The sheer scale and sustained ferocity of the reckoning with sexual harassment since the Harvey Weinstein revelations have taken almost everyone by surprise. Events have unfolded with such disorienting speed that it’s difficult to find emotional equilibrium — giddy disbelief and nameless dread alternate and sometimes mix.
It was inevitable that the wave of charges would take down some liberal heroes. When the first charges against Sen. Al Franken appeared, it set off a predictable round of anguished debate on the left. New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg has been a key figure — in the wake of the revelations, she wrote a column saying Franken should go, only to second-guess herself the following week.
On Tuesday, academic and activist Zephyr Teachout published a column of her own in the Times, questioning whether Franken has been treated with fairness and proportionality.
Franken’s offenses seem, at the very least, of a different kind than Harvey Weinstein’s, and the proper censure is far from clear. Should Franken resign? Should Democrats allow the Senate ethics investigation to proceed? How should they weigh Franken’s long service of progressive causes, including the rights of women, against his ugly and immature treatment of individual women? How can a zero-tolerance policy be reconciled with due process?
This excruciatingly difficult intra-left debate has played out on dozens of other websites and cable shows — and it’s unlikely to end anytime soon, no matter what happens to Franken.
But I want to pull the camera back and highlight another feature of the debate, which Goldberg captured skillfully in her latest column, “Franken is leaving and Trump is still here,” and Dahlia Lithwick echoed in a piece in Slate called “The uneven playing field.”
Both wrestle with the same dilemma: While the left attempts to address this issue in good faith, the right is using it entirely as a tool to divide Democrats and win short-term political advantage. Every move Democrats make to hold their own accountable, to apply the principle without favor, is immediately used against them.
Sensitive debates are difficult under a torrent of bad-faith gaslighting
The right has taken a purely instrumental approach to the sexual harassment phenomenon from the very beginning. They ignored more than a dozen Donald Trump accusers to elect him president. They blamed Weinstein on Hillary Clinton. Though a few conservative leaders rejected Roy Moore, an extremist credibly accused of preying on teen girls, conservative leaders and media rallied around his (narrowly unsuccessful) campaign.
Conservatives have missed no opportunity to use Franken as a wedge. While he was still in office, they used him to attack Dems. And when he resigned?
“What you saw today was a lynch mob,” Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich said Wednesday on Laura Ingraham's show. The former House speaker argued that Democrats' mind-set is, “Let's just lynch him because when we are done, we will be so pure.”
They pivoted from “Dems are bad for keeping Franken” to “Dems are bad for losing Franken” without breaking a sweat, because the point was never about Franken. The point is always the same: Dems are bad.
So now the left struggles with the dilemma of how to behave honorably under a set of rules and norms that their opponents do not acknowledge or accept.
Anger over that asymmetry is what animates Lithwick’s column. “This is a perfectly transactional moment in governance,” she writes ...
... and what we get in exchange for being good and moral right now is nothing. I’m not saying we should hit pause on #MeToo, or direct any less fury at sexual predators in their every manifestation. But we should understand that while we know that our good faith and reasonableness are virtues, we currently live in a world where it’s also a handicap.
Charles Pierce at Esquire put it more bluntly: “There is no commonly accepted Moral High Ground left to occupy anymore, and to pretend one exists is to live in a masturbatory fantasyland. It’s like lining yourself up behind Miss Manners in a political debate against Machiavelli.”
Amanda Marcotte has argued that booting Franken (and replacing him with a woman) is the smart political move regardless. But even if that’s so in Franken’s case, it surely won’t always be true that the right thing is the politically advantageous thing, especially in the face of a movement seeking to exploit every weakness.
The point is not that the left is pure on sexual harassment, or anything else. Far from it. Everyone faces the temptation to treat friends and enemies differently. But there is debate, struggle, made more difficult by the fact that there is none remaining on the right.
