Sympathy for the K-Hive: Kamala Harris ran a bad campaign — and faced remarkable online spite

"Kamala is a cop" probably isn't what finished her. But why was the online hate aimed at Harris so gleeful?

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published December 3, 2019 6:00PM (EST)

U.S. Democratic Presidential candidate, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (Mark Makela/Getty Images)
U.S. Democratic Presidential candidate, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Sen. Kamala Harris' presidential campaign, which appeared to start off stronger than any candidate's in the race, has run out of fumes weeks before the Iowa caucuses. Harris' announcement Tuesday that she was out of the race wasn't much of a surprise to close political watchers. Things have been rough for Team Harris in the past month, with numerous reports of organizational chaos. According to an emailed statement from the campaign, it had "become harder and harder to raise the money we need to compete."

At the same time, Harris' ardent online supporters, who deemed themselves the "K-Hive," were starting to get a reputation second only to that of the "BernieBros" as the most toxic candidate supporter base on social media, ruthlessly raining abuse on anyone who uttered even a  hint of criticism of their candidate — and sometimes, as I experienced, in response to comments that had nothing to do with her at all.

Then, over the Thanksgiving holiday, there was a devastating piece in the New York Times featuring "more than 50 current and former campaign staff members and allies" dishing on how badly the Harris campaign was organized and how close it was to collapse. These kinds of "disgruntled campaign staff" pieces are common enough in election season, but one with more than 50 different sources is basically unheard of. It's no wonder that Harris threw in the towel so quickly, even though she's still polling better than numerous other candidates with no realistic chance. It's hard to imagine keeping up staff morale after that.

Clearly, a lot of the blame must fall on Harris' shoulders for what can only be described as a disastrously poor campaign, and also on those among her supporters who mistook yelling at people as a viable recruitment strategy. And yet, I can't help but feel bad for Harris and for the K-Hive. From the get-go, Harris and her supporters got a raw deal, and some of this toxicity came in reaction to the unfair treatment they got at the hands of supposed allies on the left.

Yet more blame, of course, falls on the shoulders of rich donors, who are using Hillary Clinton's 2016 defeat as a pretext to do what they always wanted to do, which was to fund centrist white guys as the only "electable" candidates. But in online spaces, Harris was getting constantly dunked on and trolled by people who are ostensibly better than that, the leftist Twitter crowd that vies to appear woker than thou.

"Kamala is a cop" became their smarmy and endlessly repeated meme — one that was either originated by right-wing forces or at perpetrated by them, with a finely honed instinct for the worst urges of their leftist counterparts.

Oh, there was some pretext to justify this: Before running for Senate, Harris had been a California prosecutor, starting as an assistant district attorney in San Francisco in 1988 and winning election as state attorney general in 2010. During that long career, Harris made a lot of choices that have become increasingly unpopular on the left, including crackdowns on the online sex trade online, pushing back against federal efforts to reduce California's inmate population, and prosecuting parents for their children's truancy.

At the same time, Harris made a lot of moves that were popular on the left then and are even more so now, such as prosecuting banks, fighting efforts to imprison more juveniles, going after oil companies for environmental violations, creating a hate crimes unit, creating prison diversion programs and instituting racial bias training for police.

As German Lopez of Vox wrote in September, "what seem like contradictions may reflect a balancing act" — an act made harder by Harris' race and gender — in which she tried to appear "mainstream" enough to win the power she felt she needed to create incremental change in the political climate of that time. Both as a senator and a presidential candidate, Harris has lurched to the left along with much of the Democratic coalition, calling for the legalization of marijuana and the end of unjust criminal justice practices, many of which resulted from the now-infamous 1994 crime bill which, as Harris' most gleeful critics tend to conveniently forget, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont voted for. (Harris held no elective office at the time.)

It's fine, of course, if people look at Harris' history and feel like they would prefer another candidate. Being suspicious of her shift to the left on criminal justice issues, even if that shift arguably brings her closer to where she was at the beginning of her career, is reasonable enough, especially in a crowded field with so many candidates.

But that wasn't what was happening with the "Kamala is a cop" meme. Instead, that was about wiping out a nuanced discussion of her history in favor of a gross generalization. More to the point, in practice it was mostly about a bunch of douchey white guys appropriating very real concerns — that had primarily been raised by communities of color — as an excuse for dunking endlessly on the first black woman to run for president who seemed to have a real shot at winning.

To make things worse, if anyone objected to their gleeful trolling by pointing out that their behavior was probably rooted in deep-seated resentment at seeing women and people of color — the backbone of the Democratic Party — start to gain real leadership roles, these same nozzles would act sanctimonious and accuse their critics of also being cops. It was super-gross, and an excellent example of why we can't have nice things.

Those same vultures, of course, are having a grand old time celebrating the end of Harris' campaign with a glee that belies their less-than-savory motives.

Kamala may have been a cop, but when I look over the landscape, she's not the pig I'm seeing.

Frankly, I get why the K-Hive started getting angry and paranoid. As a wise woman I saw on Twitter and forgot her name once said, "Behind every crazy woman is a crazy-making man." And behind the toxic K-Hive is a bunch of white dude "leftists" who drove them to madness through their uncalled-for loathing a candidate who wasn't perfect but was actually pretty good.

Dumb Twitter memes, of course, are not what sunk Harris as a presidential candidate. There was a lot working against her, and the racism and sexism of the donor class probably outgunned the best efforts of the red-rose bros. Plus, I have a secret theory (which absolutely no one likes but me) that Gen-Xers are the generation that everyone hates and the proof lies in the fact that not one of us will ever be president. Harris' own failures to create a clear, persuasive campaign message — she seemed to pivot to a new approach every other week — certainly didn't help! But it's probably a lot of things.

Still, I want to take a moment to offer my sympathies to Kamala Harris and her K-Hive. You didn't deserve any of this, and it's a shame that our politics have become so toxic that an entirely reasonable and even ground-breaking candidate never had a chance.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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