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Democrats have a sexual harassment problem

The party’s leaders can't keep protecting sexual harassers and claim they’re the party of the resistance.

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), left, and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN).
Conyers: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty; Franken: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty

Democrats have a sexual harassment problem.

Al Franken (D-MN) currently stands accused of groping multiple women before and after becoming a US senator. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) has stepped down as the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee after reports surfaced that he’d paid a former staffer $27,000 to settle a 2014 sexual misconduct complaint.

The problem is not, obviously, unique to Democrats.

Over the past six weeks, it’s become clear that many of America’s most powerful and most respected institutions have housed and protected repeat sexual harassers and predators, while shutting up or shutting out their victims.

“Has a sexual harassment problem” is a dubious distinction that the Democratic Party shares with Hollywood, Fox News, prestige television shows and networks, the restaurant industry, America’s most successful massage chain — and, of course, the Republican Party, which is currently running a Senate candidate who stands accused of assaulting a 14-year-old girl.

But the ubiquity of the problem doesn’t make it any less real. The Democratic Party — which has for years positioned itself as the defender of gender equality and women’s rights against Republican attacks — hasn’t taken a stand by pushing out the alleged offenders. There are open ethics committee investigations in both houses, but there’s no expectation that the allegations already voiced against Franken and Conyers should be firing offenses.

There are, as many reporters have pointed out, institutional imperatives at play here. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was reportedly wary of pushing out Conyers because she feared blowback from the Congressional Black Caucus. Democrats in both chambers are reportedly deferring to the ethics committees in part because they want to set an established pattern for how these allegations are addressed — because they know that such allegations, against Democrats and Republicans alike, are going to keep coming.

But if the Democratic Party chooses to continue to protect its members against harassment allegations, it needs to be honest about the choice it’s not making: the choice to be an institution that actually reflects the better world it says it wants to create.

For months, Democrats have identified themselves with the diffuse cultural energy known as “the resistance.” Now that public outrage is actually beginning to create change, by pushing serial predators out of positions of power, the Democrats — and other progressive political institutions — are facing a moment of reckoning. It can be an ally of the emergent social movement against a culture of serial harassment and “open secrets,” or it can be a partner of convenience.

President Obama Delivers State Of The Union Address
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) kissing Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) on the head before the 2015 State of the Union.
Rob Carr/Getty Images

We’ve only just entered a world where being a champion of women means you’re not supposed to be a serial grabber of women’s butts

Both Conyers and Franken appear to be baffled by the allegations made against them.

Conyers’s confusion (he initially denied that he had settled with his accuser, and then explained his initial statement by claiming he had been thinking of the wrong allegation) seems to be at least partly because he’s 88 years old; the New York Times reported last week that he has “often appeared disoriented” in recent years, and has showed up in pajamas to Hill events on at least two occasions.

Franken’s bafflement is something else again. He hasn’t admitted to any of the behavior he’s accused of — he says he doesn’t remember groping a woman in a photo line, and that he remembers a 2006 incident “differently” from the way Leeann Tweeden wrote about it in a November article. But at the same time, he’s apologized to Tweeden and other victims for making them feel uncomfortable. It’s something of an “I’m sorry if you were offended” level of apology, but it raises the discomfiting possibility that the incidents that have come out publicly are just run-of-the-mill for Franken.

On Monday night, he told a local TV station that he doesn’t know if more women will come forward with allegations, because he wasn’t expecting any women to come forward with allegations, period. That could mean that Franken is trying to defend himself against shoes he knows are going to drop in the future — or it could mean he simply never registered occasions when his behavior overstepped boundaries or made women uncomfortable.

The second possibility shouldn’t be reassuring. To the contrary: It would be an indication that a self-declared progressive feminist — a “champion” of women, as he put it in his initial response to Tweeden’s allegations — did not see “caring about the comfort of women interacting with you in casual settings” as part of the job description.

It wouldn’t be uncommon. We know by now that people who profess to care about gender equality can be serial harassers too. We know that Harvey Weinstein raised money for Planned Parenthood. We know that Leon Wieseltier thought of himself as a champion of women writers and editors. We know that Louis C.K. tried to build a comedy legacy on being a male feminist.

We know, now, that none of the things those men did in public changed the fact that they scared the women around them into victimhood and then into silence.

It’s not like “progressive” institutions have never dealt with this before. Only a few years ago, the progressive nonprofit world was shaken by revelations of widespread and egregious sexual harassment from the owner of a progressive communications firm. The New Republic always positioned itself as a liberal publication and institution (though the nature of that liberalism changed) while Wieseltier was one of its leading lights.