It is genuinely difficult to know how to respond to bad faith. Acting as though rules and norms still apply just seems to make Dems vulnerable, but abandoning them entirely doesn’t sound great either.
I don’t have an answer (maybe there isn’t one). All I can offer is a closer look at the two main tools the right uses to weaken and degrade the norms that hold American public life together. They are familiar from the sexual harassment debate, but many other debates as well.
Whataboutism to show that no one really cares
The first is whataboutism. Even if you haven’t heard the term, you’ll recognize it:
- “Trump admitted to sexually assaulting women, and more than a dozen have accused him of it.”
“What about Bill Clinton?”
- “The Trump administration is trying to bail out failing coal plants with billions of dollars, to no credible end.”
“What about Solyndra?”
- “Republican legislatures in numerous red states are passing laws deliberately designed to reduce voting turnout among Democrats, especially minorities.”
“What about ACORN?”
- “Roy Moore is a lunatic creep.”
“What about Al Franken?”
And so on, forever. For any violation of norms or rules, there is a “what about.”
Though it is a response to a moral accusation, it is not really a moral argument at all. Even if you believe the worst and most fevered charges against Bill Clinton, for instance, his behavior cannot justify Trump’s. Nothing Al Franken or Democrats do can justify Roy Moore. Morally, their behavior stands or falls on its own.
The point of whataboutism is not to justify anything — it’s to show that nobody really cares. Nobody really puts principle above tribe. Everyone is out for their own team, and people who pretend otherwise are liars or hypocrites.
“Don't be fooled by any of this,” Sean Hannity said on his show the night Franken resigned. “This Democratic decision today obviously was coordinated, and to turn on Franken, it's purely political.”
In other words, Democrats are faking. They don’t really care about sexual harassment. They’re just out to help their tribe.
Shared norms only exist to the extent people believe they exist. They have only the force we ascribe them. The more people believe that a norm is just a sham, tribal warfare through other means, the more they will behave accordingly. If “everybody does it,” then anybody can do it.
Whataboutism isn’t meant to justify anything; it’s meant to permit everything.
Delegitimizing the referees
The second key tool of tribal morality is to weaken or degrade any claim of authority that transcends tribe — to disqualify any referees with the ability to constrain tribal behavior.
The right has gone after government, journalism, science, and academia in turn, in each case doing at a social scale what whataboutism is meant to do at the individual level: show that all claims of transpartisan authority are fraudulent. The message right-wing media relentlessly delivers to the base is that these institutions are in thrall to the left, that there is only tribe versus tribe, no shared authorities or referees. (I wrote a much longer post about this earlier this year.)
This tool, interestingly, hasn’t worked very well for the right on sexual harassment. Insofar as there is any official authority to discredit, it is the mainstream media that’s breaking the stories. They certainly attack media at every opportunity, but the victims themselves are the real authorities, and there are too many of them, coming from too many directions, to discredit at once. (Though Moore’s campaign tried.)
But the tool is hard at work in other cases. Take Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia. Mueller is, by everyone’s pre-2017 estimation, the very definition of a straight-shooter, an authority trusted on all sides. Here’s what Newt Gingrich had to say back in May:
Robert Mueller is superb choice to be special counsel. His reputation is impeccable for honesty and integrity. Media should now calm down— Newt Gingrich (@newtgingrich) May 18, 2017
But then Mueller started looking like a threat to Gingrich’s friend Trump. So by June, it was this:
Republicans are delusional if they think the special counsel is going to be fair. Look who he is hiring.check fec reports. Time to rethink.— Newt Gingrich (@newtgingrich) June 12, 2017
And by late October, Gingrich was calling Mueller an “out of control prosecutor.” Mueller was Good until he threatened the tribe; now he is Bad.
When the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said negative things about the Republican tax bill, they went after the CBO. When the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation reported that the tax bill would increase the deficit — an indisputable fact supported by every single analysis of the bill — they went after the JCT.
