As Democrats work to align their practices with their stated principles, they risk losing a wider war.
Time magazine has dubbed them “The Silence Breakers” and named them Person of the Year: the women (mostly) who have come forward to allege sexual harassment, or worse, on the part of powerful men, many of them quite famous.
Politics having forever been a boys’ club, it’s no surprise that the trend is affecting official Washington. What has been striking, however, has been the difference in the ways Democrats and Republicans have handled allegations against their respective members.
Democratic Rep. John Conyers, the longest-serving member in the House, was forced to resign. Sen. Al Franken, the Minnesota Democrat who some Democrats believe should be the party’s 2020 presidential nominee, was forced to resign. (More on him in a moment.) Rep. Alcee Hastings, the Florida Democrat, is alleged to have used more than $200,000 in taxpayer money to settle allegations; at this writing he has not resigned, but his situation is tenuous.
Contrast that approach with the GOP’s: Rep. Blake Farenhold, a Texas Republican, also used taxpayer money to settle allegations; he hasn’t resigned and has no plans to. Roy Moore, the former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice who has been accused of sexual assault by women including one who was 14 at the time, is running for the vacant Alabama seat in the U.S. Senate with the full support of the Republican National Committee, Alabama elected officials (who are mostly Republican) and President Donald Trump, himself currently being accused of sexual harassment or assault by almost 20 women. The Republicans who control Congress have expressed zero interest in expelling Farenhold, expelling Moore if he’s elected (legally, the Senate probably cannot prevent him from being seated if he wins), or even investigating Trump.
The Democrats, having long espoused equality of the sexes, and having argued at least since the 1991 Anita Hill case that women accusers should be believed, are now having to figure out exactly how that will work in practice, lest they be credibly accused of hypocrisy. There’s no road map; it’s being drawn now as they proceed. But they do seem to be acting, or trying to act, on the belief that the party’s practices should align with its principles, however painfully.
This is a particularly acute problem in Franken’s case. The allegations against him are generally far more minor in nature than those against, say, Moore or Trump. Franken has been an ally for women in the Senate. And, again, a lot of Dems would’ve liked to see him not just stay in the Senate but also go on to win the White House. But the party, publicly led by women senators, insisted he resign. And so he said he would.
But the Republicans, having not been a party that particularly favors women’s rights, have no such worries about hypocrisy. As has been abundantly clear at least since 1995, they care not about principles, only power. Accordingly, they’ve doubled down on support for Moore, primarily to protect their tenuous Senate majority.
Think about that. One of the two major parties in this country thinks it’s just fine for a credibly accused child molester to be a U.S. Senate candidate, and to be seated if he wins. And while the press hasn’t exactly endorsed Moore — indeed, Alabama’s three largest newspapers editorialized against Moore and in favor of his Democratic opponent, Doug Jones — neither has it made enough of a stink about the GOP’s appalling lack of a moral center. And Republican voters are all for him, and not just in Alabama.
Now think about this: Suppose Moore were a Democrat, and his Republican opponent would become the 51st Republican senator — enough to, say, overturn the Affordable Care Act or some other law favored by liberals. Would the Democrats take the “Democrats uber alles!” approach? It’s inconceivable that they would (I suspect most would sit the race out, which is as good as voting for the Republican). And in the unlikely event that they did, it’s inconceivable that the news media would accept that decision with the equanimity that it seems to be accepting GOP support of Moore.
Herein lies a major dilemma for Democrats: If they do the right thing — and punishing sexual harassers and abusers is indisputably the right thing — they’ll get, at best, nominal congratulations from their base (some of whom will argue, correctly, that this course correction is happening decades too late), nominal praise from the news media, and little to no political bump.
Republicans, on the other hand, have decided that they can brazen out anything — and that therefore, they will. If anything, this is enhancing the already-strong party support from the base. Moreover, Republicans are not paying a price either in news coverage or in public esteem; the country already is deeply divided along partisan lines, so any movement would be minimal to begin with, but even so, the latest disturbing news about GOP support for a sexual predator is having little to no discernible impact on voter registration.
So from a political standpoint, what’s the benefit to Democrats of doing the right thing? It keeps the base on board, which is important, but beyond that, benefits are hard to see. And why does that matter? Because the Republicans are actively hostile to women’s rights, and only the Democrats can stop them from their current path toward banning not just abortion but also birth control, halting efforts to ensure equal pay for equal work, and many other things — yes, including stopping sexual harassment. As Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick observes:
Is [Franken going while Moore stays] the principled solution? By every metric I can think of, it’s correct. But it’s also wrong. It’s wrong because we no longer inhabit a closed ethical system, in which morality and norm preservation are their own rewards. We live in a broken and corroded system in which unilateral disarmament is going to destroy the very things we want to preserve.
To see the double standard in action, watch Mike Huckabee making the case that Roy Moore should be welcomed into the Senate because Franken has stayed. Then keep watching and realize that in the next breath, he adds that Moore has “denied the charges against him vehemently and categorically” so they must be false. Franken and Conyers are deployed by the right to say Moore should stay, and then they are dismissed as suckers for crediting their accusers.
We see this dynamic in other areas of politics, too, such as to what extent Nazis should be given the same rights as everybody else: The problem is that Nazis aren’t playing by the same rules as everyone else; they intend to use their rights to get into a position in which they can deny the rights of others. And as Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who presided at the Nuremberg war-crimes trials, has famously observed, “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.”
So what can the Democrats do? I don’t think playing the game the way the Republicans do is the right call; that way, no one wins, least of all the victims of sexual harassment and assault.
Beyond that, I would argue that the party needs to make this issue a priority, by which I mean Democrats in both houses of Congress, and particularly the women senators who brought about Franken’s resignation, ought to use the rules of their respective houses to throw enough wrenches into the works to bring business to a standstill until there’s a bipartisan investigation of the allegations (including alleged the rape of a then-13-year-old girl) against Donald Trump and against Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas for lying about his treatment of Anita Hill, and a standard procedure to follow in each house when a member is accused of sexual misconduct. If a government shutdown ensues, so be it. This matters.
From where I sit, Al Franken had to resign. Yes, there’s some circumstantial evidence that the first accusation against him was by a Republican operative. But the accusations against him, though minor as these things go, were too serious, numerous and credible to ignore.
But rather than simply announcing he would resign — and even noting the irony of his resignation when Trump, accused by more people of having done worse things, remains in office — I wish Franken had said, “I will resign … right after you do, Mr. President.” That would help restore some of the moral and ethical balance now currently MIA in U.S. politics, and it would lessen the political costs and enhance the political benefits to the Democratic Party of redoubling its work on behalf of the victims of sexual misconduct, and on behalf of women generally.
Filed under: America. It was a really good idea, Hold! Them! Accountable!, In which Lex, uncharacteristically, tries to be helpful, Listening to the people who were right Tagged: Al Franken, Alcee Hastings, Blake Farenhold, Congress, Donald Trump, John Conyers, Roy Moore, sexual assault, sexual harassment, women’s rights