Progressives have been intellectually aware, for years, that genuinely caring about women means allowing them to be comfortable in public and professional spaces — not feeling that they have to be on their guard against predation at all times, and not obliged to accede to coercion by powerful men. But the predation of powerful men and the presence of coercion in progressive circles, just like anywhere else, was an open secret anyway. And now the idea of the “open secret” — the sin that everyone knows about but that has no consequences for the sinner — is crumbling.

Sen. Al Franken Returns To Work On Capitol Hill After Sex Harrassment Claims Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The post-Weinstein era has shifted individual attitudes. But it won’t automatically shift institutions’ behavior.

The renewed willingness, among many liberals, to relitigate the 20-year-old question of whether Bill Clinton should have stepped down during the Monica Lewinsky scandal may seem academic. But it’s illustrative.

It shows that progressives are getting uncomfortable with the fact that the institutions they trust to carry out positive social change may have aided and abetted sexual predation in the past. And it shows a conviction that institutions that want to portray themselves as progressive allies ought to hold themselves to the standard that their ideals imply — that the best way to show solidarity with a nascent social movement is to show that you agree with the world it’s trying to create, and that you want to take the first step in making that world a reality.

Because what we’ve seen in the past several weeks really is a nascent social movement. Attitudes toward whether sexual harassment is a bad thing may not have changed radically, but attitudes toward whether it is a problem — and a problem that can be defeated — absolutely have. Many men, including many powerful men with public platforms, have been forced to acknowledge the ubiquity of abuse of power; many women now feel newly empowered to speak out about their experiences, and are now, sometimes, even succeeding in holding their abusers accountable.

This is all happening at the level of individual attitudes being changed and individual abusers being taken down. When change has happened, it’s been because of the collective weight of individual moral outrage. When it hasn’t happened, it’s been because institutions haven’t felt the need to respond to that outrage, and have successfully outlasted it.

Changing individuals’ hearts and minds doesn’t automatically change the institutions those people are part of — either the written rules or the norms that govern an institution’s actions. It takes work to make an organization reflect your values — especially when those values have recently changed, or when an issue seems a lot more important than it used to.

The Democratic Party has embraced the spirit of the anti-Trump “resistance,” its outrage and grassroots energy. But the party and the resistance are not actually the same.

The nature of the relationship between them depends largely on Democrats. They have the opportunity to show that the party is remaking itself to reflect the resistance’s vision of America in which marginalized people are allowed to thrive and subtle and systemic oppressions are taken as seriously as blatant ones.

Or they can maintain a distinct institutional identity and enter an alliance of convenience with the resistance, in which the movement understands Democrats to be better than Republicans but doesn’t embrace them as natural allies per se.

The costs of “living your values” are real. But so are the benefits.

Sometimes, changing your organization to better reflect your values means you will find people in power on the wrong side of those values. It means that people you personally may be loyal to are on the wrong side of those values.

In those cases, you have to make a decision about what the institution really is. Is it about the people who currently belong to it — whatever their faults — or is it an embodiment of the values it espouses?

That’s the choice Democrats are facing right now. Their loyalties to Conyers and Franken as leaders within their party are strong enough to withstand external pressure to clean house. The only way that Conyers and Franken will be forced out is if Democrats decide that leaders of the party that claims to champion women should, definitionally, not have a history of harassing them.

Democrats don’t have the power to decide that people who have serially harassed women can be forced out of public life, or out of politics. Republicans aren’t going to clean house just because Democrats do. They may very well not clean house at all. If Roy Moore wins the Alabama Senate election, he’ll probably be seated; the president of the United States will remain a man who has bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy” and has been accused of assault or harassment by more than a dozen women.

This is the nature of civil society, though: No person can dictate whether others live up to his values, or even their own. No organization can either. The only actions they can control are their own.

If you believe that a more just world is one in which sexual harassers lose their jobs, the only way you can act to enforce that norm is to take care of the sexual harassers in your midst.

It’s easy to think of this as an act of shortsighted martyrdom: losing power by adhering to your ideals, winning a moral victory while losing the war. But that’s not actually how it works.

The Democratic Party isn’t just attracted to the resistance out of idealism. It’s attracted because the idea of the “resistance” — and the backlash against serial harassers in the post-Weinstein era (to the extent that the two are even different from each other to begin with) — reflects a new energy among certain groups of people (especially middle-aged suburban women of all races) that can be channeled into Democratic politics. Democrats have the power to help solidify the norm against harassment by acting on it — and they have the opportunity to show the resistance that their actions can generate real change, thus encouraging more activism down the line.

There are plenty of self-identified progressives who say the Democratic Party shouldn’t have to make that choice — that the things Moore stands accused of ought to overshadow any criticism of Franken, that the presence of Trump in the White House absolves any sins of Pelosi in defending Conyers. That’s a choice that the party can make. It can choose to define itself by its members rather than its ideals. It just shouldn’t be surprised if the force of outrage against serial predation dwindles, without an institution willing to honor and embody it.