I coached policy debate for about ten years, and in policy debate we had a thing called a “perceptual link.” That was a fancy term for something that happens not because A causes B, but because people THINK A causes B. One of the ideas you learn in policy debate is that when a perceptual link is involved, the TRUTH DOESN’T MATTER. What matters is people’s perception, and ultimately, their attitudes based upon that perception—because those attitudes can directly affect elections, markets, and other attitudes. While it can feel unfair or ephemeral, a perceptual link is no less a driver of events than hard science or mathematical absolutes.
Al Franken, my senator for nearly nine years, resigned today due to a perceptual link.
We are in the middle of an unprecedented wave of consequences for sexual abusers, from Roger Ailes and Bill O’reilly to Louis CK and Garrison Keillor. Wherever these people are employed or answerable to economic partnerships, they are going down in droves—losing their jobs, their shows, and their continued livelihoods like dominoes.
But it’s different in politics. In politics, the voters decide. And so you have Donald Trump and Roy Moore, both accused of pedophilia, one in the White House and one on track to win the race for Senate in Alabama. You have John Conyers, who resigned the day before last, and, of course, you have Al Franken.
I don’t know what actually happened with Al. I don’t know what he’s actually guilty of and what he’s not. But I suspect, based on what he’s admitted in his apologies and what he’s hedged on, that he did some very inappropriate things at his own campaign events – particularly, grabbing some butts that weren’t his to grab, and trying to kiss women who were thoroughly uninterested.
I think it’s important to note that this behavior is not as inappropriate as touching a 14-year-old girl under her clothes, or hosting a sex party with 15-year-olds – crimes that Moore and Trump are accused of, respectively – but it’s still behavior that should be unacceptable from anyone, and particularly from a US senator.
In a perfect world, the relative scale of these crimes would be considered. Trump would have failed in his bid for the presidency because of his disgusting habits, and Moore would have dropped out of the race – both would have faced criminal charges. Franken, arguably guilty of a lesser offense, would have faced an ethics investigation, probable censure, and steep opposition in his next primary.
The problem is that whole question of “a lesser offense.” Roy Moore and Donald Trump are both so incredibly toxic, they both taint the conversation so thoroughly, that it is impossible to be accused of a lesser charge right now without getting swept into their orbit. “Moore, Trump, and Franken” were mentioned as a single unit over and over in the news and on social media. The correct punishment for pedophile politicians, at a minimum, is for them to lose their positions, and people are right to call for this action from Trump and Moore. But being lumped in with them due to the current environment, Franken had to either accept that resignation was the appropriate consequence, or attempt to argue on a national stage that his offenses were of a lesser degree. That would have required going over those offenses in excruciating detail: the age of each of his accusers, the situation in which he molested them, his excuses or reasons for doing so. Publicly litigating those kinds of details in the current environment only makes them worse. Every time Franken would have to say “I touched her butt,” he would be admitting his sexual harassment publicly.
In the meantime, Moore would get elected to the senate and Trump would continue to occupy the white house. Every time Franken opened his mouth to argue the lesser magnitude of his offenses, he would sound just like them. Look at some of the “arguments” he’s already tried to make: “I didn’t mean it that way,” “I meant it affectionately,” etc. Setting aside the questionable validity of these statements, simply making them strips away his ability to effectively legislate for women.
I suspect he decided one of three things: that his career wouldn’t survive such a trial, that it wasn’t worth the agony of trying to parse out the severity of the offense, or that doing so would play directly into the hands of vermin like Trump and Moore, who would point gleefully at him and cry, “See? See?” while skating clean on their own, far worse, offenses. Maybe he decided on all three. I don’t know and probably never will. What I do know is that in this environment, today, public perception prevented any kind of nuanced analysis of his relative sins. He was automatically lumped in with the worst. I’m not saying that was good or bad. It’s simply what I think happened.
There is one more angle to this, which is this idea that the democrats stabbed him in the back in order to maintain the party’s “moral high ground” and as a result we should all hate them. Setting aside for the moment the fact that democrats on both sides of the current divide – establishment/Clinton democrats and “herbal tea party”/Sanders democrats – called for him to step down, again, I don’t believe public perception would have allowed for anything else. A public ethics investigation involving the kind of language I described above, in the current environment, would have absolutely annihilated any argument that the democrats are the party of feminism. When both sides are making the exact same excuses for their sexual abusers, using the exact same language, and pointing the exact same fingers, there is no moral high ground.
“So what?” you might say. “What has the moral high ground ever gotten us?”
The thing is, the moral high ground is not and has never been about “getting us” anything. It’s about doing the right thing, even if it costs you, even if that cost is higher than it would be in a perfectly fair world. It’s about aiming for an ideal in the hopes that one day you will reach it. I keep hearing this argument that the female senators who called for Al’s resignation yesterday were party loyalists, just trying to keep the party’s nose clean. I say if that’s case, thank god for them.
If both parties demand that the other party’s molesters step down before they take down their own, they are no different on this issue. If both scream and point fingers, they are no different. If neither is willing to enforce their ideals by making difficult decisions, then they are the same.
No, the Republicans are not going to rush to follow the example set yesterday by Kirsten Gillibrand. They are going to laugh at us, and scorn us, and gloat, and celebrate taking down one of their most vocal and capable critics in the US senate. But come next November, the American people will still have the option of voting for a party that actually backs up its platform statements with action, and without that, this country is truly and finally doomed.
I loved Al Franken. I was enjoying the rumors that he might run for president. I was proud to vote for him and still, today, believe he was an excellent senator.
At the same time, I am appalled by his behavior. I understand the calls for him to step down, and I understand his decision to heed them. I won’t paint him as a victim in this, but I will recognize that sometimes good people do bad things—and sometimes, due to circumstances beyond our control, they have to suffer larger consequences for those things than they truly deserve.