There’s an important debate going on in the Democratic party right now. The careers of three men in Virginia hang in the balance. And even if you don’t live in Virginia, it matters. Let me explain why.
People often liken politics to sports. There’s a certain appeal in that analogy for political junkies like me: for one thing, it makes us feel a little less nerdy. For another, sports have such a vaunted place in American culture, it’s nice to feel like we’re a little part of that. Just like real sports fans, we root for our “team,” argue strategy, spend hours listening to and reading analysis from professionals. Elections are our Superbowl (or World Cup). But that’s really as far as the analogy goes. Because there’s one major difference between the “game of politics” and any other sport, and it’s that in the world of sports, wins may give fans bragging rights and team pride, teams get a year with the Vince Lombardy Trophy or the Stanley Cup, and there’s even a big financial payoff for players. But in the world of politics, the consequences of wins and losses are real: life-and-death consequences for actual human beings.
What do I mean by life-and-death consequences? Isn’t it all just a bunch of politicians in back rooms making deals and wasting everyone’s time? No! Consider the real life consequences of whether or not we get some form of universal health care coverage or else lose the limited protections that we have now: people die every day from lack of health care. And time is quickly running out to reverse the effects of climate change: people’s homes and livelihoods hang in the balance, and people will die in floods and wildfires made worse by the effects of the changing climate. Deregulation is already having long-term effects on the environment. And there are many other important issues like the cost of life-saving prescription drugs, gun safety, civil rights, protection for refugees and the children being permanently separated from their parents, income inequality, jobs, homelessness, rights for LGBTQ+ individuals, the 18+ year war in Afghanistan, and so many other things that actually impact real people every day. Many of the most important decisions actually happen at the state level. (Remember, politics matter!!)
If one “team” has better policies than the other team, then it really and truly matters which party is in control of the federal government and state governments across the country. If you believe, as I do, that liberal/progressive policies are safer, healthier, and better for Americans than Republican/Conservative/Trumpian policies — if you believe that Democratic laws really do save lives — then you can’t just walk away from a Democratic majority in any legislative body anywhere in the country.
That’s why what’s going on in the state of Virginia right now is more than just a wonky bit of political trivia, and why for the Democratic Party it’s more than just a simple litmus test of whether they stand by their messaging on issues of race and gender.
First, a brief bit of background: right now, the Democratic Governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, is accused of racist behavior stemming from a racist photo in his 1984 med school yearbook. There are calls for him to resign, but although he’s admitted that he has appeared in blackface, he has so-far refused to do so. The next in line for his job, Democrat Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, has now been accused of sexual assault. And finally, the next in the line of succession, Attorney General Mark Herring (also a Democrat), has now acknowledged that he wore blackface while in college in 1980. (Good Lord, what is it with Virginians?!!)
This is all happening within the context of calls by the leadership and members of the Democratic Party for a zero-tolerance policy with regard to sexual misconduct and racism: if a politician is credibly accused of inappropriate behavior, no matter how long ago, they’re done. Full stop. Since Democrats claim to be the party that represents women and minorities, they must hold themselves to the same standard as they hold others to if they expect to have the confidence of voters and the credibility to govern. How else can the party be taken seriously in their outrage over the behavior of Trump and others? They must practice what they preach.
(For more background you can listen to this podcast from the New York Times.)
And quite frankly, removing people with a history of sexual abuse, racism, corruption, or any other misconduct is the right thing to do in every organization. (I think it’s important to note here that there is a separate conversation to be had about whether a person’s past behavior should be judged by today’s standards. Likewise, we’ll leave for another time the conversation about whether we should always “believe the woman.”)
It was this zero-tolerance policy that forced the resignation of Senator Al Franken in the Fall of 2017 when at least five women came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment amid the growing MeToo movement. Democratic Rep. John Conyers, who served in the House of Representatives for five decades, was also forced out over accusations of unwanted sexual advances. After the embarrassment of having defended then-President Bill Clinton, the Democratic party wants Americans to know that they will not countenance this type of behavior any longer.
But it was an easy call to give Franken and Conyers the boot. They were easily replaced by Democrats, and the party as a whole did not suffer on the scoreboard for it. But the Virginia case is different. If all three men who stand accused are forced from office, the next in line is a Republican. And therein lies the problem. And it’s a real one.
Because it may be true that there is no place in politics for people who have committed sexual misconduct or who have a history of racism, but if you also believe that Democratic values and policies are better for Americans than Republican policies — if you believe that they really matter to the lives of the people you have been elected to serve — then you have to weigh one virtue against the other. It’s completely naive to say “if you really believed in equality and protection for women then you would enforce your zero tolerance policy regardless of the consequences.” In fact, you must stop and ask yourself: will purity to one cause result in real harm to the lives of the people who would benefit by maintaining a Democratic majority?
We’ve seen the devastating results of being the minority party. And if being out of power means that important issues will be decided by a party who has proved itself to be willing to sacrifice the lives and livelihoods of ordinary Americans, how does that benefit anyone?