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We need a healthier conversation about partisanship and sexual assault

Trying to put sexual assault allegations beyond partisanship is only making them more partisan.

U.S. Senate Debates Tax Reform Bill Mark Wilson/Getty Images

I’ve been saying for a while now that Al Franken should resign. And I’m glad that this week many of his colleagues — and, eventually, the senator himself — came to that conclusion.

I also acknowledge that I might have felt differently about this if Minnesota had a Republican governor who would be selecting Franken’s replacement. And I don’t feel bad about admitting that.

By the same token, while I personally thought (and continue to think) that Roy Moore demonstrated himself to be wildly unfit for office long before the allegations of his predatory sexual behavior came to light, I sympathize with Alabama Republicans who feel torn about their vote.

If you’re the kind of person whose policy commitments have led you to repeatedly send Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions to the Senate — and to elect Moore to the chief judgeship on the state Supreme Court multiple times — then voting to put Democrat Doug Jones in office must conflict deeply with your ideological values.

But American society is deeply hostile to the idea that it often makes perfect sense to elect the worse person if he agrees with you on the issues. Partisanship is a dirty word in American politics, even as growing partisan polarization means it makes more sense for citizens to vote as partisans. Consequently, Alabama Republicans face massive psychological pressure to come up with some reason other than frank partisanship to explain why they’re willing to vote for a man accused by many women of sexually abusing them as teens. The result is most of them have decided to reject the women’s stories as lies.

Ironically, pressure to avoid overt partisanship in voting behavior instead creates a disturbing partisan epistemology. Republicans are embracing an absurd conspiracy theory in which George Soros and the Washington Post are orchestrating a smear campaign against Moore. Democrats, meanwhile, are calling them hypocrites for calling on liberals like Franken to resign. It would be healthier if Alabama voters could just admit that they want a Republican — any Republican — even if Moore is an abuser. Then they could commit to doing the sensible thing and ditching Moore as soon as the alternative to Moore isn’t a Democrat, just as Democrats are cleaning house by replacing Franken and John Conyers with other Democrats.

We’d ultimately build a healthier political culture if we admitted that partisanship is okay — complete with a tolerable dose of hypocrisy.

Partisan disagreements on public policy are truly life and death

Partisan politics, at the end of the day, isn’t just about pettiness — it has vast life-or-death consequences for thousands or even millions of people.

Earlier this year, Senate Republicans came perilously close to passing an Affordable Care Act repeal bill that would have cost tens of millions of Americans their health insurance while putting Medicaid funding on an extremely perilous long-term path. Today, they are treading a narrow — but seemingly viable — path toward a tax reform bill that will induce an explosion of inequality and cause about 13 million to lose insurance.

Every vote counts. If saving insurance for millions of people — and thus avoiding thousands of preventable deaths — could only be achieved by overlooking some past incidents of sexual misconduct, then I think it would be entirely reasonable to have some serious concerns about the relevant balance of considerations.

The Moore campaign, conversely, is trying hard to remind people that he and Jones disagree on the issue of abortion and that most Alabamians side with Moore. It doesn’t really seem plausible to me that this disagreement is going to matter in a concrete way between now and 2020. But if abortion rights really did hang in the balance and you really did believe abortion was murder, that would be a pretty good reason to overlook Moore’s serious personal misconduct.

Decency, honor, and integrity in our public officeholders matters. But concrete public policy issues also matter. And in an era of ideologically polarized parties, it’s silly to maintain that people should overlook the enormous life-or-death stakes in partisan control of particular seats. But by the same token, taking a clear view of the situation can also lead to reasonably speedy redress of it.

Frank partisanship can help spur house cleaning

One advantage of admitting that partisan hypocrisy is okay is it could help relieve people of the sense that “cleaning house” is somehow a bad thing for their team.

Ever since allegations against Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) surfaced, a number of grassroots Democrats have pushed back against the calls for resignation on the grounds that it would be unfair for Democrats to suffer while Republicans continue to stand behind the more egregious cases of Trump and Moore. This is, however, backward. Moore’s misconduct is jeopardizing what should be a safe Republican Senate seat. Trump is, for a variety of reasons, one of the least-popular presidents on record.

Conversely, cleaning house with regard to Franken and Conyers would leave Democrats in a stronger position. Minnesota is a blue-ish state, but the seat isn’t nearly so safe that Democrats should feel complacent that a scandal-plagued nominee could hold it. They’ll be better off with someone untainted. Conyers’s seat, by contrast, is extremely safe. But Democrats would be better off getting someone young, dynamic, and untroubled by scandal in there to make a play to become a future leader of the party.

By the same token, if Republicans were more comfortable admitting that knee-jerk partisanship is the case for Moore, they might be more comfortable dealing with him appropriately if he wins.

If you admit you’re compromised, you can fix the problem

If Moore wins, the Senate can (and should!) expel him, creating a new vacancy that would be filled by a new Republican on an interim basis and trigger a new special election. If the Senate doesn’t do that, another Republican can (and should!) challenge him in a 2020 primary election.

Unlike the Jones-Moore race, neither of those options should be a remotely hard call for anyone regardless of their partisan or ideological views. But to get to that solution, we would need to be in a place where people can admit that partisanship is a good reason to back Moore over Jones — or that Democrats have good reason to take the fact that Minnesota has a Democratic governor into consideration when thinking about Al Franken. In the actual world, the most likely outcome in Alabama is still that Moore wins. And if he does win, he’ll end up sticking around.

It’ll be a tragedy. Because stigmatizing partisan hypocrisy doesn’t rid the country of it. Instead, it causes people to develop the nonhypocritical — but factually unlikely — view that accusations leveled against the other party’s politicians are true, while those leveled against your own party are part of a broad conspiracy.

Partisan politics is a big deal. It’s true that if we let people admit that, they’d only want to clean house when there’s electoral upside to doing so. But there usually is, in fact, huge electoral upside to cleaning house. And if we let people admit that a little partisanship is okay, they just might see that more clearly, clean house, and get us to where we need to be as a country must faster.

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