“Public statements and messaging documents obtained by The New York Times,” Jim Tankersley writes, “show a concerted push by Republican lawmakers to discredit a nonpartisan agency they had long praised.” The JCT was Good until it threatened the tribe; now it’s Bad.
They’ve gone after the mainstream media (“MSM”), the academy, courts, climate science, government agencies — virtually any institution assigned with establishing a shared base of facts or arbitrating factual disputes. A month ago, Trump’s administration released an incredibly detailed account of climate change and its dangers, written by federal climate scientists and researchers. The administration ignored or dismissed it. (See Ezra Klein for more on how deeply intellectual rot has penetrated the GOP.)
The point of all this is to convince a captive right-wing base that the only sources they can trust are partisan conservative sources — that the only other choices are partisan left sources. There are only tribes, no referees, no constraints.
So they can dismiss a series of Washington Post stories on Roy Moore’s creepy history as “fake news,” despite dozens of sources. Federal climate scientists, the CBO, the JCT, the MSM — it’s all fake news. Any bearer of bad news for the tribe is against the tribe and thus can’t be trusted. It’s a closed loop.
(One of their own got busted in a ham-handed attempt to swindle the Post, but that didn’t seem to count against his credibility in their eyes at all.)
Whataboutism and rejection of transpartisan authority translate to a simple message: No one cares about anything but their own tribe, and only our tribe can be trusted.
While the left wrestles with tribalism, the right has given into it completely. And it sure looks like that puts the left at a systematic disadvantage.
Is respecting rules and norms a handicap?
When Obama was president, trying to pass the economic recovery bill and the Affordable Care Act, Republicans took to the press constantly complaining about transparency, due process, and giving lawmakers time to read legislation before they vote on it. The phrase “rammed down our throat” is used with disturbing frequency in reference to the ACA.
But since Trump took office, Congressional Republicans have hastily assembled and attempted to rush through, with virtually no hearings, analysis, or bipartisan outreach, two radical, unpopular bills in the past year.
Okay this is absurd. One page of the new #GOPTaxPlan is crossed out with an ex. Another page is just a line. Is that a crossout? Is this page part of the bill?— Senator Bob Menendez (@SenatorMenendez) December 1, 2017
WHY AM I ASKING THESE QUESTIONS HOURS BEFORE WE VOTE ON IT?? #GOPTaxScam pic.twitter.com/57Qbi7gT5F
Their supposed procedural principles were just a tool for partisan advantage, a convenient way to bash Obama and justify total opposition.
Under Obama, Republicans used fears about the deficit as a weapon to oppose any and all spending. Now, they are trying to pass a tax bill that would increase the deficit by more than a trillion dollars, almost entirely for tax cuts on the rich (and then promising, with astonishing chutzpah, to subsequently cut Medicare and Medicaid because of the deficit). Their supposed principles on the deficit were just a tool for partisan advantage.
Under Obama, Republicans were forever crying “executive overreach” and impending tyranny. Now Trump has used his office to enrich himself, he fired Comey (by his own words) to shut down the Russia investigation, and all day long Fox is running authoritarian wish fulfillment like this:
JFC, Jeanine Pirro is calling for the purging, arrest, and prosecution of people at the FBI and DOJ. https://t.co/lCYjBpZTJz— andrew kaczynski (@KFILE) December 10, 2017
They said they cared about “the swamp,” but they have stood by mutely as the administration packs itself with cronies, lobbyists, and amateurs. They said they cared about family values, but they elected a bullying, misogynistic swindler. They said they cared about sexual harassment, but, well ...
The Latest: Republican National Committee once again supporting Roy Moore, 3 weeks after severing ties over sexual molestation allegations. https://t.co/HYIT7Eby7E— The Associated Press (@AP) December 5, 2017
It was all bad faith, the language of principle deployed purely for partisan advantage.
Now they are busy bashing mainstream media errors that were, without exception, caught and corrected by the media sources in question. The president is calling for the firing of individual journalists.
