Late in 2017, not long after the beginning of the #MeToo movement, a conservative news anchor told a story about Senator Al Franken and a tour she had taken with him years earlier to Afghanistan. They were performing a skit together that included a kiss for the troops, and he asked her rehearse. He importuned her rehearse the kiss, and when she agreed, she said, he gave her more of a kiss than she had bargained for. That, in the existing climate, was news. In the next few days, a picture surfaced that Franken had posed for showing him feigning to touch (but not touching) the woman's breasts while she slept on the plane. Then two women, I believe, announced separately that Franken had touched them on the posterior during campaign photo ops. Leading Democrats immediately called for Franken's resignation. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, in particular, tweeted that Franken, whom she valued as a colleague, had to go, so that she and others would not have to explain the difference between an actual rape or sexual assault on the one hand, and an unwanted French kiss or touch on the other, to her young children--a novel idea to those of us who believe that politics is for adults. Franken resigned and the Democratic Party lost an effective spokesman.
Now we are replaying a different version of this drama in Virginia, in the case of Governor Ralph Northam. Northam grew up on an Eastern Shore farm in the 1960s and graduated from VMI before going to a local medical school. He served as a doctor in the Army and became a pediatric neurologist. (In case you are wondering I am relying on his Wikipedia entry.) He entered politics in a state Senate election in 2007 and defeated a Republican incumbent. In 2008, the Republican Party entreated him to switch parties, which would have given them control of the state senate, but he refused to do so. In 2013, Northam, a white Democrat from a conservative area, defeated Aneesh Chopra, a Northern Virginia Democrat and federal official, in the Democratic Primary for Lieutenant Governor handily, and won election along with Governor Tim Kaine. Virginia law bars governors from running for re-election, and Northam emerged as a candidate to succeed him. In 2017, in one of the first state elections after Donald Trump's victory, Northam once again defeated a more liberal Democrat, Tom Perriello, in the primary. Then he won a comfortable victory over a former Republican operative, Ed Gillespie, in the general election. The campaign, like most campaigns today, was a dirty one, featuring inflammatory ads on both sides, including a Democratic ad in which a pick-up truck with a Gillespie bumper sticker and a Confederate flag chases minority children in a scene that turns out to be a nightmare. Northam's running mate for Lieutenant Governor, Justin Fairfax, is black, and a union that supported Northam but not Fairfax, whom the union claimed had opposed a pipeline they favor, at one point got the Northam campaign to print some leaflets that left Fairfax out. The officers of the Virginia lol appear to be Hispanic. Northam's comfortable victory in purple Virginia reassured Democrats that the Trump campaign was not the wave of the future.
Northam has taken mainstream Democratic positions as Governor. He reached a compromise with the Republican-controlled legislator that raised the threshold for thieves to be charged with a felony from $200 to $500. He has called for a $15 minimum wage (twice the current Virginia level), a free path to community college, and an end to the grocery tax for poor people. He opposes offshore drilling and fracking, and signed an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Car Act. He favors a ban on assault weapons, and he is now embroiled in a controversy over a bill that would allow women to have a late-term abortion with the approval of one doctor, instead of the current three. He is currently shepherding through the legislature a school funding bill that will restore desperately needed money that has been lacking since the Great Recession 10 years ago.
This week, some one checked Northam's medical school yearbook page and found a photo of two students, one dressed as a Klansman and one in blackface. Northam has acknowledged that one of them is him. He has apologized for this picture, which was taken about 35 years ago. A chorus of leading Democrats has demanded his immediate resignation. It's time to put that demand in historical perspective.
This whole controversy, to me, illustrates once again the extent to which postmodern thinking has become mainstream among Democrats and the media. Postmodernists believe that the only human reality is language, which includes all forms of representation, including photographs, names of buildings, and much more. Language is the arena in which the struggle between dominant groups (straight white males, above all) and others is played out. A racist image, which decades ago both white liberals and black activists might have dismissed as beneath notice or beneath contempt, is a weapon in an ongoing struggle to define us all. Anyone who helped create one has committed a mortal sin, and their career must be terminated in a dramatic public ceremony. That's what happened to Al Franken more than a year ago, and it threatens to happen to Northam now. It is not an accident, I think, that none of the first five Democratic presidential candidates to call for Northam's resignation--Julian Castro, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris--is a white male. They are buying into the idea that any insult to oppressed peoples needs to be treated as a mortal blow, and punished accordingly--even if it is 35 years old and was delivered against no one in particular, and even if the accused has a good record on race and diversity issues as a public official. They are also buying into the idea that one unfortunate photo or statement is more important than anything a person might have actually done in office. To have contributed to one racist image, decades ago, disqualifies one from public office.
I don't think it is going too far to say, in fact, that for many Democratic activists nowadays, the application of this ideology is the principal goal of politics. That is why the election of more nonwhitemales has become an end in itself, and why the possible nomination of another one (such as Sherrod Brown of Ohio, one of my favorite candidates at the moment, along with Warren), will be seen as a threat. I however do not share that view. The historic mission of the Democratic Party at this moment, for me, is to defeat Donald Trump and restore a minimum standard of competence and integrity to the White House and American government. Turning our own and staging ritual purges will not help us achieve that goal.
The next election, like the last one, will be decided largely in purple states like Virginia, where Governor Northam twice defeated more liberal candidates in primaries. A party that cannot tolerate a single 35-year old indiscretion on the part of a white male will not increase its chances in those states. The Republican Party is playing by different rules. When one of their candidates--Donald Trump or Bret Kavanaugh--is accused of recent of distant wrongdoing involving gender or race, they dismiss it and rally around. I do not admire their values, but I do think their loyalty remains a necessary political weapon. The Democratic Party may well have to choose between internal purity and electoral success. I fear that today's Democrats will choose the former.
In 1937, given the opportunity to make his first appointment to the Supreme Court, Franklin Roosevelt chose Senator Hugo Black of Alabama--a New Dealer, and a liberal on everything but race. Black's fellow Senators quickly and easily confirmed him, as FDR knew they would. But immediately his confirmation, the story broke that Black, in the 1920s, had belonged to the KKK, then a tremendous political power in Alabama. Calls erupted for his resignation, but he refused to quit, admitting his membership but repudiating the views of the Klan, and FDR stood by him. Over the next 34 years, Black established himself as one of our greatest and most liberal justices, emerging as one of the most fervent defenders of free speech in the history of the court, and joining in Brown v. Board of Education, many other civil rights cases of that era, and the decisions that expanded the rights of criminal defendants. He closed his career, appropriately, with this magnificent opinion in the case of the Pentagon Papers, declaring that in publishing the documents that led to the Vietnam War, the newspapers had "done what the Founders hoped and trusted they would do."
Black would never make it onto the Supreme Court today, and I don't think that makes this a better America.