I admit it. It was difficult to watch the demise of Al Franken’s career as Senator. I like him and think he has been good for progressive politics. His resignation speech pointed out the irony that he was being forced out, while the White House sheltered an admitted sexual predator and endorsed a (very) credibly accused child molester to become a Senator. Doesn’t seem fair. Doesn’t seem proportional. Doesn’t matter.
The eight women’s accusations against Franken are badly timed for him. And inconvenient for Democrats. The #MeToo wave has caught up a remarkable number of high profile men and very publicly beached them. It is true that the nature of Franken’s misbehavior pales next to those in the Weinstein league and many others. But, I would not want to tell any of the eight women that their experiences were not bad enough to matter. They do matter now and they must continue to matter going forward, even if we learn how to deal with the entire range of unacceptable behavior toward women in a proportional way. For now, though, we simply need to accept that when a dam breaks, everything in the water’s path may be swept away.
Well, maybe not everything. That’s the inconvenient part. Our current U.S. Senate has twenty-one women. Only 21%, but that is more than ever before. Sixteen are Democrats and just five are Republicans. Demonstrating the point that having enough women in positions of authority in a workplace is vital to dealing with sexual harassment, all sixteen women Senators were instrumental in pressuring Franken to step down. Similarly, Rep John Conyers (D-MI) was compelled to retire when House colleagues, including Nancy Pelosi, urged him to.
In contrast, two Republican House members were also in the news this week on related allegations. (Note: Of 239 Republicans, 22 or 9% are women. Of 193 Democrats, 62 or 32% are women.) Rep Blake Farenthold (R-UT) was discovered to have used $84,000 of taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment claim. Two (that’s 2) female Republican Representatives have called for Farenthold to step down, which he has given no indication of doing as yet. The other is Trent Franks (R-AZ), who has admitted offering $5 million to two of his aides to be a surrogate mother. He announced he will resign rather than face an ethics committee hearing, reportedly on the encouragement of Paul Ryan.
Am I implying there is a qualitative difference in how the two parties will respond, are responding, to the #MeToo movement? Uh-huh. That is exactly why for Democrats it is inconvenient to acknowledge the truth of what women have to say about sexism, harassment, misogyny, and rape. Acknowledgement requires response. This week’s response has resulted in the loss of two seats, one a respected Senator that had been thought of as a possible presidential candidate someday; the other a Civil Rights legend. The message is that this moment, the opportunity to start righting a whole category of wrongs, is more important than party.
Whereas, the Republican response is, well, something else. In addition to the above examples, Trump has been unequivocal in his endorsement of Roy Moore, the Alabama disgraced judge and alleged pedophile, tweeting that maintaining the Senate seat is paramount. The RNC has reversed its earlier decision to withhold funding from Moore and, on the same rationale, has thrown him its support in the final weeks before the vote. It appears that party trumps women.
Speaking of whom, it is fascinating to consider what would come from republishing and reexamining the stories of the 19 (nineteen!) women claiming to have been assaulted by the man the entire country heard admitting to how cool it is to get away with assaulting women. Hey, now this is a convenient truth: The Atlantic just did! Check it out.
Of course, one of the hallmarks of this administration has been its imperviousness to pesky things like facts, norms, ethics. Can that shield stand up to a cultural groundswell like we are seeing now? Maybe.
One of the defining characteristics of our current political climate is how we are being pushed relentlessly right or left, like the Red Sea parting, ever more distinctly into separate camps. Partisan. Tribal. I think an even more helpful analogy is we become like hyper-loyal alumni and fans of a powerful college football team. Nothing, nada, no thing is more important than winning. Pay your coach three times as much as the University President? Natch. Recruiting violations? Just part of the game. Everyone does it. Star quarterback accused of raping a coed? He said, she said. She’s just looking for attention. What she gets is a couple of death threats. Hey, we need him to play in the championship.
The point is, when you are a rabid fan, a partisan, a member of a tribe, everything becomes Us vs. Them. You tend to accept whatever goes along with your side winning. It has been tempting this week to make excuses for Al Franken. This wasn’t nearly so bad as Roy Moore. He was just playing around. We need that Senate seat! Heck, he’s on OUR side. Lean to the Left! Stomp on the Right! Stand up! Sit down! Fight! Fight! Fight!
If we accept that everything is about this kind of winning and losing we will all lose. We should instead seize this extraordinary moment of awareness that fully one half of our population has been subject to mistreatment at the hands of the other half. We should engage in political contests and interactions over how to improve the lives of all citizens, not over who will be winners and who will be losers.
The next 30 days will be pretty big in Alabama. The University of Alabama, the legendary Crimson Tide, plays Clemson on January 1 in the College Football Playoffs, with the winner playing for the National Championship on January 8. Oh, and on December 12, there’s a special election for the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when he became Trump’s favorite Cabinet member. Doug Jones, the pro-choice Democrat who successfully prosecuted Klan members, faces Roy Moore, the twice-fired state judge, former mall creeper, and lover of young girls. The entire nation will be holding its breath for an indication of whether a deep Red state might be willing to listen to the women.
Note: As I was doing a final read-through of this post, I noticed that two GOP Senators made appearances on the Sunday morning talk shows just now. Richard Shelby, the other Alabama Senator, and Susan Collins of Maine both declared their opposition to the election of Roy Moore. While not endorsing the Democrat Jones, Shelby said he had written in the name of a qualified Republican on his absentee ballot. We do find ourselves at an interesting intersection. Truly.