.@daveweigel of the Washington Post just admitted that his picture was a FAKE (fraud?) showing an almost empty arena last night for my speech in Pensacola when, in fact, he knew the arena was packed (as shown also on T.V.). FAKE NEWS, he should be fired.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 9, 2017
This is Trump, who gets more things wrong before breakfast — literally — than Dave Weigel has in his entire career. According to the (ahem) Washington Post, as of November 13, Trump has made 1,628 “misleading claims” this year alone.
Trump has averaged 5.5 falsehoods per day this year. He’s been on an amazing hot streak lately, up to *9 falsehoods per day* over a month. On pace for about 2,000 in his first year in office. As far as I know, not one firing, apology or correction.https://t.co/UTI0GRMgwp— Jesse Lee (@JesseCharlesLee) December 10, 2017
The right-wing media outlets around which conservatives increasingly huddle — Fox, Breitbart, and Facebook shares of dubious origin — swim in fantasy, paranoia, and conspiracy theories all day, fairy tales about their opponents smuggling guns, having people assassinated, and running child prostitution rings out of pizza restaurants.
They use the principle of accuracy in media as a tool for tribal advantage.
Lies on Breitbart don’t count. Lies on Hannity and Fox & Friends don’t count. Kellyanne Conway’s dissembling doesn’t count. Only the mistakes of people who care about the truth count. These are the rules of decline.— Jon Lovett (@jonlovett) December 10, 2017
They sense that the language of principle works. They have weaponized it, using it to jam up the other side. (Over email, historian Rick Perlstein, who has chronicled this kind of thing on the right for years, compared it to a hand grenade — they catch it and toss it back.) They know that those who do take norms seriously feel obliged to assume good faith.
But then you end up with a situation in which “only the mistakes of people who care about the truth count.” Racism and sexual harassment only count against people who care about racism and sexual harassment. Carbon emissions only count against people who care about climate change. Partisanship only counts against those open to compromise.
As Goldberg wrote, “Democrats, by and large, want their politicians held accountable. Republicans, by contrast, just want Democratic politicians held accountable.”
It’s a fundamental asymmetry, shaping everything in US politics, but it’s just not clear what mainstream institutions and/or the left should do about it.
Brian Beutler has been arguing for a while that journalists are simply failing to do their job when they take demonstrably bad-faith actors like Steve Bannon or Kellyanne Conway at their word. Enabling them to deliver falsehoods to large audiences, even in the rare instances when the falsehoods are accompanied by rebuttals, does the public a disservice. Treating their contempt for journalists and factual accuracy as normal politics, just the typical spin that both parties engage in, creates the illusion of balance where there is none.
“The longer it takes us to develop new norms for addressing demonstrable bad faith,” Beutler writes, “the likelier it becomes that this tide of propaganda will swamp us.”
But as I asked in my post on tribal epistemology, what would those new norms look like? If mainstream journalists assume bad faith on the part of dissemblers on the right, they’re going to lose a lot of guests, sources, and viewers. If right-wingers don’t see their conspiracy theories represented back to them in mainstream news, it will merely hasten their ongoing alienation from mainstream sources of fact and information. Their epistemic closure will only grow more closed.
Despite thousands of hours wasted and many millions of dollars spent, the Democrats have been unable to show any collusion with Russia - so now they are moving on to the false accusations and fabricated stories of women who I don’t know and/or have never met. FAKE NEWS!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 12, 2017
It’s not clear that democracy can survive having a third of the population hived off into its own insular world, with its own institutions, authorities, and facts.
In the meantime, Franken is leaving, but recent experience suggests that more women will be coming forward, implicating lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. The left, because it cares (or at least some of it cares) about sexual harassment as such, must navigate its own conflicting impulses and interests to determine what’s fair to everyone — while under a hail of bad-faith fire from those who see it as just one more way to divide and demoralize them.
It is a frustrating dynamic, but we seem to be stuck in it.