American politics is deeply polarized—but everyone hates their own side, too. Conservative Republicans grumble about how RINOs—“Republicans In Name Only”—are selling them out by failing to repeal Obamacare. Meanwhile Democrats complain that their representatives are spineless in the face of Donald Trump. The opposition always seems ruthless; your own side always seems to be giving in.
It’s no surprise, then, that Al Franken’s resignation on Dec. 7 in the face of seven accusations of sexual misconduct has been framed by some Democrats as a typical sign of Democratic spinelessness. Plenty of Twitter commentators claimed that that Democrats were weak for caving on Franken while failing to go on the attack about Trump and Roy Moore’s alleged sexual assaults, insisting that Democrats “can’t be trusted to fight.”
The truth, though, is that Franken’s resignation—as well as that of House representative John Conyers—is a welcome sign of Democratic strength. After some unfortunate hesitation, Democrats have found their spines. The resignations are a signal that sexual harassment is not welcome in their party. That’s the opposite of weakness.
Progressives’ frustration with Franken’s resignation is understandable. Donald Trump has been accused by 16 women of sexual harassment, and actually admitted on tape to sexually assaulting women. Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate in Alabama, has been credibly accused of stalking under-age girls, and of physically assaulting women. Yet Republicans continue to support both men. The Republican National Committee just reversed its condemnation of Moore, and is now once again contributing money to his campaign.
But defending the indefensible is not a sign of strength. Rather, it’s evidence that the Republican party has lost control of its nomination process, and can no longer prevent con men, incompetents, and immoral thugs from hijacking its institutions. Republicans support Trump and Moore because they are too timid and weak to fight for the family values they claim to care about.
And their weakness has a cost. Trump is an erratic and despised president; his historically low popularity resulted in devastating losses in Virginia in November. Moore is running neck and neck with Doug Jones in Alabama—an unprecedentedly poor showing for a Republican in the state. If he wins election to the Senate, he will appear in Democratic ads from coast to coast in 2018.
In contrast, Democratic politicians’ willingness to force out Conyers and Franken shows that they understand that they cannot claim to be champions of women’s rights with serial harassers in their midst. Allowing politicians to commit sexual harassment with impunity creates a hostile environment in which women are less likely to run for office or stay in office once they get there. It also normalizes sexual harassment in other workplaces, making it harder for women to advance and contributing to the gender pay gap that Democrats, including Franken, have denounced. Democrats claim to confront the powerful on behalf of the marginalized. That’s not credible if they can’t even confront their own colleagues.
People sometimes seem to think that ruthlessness and dispensing with decency and morals is a sign of strength. Mitch McConnell is supposed to be a master tactician because he refused to give Merrick Garland a hearing, and allowed Trump to appoint a Supreme Court justice in contravention of every Senate norm. Trump launches personal attacks against individuals on Twitter and is still president, which is supposed to be a sign of his invulnerability.
But you don’t have to be strong or ruthless to do harm. Like Roy Moore, you just need to be petty and willing to prey on the weak.
Doing the right thing, on the other hand, requires more commitment and more character. It means being willing to confront injustice wherever it exists, even if it’s committed by people you like—and people you need.
This isn’t to say that the Democrats offer a profile in courage. Senate colleagues were slow to push Franken to resign until it became clear that his poll numbers had disintegrated in his home state. Minnesota lieutenant governor Tina Smith, Franken’s expected replacement in the Senate, has a better chance of holding the seat than he does, even though she’ll have to run in a special election in 2018 before running again at the expiration of the regular term in 2020. Franken’s resignation is the right move for Democrats practically as well as morally.
But that just underlines how confused we’ve become in the Trump era about what it means to be strong. If Democrats are weak for pushing Franken to resign, then they’re weak not because they’re making a bad political calculation, but purely because they are doing the right thing when Republicans aren’t. It’s as if we have conflated goodness with weakness, and amorality with strength.
But being willing to acknowledge wrongdoing, when warranted, isn’t weakness. I want a Democratic party that is strong enough to stand by its principles—and that absolutely means a Democratic party that is strong enough to eject its sexual harassers. Doing the right thing doesn’t mean that you’ll always win. But if you can’t even follow through on the idea that sexual assault is unacceptable, then you’ve already lost.