Asian people the ‘ch-’ word and made jokes using racist stereotypes. The comedian, named Shane Gillis, has called it a “hassle” to have to speak with a waiter at a Chinese restaurant, mocked Asian accents, and used a racial slur to describe Asians, including calling out Yang as a “Jew c***k.” All eyes immediately turned to Yang, who has himself traded in racist Asian stereotypes, most notably by perpetuating the myth that all Asians are good at Math and by mentioning during the debates that 'I'm Asian, so I know a lot of doctors'. He has often repeated the line that “the opposite of Trump is an Asian man who likes math” and has sold thousands of hats with the word ‘MATH’ in capital letters across the front, all of which has offended man Asian Americans. All of this meant that the public rightly expected to hear how he would respond to Shane Gillis' racist humor.
Yang, ever the chill bro, responded by urging clemency. When SNL’s decision to fire Gillis was announced, Yang pushed back, saying “As a society, we have become unduly punitive and vindictive about people making statements that some find offensive or distasteful.” Yang clarified that he might give comedians and entertainers more leeway because a misstatement in a comedic context is different than true advocacy of racist ideas.
“That to me is beyond the pale and people should face consequences,” Yang said.
Later on, Yang set up a meeting with the comedian. “Shane Gillis reached out,” Yang tweeted. “Looks like we’ll be sitting down together soon.”
Yang’s emphasis on forgiveness and nuance may not be satisfying to many people in America right now. We live in a time when outrage is the norm and cool-headedness is in short supply. No one wants to forgive, apparently. Many people are too angry for anything other than vengeance and are instead looking for a cathartic action that will give them a way to vanquish their enemies, not lay down their pitchforks. In many ways, Yang is demonstrating the kind of forgiveness he must hope that those who find his racial comments offensive will offer to him. This much is clear: Yang’s rising poll numbers are an indication that maximizing Harris-style racial outrage may not be the winning path to the White House. Perhaps the appetite for clemency in the general American middle is stronger than the left-wing media and the internet would indicate. Harris expected that she would be able to ride that outrage into the presidency, but what Yang recognizes, and what the rest of America needs to recognize as well, is that forgiveness will bring more people from both the left and the right together and begin to heal the partisan divide.