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The Moral Gap in American Politics

The Democrats are forcing sexual harassers from their ranks. Why aren't Republicans doing the right thing, too?

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The Weinstein effect has hit Washington hard—and probably just beginning—but has had a disparate effect on the two parties. Until recently, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans had the high moral ground on sexual harassment. Both parties had prominent sexual harassers who were defended by partisans and shielded by a power structure that discouraged victims from voicing their complaints, let alone seeking justice. The Democrats had Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton; the Republicans had Strom Thurmond and Bob Packwood. It was easy enough for the centrist press to say “both sides do it,” and for party hacks to respond with whataboutism.

But now, thanks largely to an internal revolt by Democratic women, the equivalence between the two parties is giving way to a stark contrast. The Republicans, albeit with some foot-dragging on the part of the establishment, are well on their way to becoming the party of President Donald Trump and Roy Moore, the Senate candidate accused of molesting underage girls. Conversely, the veteran Democratic Congressman John Conyers announced his retirement on Monday, in the wake of revelations that he had settled a case with a former staffer who accused him of trying to coerce her into sex, among other instance of sexual misconduct. Conyers ostensibly resigned for health reasons, but the true reason was that party leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on him to step down.

On Wednesday, a new story broke about Minnesota Senator Al Franken groping a woman, bringing the number of accusations against him to eight. In response, six female Democratic senators called for his resignation. By the evening, a majority of Democrats in the Senate—32 of them—had done so.

Franken is scheduled to make an announcement on Thursday. If he resigns, as he’s widely expected to do, then it’ll be impossible to deny that the two parties have increasingly distinct identities on sexual harassment issues. On Tuesday, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee had asked Fox News, “But you know it’s down to the fact that as long as Al Franken is in the Senate, and Conyers is staying in office, why not have Roy Moore?” With Conyers gone and Franken on the precipice, the question becomes: If Democrats are willing to stand up to their accused sexual harassers, why do the Republicans tolerate Moore?

Republicans might reject that they’re the party of Moore. But Trump, the standard bearer of the GOP, has endorsed Moore; the Republican National Committee has decided, after initial trepidation, to fund his campaign; and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear he’ll work with Moore if he wins. Talk of expelling Moore from Senate has died down, as there does not appear to be enough Republicans who support the idea.

Arizona Senator Jeff Flake is one of the exceptions, one of the few leading Republicans who is openly opposed to a Senator Moore—so much so that he donated $100 to Moore’s Democratic opponent, Doug Jones:

This break with party loyalty was too much for Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, who positioned himself as opposing both Moore and Jones:

The Democratic Party’s turn against Conyers and Franken was fundamentally about values. As Dara Lind wrote at Vox, for years “the Democratic Party has positioned itself as the defender of gender equality and women’s rights against Republican attacks.” The Democrats, seriously tested by offenders within their ranks, are now trying to live up to those standards.

The Republican Party is also making an affirmation of values by sticking with Moore and Trump: the defender of toxic masculinity. The gender gap in presidential politics, whereby women are markedly more likely to vote for Democrats than men, is a relatively new phenomenon in American politics. It dates back to the 1980 election, with Ronald Reagan’s embrace of the religious right. Moore is emblematic of all the dangers of that fusion of the GOP with pious fanaticism. The allegations against Moore aside, his views on gender are deeply retrograde. He co-authored a textbook arguing that women shouldn’t run for public office. In both Trump and Moore, the GOP has taken the mantle of the worst form of patriarchy: an assertion of male dominance without even the protective charade of chivalry.

Some Republican pundits are treating the Democrats newfound hardline position against sexual harassment as a political ploy:

It’s true that sacrificing Franken is easier because his replacement will be named by a Democratic governor. Still, the reason the two parties are diverging on sexual harassment has more to do with their different beliefs on gender rights than simple political expediency. After all, both Conyers and Franken are much loved among the party’s base. To punish them carries a real cost of demoralizing faithful Democrats.

It’s also true that Democrats have to be more attentive to women voters than Republicans do. Hillary Clinton won 54 percent of the female vote and only 41 percent of the male vote. A third of Democrats in Congress are women, versus only 9 percent of Republicans. Democrats in both ideology and make-up are increasingly the party of female equality and the Republicans the party of gender reactionaries.

It’s by no means clear that becoming the party of gender equality will always help Democrats, although at least one erstwhile conservative pundit sees an advantage:

Some conservatives are even trying to capitalize on the Democrats treatment of Franken.

A hardline stance against sexual harassment might help in 2018, but produce a backlash in subsequent years. It’s impossible to know for sure. But political parties shouldn’t project certain values, and hold themselves accountable to them, simply because of electoral popularity. They should stand up for what’s right on moral grounds alone, and when it comes to sexual harassment, only one party is succeeding.