Last weekend, The New York Times published an interview with New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. She became the first Democrat of her rank to suggest that, in retrospect, Bill Clinton should’ve resigned during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Gillibrand describes stepping down as “the appropriate response” to revelations that the president exploited a White House intern for sex. Meanwhile, liberal columnists such as Michelle Goldberg and Matt Yglesias had already begun to rethink the ex-president’s full history of sexual misconduct accusations, including the allegation that Clinton raped Juanita Broaddrick in 1978.
“The story she tells about Clinton recalls those we’ve heard about Weinstein,” wrote Goldberg in the Times. “She claimed they had plans to meet in a hotel coffee shop, but at the last minute he asked to come up to her hotel room instead, where he raped her. Five witnesses said she confided in them about the assault right after it happened. It’s true that she denied the rape in an affidavit to Paula Jones’s lawyers, before changing her story when talking to federal investigators. But her explanation, that she didn’t want to go public but couldn’t lie to the F.B.I., makes sense. Put simply, I believe her.”
The renewed discussion of Clinton’s sex scandals follows revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s predatory sexual harassment of countless women, including dozens of actresses whose accounts span more than two decades. The revelations about his misconduct have sparked a movement at some of the highest levels of American culture, including Hollywood studios, celebrated newsrooms, and the halls of Congress. In six weeks, the post-Weinstein reckoning has gotten Kevin Spacey (accused of sexually assaulting minors) deleted from a new movie; it’s inspired a female-led rebellion against “shitty men” in media; and it stands to redefine the legacy of a once-cherished president.
Once the Weinstein story broke, conservatives underscored the Hollywood producer’s affiliation with prominent Democratic politicians, including Barack Obama and the Clintons, for whom he’s raised millions of dollars since the turn of the century. The Lewinsky affair, which was central to the GOP’s failed effort to impeach Bill Clinton, isn’t quite comparable to Weinstein’s aggressive, unwelcome advances. Lewinsky has always maintained that her sex with Clinton was consensual. But Clinton and Weinstein both sent the same signals. As powerful men, they solicited sex from their female subordinates as a condition of their employment and professional success. The men, it seems, figured that their power and talent entitled them to exploit and belittle these women in various ways; and the women, it seems, figured that no supposedly righteous authority would value their accounts enough to authenticate their suffering, much less punish the assailants. That imbalance is violent and bleak. Any semblance of correction to the system will be jarring and messy.
Bill Clinton’s sex scandals softened a generation’s attitudes toward powerful men who harass women. But now Weinstein has tripped the alarm. He lured women into hotel rooms, disrobed against their wishes, and threatened professional retaliation if they resisted his advances; Weinstein and men like him offer only the illusion of consent. The revolutionary reporting by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey at the Times and Ronan Farrow for The New Yorker has shattered all plausible deniability about Weinstein’s sex abuse, and Weinstein’s downfall has encouraged unprecedented scrutiny of many other men, especially powerful men, in Hollywood, media, and politics. Now, these industries face some agonizing decisions regarding their general tolerance for bad men in public life. Either they punish and ostracize men identified as abusers, thus pledging a new dawn of accountability for sexual misconduct. Or they rally to restore the familiar institutional barriers—the misogyny, the ambivalence, and the partisan relativism—that propped up men such as Weinstein and Clinton at the highest levels of public life.
For the past couple of weeks, Congress has been the latest venue to host several urgent discussions about sexual misconduct. As with Weinstein’s downfall in Hollywood, the investigations in politics may spell the end of a few accomplished careers.
Last Monday, BuzzFeed reported on several sexual harassment allegations against Michigan Representative John Conyers, a Democrat, the longest-serving House member. According to BuzzFeed, Conyers abused the dispute system to pay out settlements and silence staffers who accused him of groping and harassment. On Sunday, Conyers announced that he will step aside as the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee until the House Ethics Committee completes a review of these accusations. Two weeks ago, the famous attorney Gloria Allred, representing Alabama businesswoman Beverly Young Nelson, called on the Senate Judiciary Committee to subpoena the 70-year-old former judge Roy Moore, a current candidate for the U.S. Senate. Moore allegedly molested several teenage girls, including Nelson, in the 1970s. Allegedly, Moore met his most outspoken alleged victim, Leigh Corfman, at a courthouse during a custody hearing when she was just 14 years old. According to Corfman’s accounts, Moore didn’t just assault her when she was 14 years old. He also revealed to her at a young and impressionable age that not even the supposed sanctity of a courthouse would spare her such advances from dangerous men.
Initially, Democrats assumed a moral high ground in their criticisms of Moore. That high ground has disintegrated in the past few weeks as the allegations against Conyers have come to light and as four women have accused popular Minnesota Senator Al Franken, a Democrat, of unwanted groping and aggressive sexual advances. Their various claims span half a decade. The Los Angeles radio host Leeann Tweeden aired the first public accusation against Franken on November 16, accusing the former SNL comedian of grabbing her chest while she was asleep at a USO tour stop in December 2006. Tweeden published photographic evidence of Franken’s hands on her chest, news outlets circulated the photo, and Franken—after initially claiming a foggy memory about his interactions with Tweeden—apologized. “I am asking that an ethics investigation be undertaken, and I will gladly cooperate,” Franken said in response to Tweeden’s initial account. On Saturday, Franken added, “I feel terribly that I've made some women feel badly and for that I am so sorry, and I want to make sure that never happens again.”
