As we move closer to election day 2020, the economy, immigration, and gun control consistently rank at the top of the list for American voters.
That’s not necessarily surprising, of course.
But there is another issue everyone should be considering critically as we get ready to cast our votes: the power dynamics and political implications brought on by the #MeToo movement.
The effects of the movement are interpreted and viewed differently by people in various segments of society, with opinions differing most starkly according to political affiliation.
This in itself will have a profound impact on the 2020 campaign. For instance, will a given candidate deliver a stump speech painting their political history as having been staunchly in step with the demands of the #MeToo movement all along? Or, will a candidate ignore the issues that the #MeToo movement has brought to the forefront, perhaps even dismiss and ridicule it?
This is all to say that, despite not polling high in terms of voter concerns, the themes of the #MeToo movement and the national conversations that it has sparked will not only undeniably play a role in the 2020 presidential election, but in some ways it has become a useful gauge for our nation’s political future.
An NPR poll from late 2018 showed that national opinions about sexual harassment run more along party lines than according to gender. The 43% of Americans polled who said they feel that the #MeToo movement had “gone too far” was largely Republican. We should also consider the city and state laws that have been implemented post-#MeToo, in and effort to address the issues the movement helped expose. A 2016 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission literature review found that 25% to 85% of American women have experienced sexual harassment at work.
Despite this, over the last few years most of the new state legislation enacted with an eye toward eradicating what people have termed the “sexual harassment epidemic” have been solely relegated to blue states.
New York and California specifically have been at the forefront of implementing sweeping legislation, with narrower laws being passed in Vermont, Illinois, and Maryland. Considering this, perhaps the best predictor of how a candidate will campaign with respect to protecting women’s rights is a candidate’s hometown, and its cultural-political affiliation.
In no way should this be interpreted as a declaration that all Democrats champion the movement, or that Republicans unanimously hold us back from improving women’s rights.
It’s far more complicated than that, even within the inner circles of the Democratic candidacy ecosystem.
Take the example of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. A steady party frontrunner, his progressive ideas and tell-it-like-it-is demeanor have won the Vermont senator support of huge swaths of Democratic voters.
Although Sanders and other frontrunners do not often specifically reference the #MeToo movement by name while on the campaign stump, Sanders and others have repeatedly spoken of the need for new ideas to combat sexual harassment, sexual assault and other misconduct within workplaces and schools. Sanders has been nothing short of a progressive darling since running for the Democratic nomination in 2016, which made it all the more heartbreaking when numerous women came forward to recount being victims of sexual harassment while working on his own campaign in 2016.
Women alleged that they were subjected to sexual harassment while working on the campaign, and that after reporting the harassment, no corrective measures were taken. Additionally, former female staffers spoke of disparate workloads when their male counterparts received more meaningful work assignments than they did.
Sanders apologized for what he called “a failure” and shortly thereafter released what he referred to as a “gold-standard” approach for combatting sexual harassment and discrimination during his 2020 campaign. This model includes measures such as the creation and dissemination of a thorough anti-sexual harassment policy for all staff, and the creation of an independent hotline number for staff to use to report sexual any harassment.
Despite the media scrutiny that Sanders and his campaign received, the senator continues to run at the front of the Democratic pack.
Other candidates were not so lucky. New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand emerged as an early advocate and supporter of the #MeToo movement, only to have her standing within the movement questioned and tarnished when a former female staffer came forward alleging that she had complained of being sexually harassed while working as a staffer for Gillibrand, and that Gillibrand and other high-ranking staff did not properly address her complaint.
The staffer resigned shortly after the investigation into her allegations was concluded—an investigation which the staffer strongly felt was lacking and biased. In her scathing resignation letter, she wrote, “I trusted and leaned on this statement that you (Sen. Gillibrand) made: ‘You need to draw a line in the sand and say none of it is okay. None of it is acceptable.’ Your office chose to go against your public belief that women shouldn’t accept sexual harassment in any form and portrayed my experience as a misinterpretation instead of what it actually was: harassment and ultimately, intimidation.”
While no one can conclusively draw a line of causation between this incident and Gillibrand’s ultimately unsuccessful nomination bid, such allegations cannot have helped her campaign prospects, especially as a high-profile supporter of #MeToo. Gillibrand became one of the first Democratic candidates to drop out of the nomination race, reportedly due to her low poll numbers.
This remains a grim reminder of the amount of work we still have to do, no matter what candidate or party wins the next election.
Where will 2020 take us?
The effect that the #MeToo moment has had on our national psyche and cultural expectations simply can’t be overstated. In the last few years, we have seen powerful men from a range of industries brought down by misconduct allegations, including Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, and so many others.
This summer, more than 100 Victoria’s Secret models signed a letter to company executives detailing the misconduct, including sexual harassment and sexual violence, that they had experienced there.
We’ve also seen powerful people remain in office and avoid penalty in spite of allegations of misconduct.
Even if candidates aren’t referencing the #MeToo movement outright, as a nation we know it has helped trigger conversations, policy proposals, and legislation addressing the concerns that historically, we simply did not discuss to this degree in public political forums.
Besides creating better channels to seek justice after sexual harassment and assault, it has helped elevate concerns about equal pay, the need for workplace policies that support working women, and it’s gotten us talking about the lack of females in significant leadership positions at Fortune 500 companies.
As we slog toward the 2020 polls, the #MeToo movement, and the concerns and conversations that it has raised over the past few years, will continue to play a foundational role in candidates’ campaign strategies as well as voters’ ballot decisions. Even if we’re not talking about it outright.