As a lifelong Democrat, I’ve spent the past few years watching in horror as two equally awful stories play out in American public life. The first story is the Republicans’ surgical, insatiable, all-consuming strategy to dismantle the basic, progressive ideals and policies that have defined the greatness of American society during my lifetime. The other is the Democrats’ inability to do anything about it, no matter how bad things get.
And I’m also someone who joined many friends and colleagues in posting #Metoo in the wake of the Weinstein reports, and as such, I’ve spent the last few weeks watching Senator Franken’s road to downfall with disbelief and dismay.
This week Democrats made the Franken case about claiming the moral high ground, so let’s examine that pricey little piece of political real estate.
Every day—literally every day—brings a flood of moral outrages too numerous to count. On just one day last week, while the President shared neo-Nazi videos and joked about nuclear war, Republicans passed a tax bill no one had read that will throw 13 million fellow Americans off health insurance, raise taxes on poor people, hurt charities, and add a trillion dollars to the debt. They eliminated protections for 2 million acres of public land so oil and gas companies can move in, lifted the ban on killing hibernating bears and wolf pups in their dens, gifted the NRA by relaxing gun rules, and even moved to allow importing dead elephants . Plus, they made plans to kill net neutrality, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and even the caribou in the Arctic. Oh, and they threw their support behind a pedophile running for the Senate.
These are just the stories I had time to follow. I shudder to think of what I might have missed, but I know this much: Many Democrats view this brutal assault on our institutions, our environment, and on the most vulnerable people in our society not just in political terms, but in moral terms too.
If this were a movie, the Democrats would have such an embarrassing abundance of material on which to launch an effective counter-offensive that they would scarcely know where to begin.
So, what did they do? In a baffling move, Democrats instead decided that the moral affront of the week was Al Franken, and that they would lose the moral high ground to Republicans if they simply waited for the Senate Ethics committee to investigate his behavior.
Accusations against Franken, while worthy of inquiry, are not in the same legal or moral universe as the crimes of which Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein, and numerous others, including the President himself, stand accused. Franken asked for the ethics investigation and has apologized for his behavior. And it should be noted that Franken is not accused of anything like pedophilia, or workplace harassment, or violent assault.
It’s hard to fathom that, as public policy disasters surface from all directions and engage decent Americans of both parties in a desperate game of whack-a-mole, the Democrats decided to draw their “line” at the behavior of Senator Al Franken. How different this week might have gone if Democrats had asked their base about the moral high ground instead of taking their cues from Republicans.
But Democrats didn’t ask us, and by deserting Senator Franken, they confirmed they don’t understand gender politics or much about sexual misconduct in the workplace at all. There is no greater disservice to women than creating an equivalency—a completely false equivalency—between the behavior of which Senator Franken is accused and the accusations against (Senator-to-be?) Moore, which include abduction and assault of a child. And yet this is the the false equivalency affirmed by Senator Gillibrand when she called for Franken’s resignation.
Senator Gillibrand and all the other women of the Senate who are my heroes, are just wrong. Ask anyone who has a daughter. To be sure I don’t want my daughter to have to dodge unwanted kisses. But the idea that someone might abduct her, drive her to a deserted spot in the country and assault her is the stuff of horror movies. There is no equivalency.
Lumping everything from ass grabbing to violent sexual assault, pedophilia, and rape together will not serve to heighten public outage at the type of behavior of which Franken is accused. It is far more to likely generate less outrage at the worst, most violent and predatory sexual crimes at the other end of the spectrum.
And to some survivors who know just how seriously sexual misconduct can damage lives and derail careers, this equivalency is an incredibly insensitive dismissal. While the notion of “zero tolerance” is nice, many victims of sexual assault and harassment can tell the Democrats that what they’ve endured is considerably worse than anything mentioned in connection with Franken.
It was awfully sad to see Senator Gillibrand, my hero for her past work on sexual assault policy, lead the charge to get rid of Senator Franken. Instead of using the Franken case as an important moment to open a national dialogue about how to define, view, and classify different types of sexist behavior, harassment, and sexual misconduct, she just took the Republican bait and equated Franken with Moore.
The Franken episode reveals that Democrats are in the dark about gender politics at this rare moment when the topic of women in the workplace is actually trending. While we seem to have a vague understanding that sexual misconduct is rooted in power dynamics, we’re still not connecting it to pay equity, or access to opportunities. These are core issues that ensure men have the power that frankly creates the conditions for harassment and misconduct.
Democrats should be drawing a line between those conditions and the entire Republican political agenda which aims to concentrate power in the hands of a few (men). They should be arguing that the GOP tax bill, the dismantling of Obamacare, the proposed budget, the whole assault on the middle class from every direction, even attacking Planned Parenthood, are all assaults on women because every one of these things makes women more vulnerable. If they want to position themselves as the protectors of women, the GOP provides a new list of things to protect us from every single day, all of which are much more compelling material than Senator Franken every supplied.
Thus, by ousting Franken, the Democratic party also missed a significant opportunity to rally their base. There was evidence to suggest a great deal of support for Franken, when thousands, including countless #Metoo women like me, took to twitter to ask them to back off, and Franken to stay. One petition generated sixty thousand signatures overnight. A good Democratic communications strategist would have created a dialogue with the base by encouraging discussion of the gender inequality enshrined in so many elements of the Trump and GOP agenda which creates the conditions for sexual harassment and misconduct.
For Democrats, this week was another depressing rout, this time of their own making. The GOP train rolls on, policy agenda intact, united behind a pedophile, and congratulating themselves not just on the loss of a strong progressive in the Senate, but for dodging a real discussion of sexual misconduct and its root causes in their core policy agenda. The Democrats on the other hand, have fallen for a false equivalency that muddies the whole sexual misconduct conversation for both women and men. And they have lost a talented Senator, ignored due process, incensed a portion of their base, and endangered a Senate seat. In relentless pursuit of the moral high ground, Democrats seem to have paid dearly. And perhaps so have women.
Once again lured by Republicans into a false equivalency trap that hamstrings them in government and angers the party faithful, the ousting of Franken was bad gender politics and just plain bad politics, too.