Many of Franken’s critics, even some of his erstwhile supporters, have called on the Minnesota senator to resign. “Some party diehards may be tempted to stress that groping and forced kissing are not equivalent to, say, Roy Moore’s alleged abuse of teenagers,” Sarah Jones wrote for The New Republic on November 20, in light of the second accusation against Franken. “That is true, but it hardly means Franken should stay in office. This is the first lesson of #MeToo: Where there are two allegations, more probably await.” If he does step down, Franken will be the first prominent lawmaker to lose his job in the Weinstein aftermath. Ideally, his departure would encourage even more people to share their accounts of sexual misconduct, because now they’re more likely than ever before to find validation and the perpetrators are more likely than ever to suffer repercussions.
Given the GOP’s total control of the government, Franken’s defenders worry that critics such as Jones haven’t thought this through: The Minnesota senator’s resignation would embarrass Democrats and weaken the party’s brand heading into the 2018 midterm elections. Supposedly, Franken’s loss would mean the GOP’s gain. The feminist author Kate Harding, writing for The Washington Post, warns that Franken’s resignation wouldn’t serve women’s interests as effectively, and immediately, as it would serve the GOP majority in Congress. “I am a Democrat because I am a feminist who lives under a two-party system, where one party consistently votes against the interests of women while the other sometimes does not,” Harding writes. “I am a realist who recognizes that we get two viable choices, and Democrats are members of the only party positioned to pump the brakes on Republicans’ gleeful race toward Atwoodian dystopia.”
Such partisan hesitations aren’t unique to Democrats who are particularly fond of Franken. Writing about Roy Moore for New York before the Franken allegations broke, Jonathan Chait cut the GOP similar slack for sake of outlining an even-handed standard. “If you’re a liberal, ask yourself what you would do if the circumstances were reversed,” Chait proposes. “Give the other party a Senate seat and a possible majority, and forfeit your control of staffing the Cabinet, appointing judges, and passing laws you consider vital for the country’s future? Or allow one of the votes for those things to be cast by a sexual predator?” On Tuesday, Trump echoed Chait’s reasoning in his latest, awkward endorsement of Moore. “We don’t need a liberal person in there,” he told reporters as he was leaving Washington for Mar-a-Lago. “Roy Moore denies it. And by the way, it is a total denial.” On Sunday, Trump tweeted several times imploring Alabama voters to oppose the Democratic candidate, Doug Jones. Trump declined to name his party’s candidate, Moore, by name.
Trump, Harding, and Chait are all framing the punishment of predatory misconduct as a stumbling block on the way to real politics. They discount the post-Weinstein backlash against men such as Franken and Clinton as a worthwhile political mission in its own right. It is this failure of imagination that threatens to derail the recent push for reliable prosecution and substantial consequences when men commit sex abuse. Franken’s resignation would be a resounding political turning point, illustrating a new standard of conduct for powerful men, and illustrating unprecedented consequences for previously normalized behaviors. But critics such as Harding and Chait have determined that Al Franken’s Senate seat is more valuable than broad social change. “If the short-term ‘right thing’ leads to long-term political catastrophe for American women,” Harding writes, “I think we need to reconsider our definition of the right thing.” As Democrats languish in the minority, “the right thing” simply means winning elections.
This thinking is distressingly familiar to anyone who’s spent a great deal of their life watching moderates, cynics, and cowards betray various civil rights causes to no end. Harding’s characterization of Franken’s potential resignation as a “short-term” reckoning, despite its revolutionary potential, reveals a fealty to a system that has terrorized more women than it has ever comforted. It is a system that encourages subordinance and threatens total disenfranchisement for women who displease men such as Conyers and Clinton. The politics columnist Nina Burleigh, who covered Clinton during the Starr investigation and the Lewinsky scandal, once declared that she’d “be happy to give him a blowjob just to thank him for keeping abortion legal.” So Burleigh implies, however sarcastically, that legal access to abortion services is a matter of favors, not rights. It is the same subordinance that once made descriptions of Clinton as “the first black president” sound congenial instead of presumptuous, ludicrous, and offensive. This year presents a test of whether a new generation of women can shake this subordination once and for all.
If the absolute party loyalists had their way, the women accusing Franken, Conyers, and Moore of misconduct would not seek justice or retribution, they would simply shut up. The two lawmakers would lay low, they’d keep their seats, and, eventually, we’d move on.
Given all the alarming headlines, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s proposed Senate ethics investigation (which has yet to take shape) may work dramatically in Franken’s case. But neither McConnell nor the Ethics Committee chairman, Johnny Isakson, have said much about Gillibrand’s proposed reforms, which would overhaul the Office of Compliance that failed Conyers’s accusers in secret by prohibiting non-disclosure agreements as a condition of claim settlements. Conyers, a senior Democrat ensconced in a safe district, seems even less likely than Franken to resign, though the accounts of his misconduct sound as pathological and grotesque as those of Harvey Weinstein.
Either these men sulk into obscurity, or else they continue to monopolize the spaces from which they’ve driven countless women. Moore should step down. So should Conyers and Franken. Trump, too. Ultimately, the resignations and expulsions won’t even out perfectly between the parties. Perhaps the Democratic Party will suffer some inconvenience and disadvantage against the Republicans if Conyers and Franken do leave. Many women have suffered far worse, and the Democratic Party has repeatedly shown—from JFK through Clinton and onward—that it won’t proactively discourage its party men from exploiting women.
Elections determine politics. So does culture. Franken now stands, shaking and shamefully, in the crosshairs of a cultural revolution. Despite Democratic control of Minnesota’s senate seats in the case of an emergency appointment, the stakes for Franken’s resignation are actually quite high. His fate will determine whether masculine impunity begins to falter in yet another corner of American life; or whether party politics litigates these traumas and injustices in private, filing countless complaints away to the Office of Compliance, reprising an awfully familiar silence.