It’s admirable, in a way, that so many left-leaners are calling for Al Franken to quit the Senate.
Columnist Paul Waldman says Democrats have “a good opportunity” to take the high road against sexual harassment. Activist-podcaster Sally Kohn tweets, “Wrong is wrong. Democrats need to show they strongly and consistently stand for women’s rights.” The same sentiment is echoed by progressive groups like Credo Action and Indivisible.
But let’s not be hasty here.
I’m warning against haste not because Franken is a Democrat; if he were to quit, Minnesota’s Democratic governor would keep the seat blue anyway. I’m warning against haste simply because, amidst the flood of raw info about predatory misogyny in high places, and with so much we still don’t know, the allegation-and-punishment process threatens to veer out of control before we’ve even established a fair and balanced system of justice.
I’ll explain what I mean in a moment. But first, here’s Waldman’s argument. He wrote on Monday that Democrats should call for Franken to resign, as penance for the two accusations lodged against him, because “it would demonstrate that they’re willing to put their actions where their principles are, that they want to take this opportunity to begin really changing the culture of male supremacy … If Democrats want to show that they’re different [from Republicans], now’s their chance.”
I get what he says – with one massive caveat.
He’s basically advocating unilateral disarmament. Democrats can walk the high road and set whatever noble example they want, but there’s no way Republicans will follow suit. At virtually the same time that Waldman and other liberals were calling for Franken’s head, Trump propagandist Kellyanne Conway was telling Fox News that Roy Moore, accused repeatedly of pedophilia, was perfectly acceptable because “we want the votes in the Senate to get this tax bill through.” If self-policing Democrats stand up for morality, amoral Republicans will try to leverage that to their advantage.
In that view, I’m hardly alone. Kate Harding, a feminist author and podcaster who wants Franken to stay, points out that, like it or not, we have a two-party system, and that unilateral Democratic disarmament will empower the other party: “If we [compel Franken to quit] in the interest of demonstrating our party’s solidarity with harassed and abused women, we’re only going to drain the swamp of people who, however flawed, still regularly vote to protect women’s rights and freedoms. The legislative branch will remain chockablock with old, white, Republican men who regard women chiefly as sex objects and unpaid housekeepers, and we’ll show them how staunchly Democrats oppose their misogynistic attitudes by handing them more power.”
But, as mentioned earlier, I’m most concerned that we’re at risk of losing all sense of proportion. We’re at risk of ushering in an era of mandatory sentencing (Franken must go!) before we even set up a fair system of justice.
Step back from Franken and look at the big picture. Not all accused male lawmakers (the ones we know, the ones we will soon know) have erred equally. Should an isolated grope be deemed as serious as a serial pattern? Should verbal harassment warrant the same punishment as physical assault? Should accusations that involve the use of taxpayer money be treated more seriously than other accusations? Should bad behavior outside the congressional workplace be deemed as dire as bad behavior with underlings at the workplace? Should any exculpatory weight be given to testimonials from professional women who were treated with respect by the accused?
In Franken’s case, he has gotten such testimonials. And neither of his two accusers were in the workplace. If he is frog-marched out of the Senate — if quitting one’s seat is deemed the appropriate punishment for non-consensual kissing and groping — it surely means that all lawmakers accused of anything more severe should summarily resign. Heck, if Franken is compelled to quit, then surely Donald Trump (with 16 accusers) should do the same.
Even Waldman, whose work I admire, acknowledges that “we need to make sure we don’t lose our ability to make moral distinctions between different kinds of sexual misconduct, and whatever punishments we mete out are proportional and just … A man who doles out the occasional unwanted kiss might deserve a vigorous public shaming, but still be allowed to have a career.”
All the more reason to take a deep breath. We need proportion. We need just punishments that fit the alleged offenses. And rest assured, our Thanksgiving will be better than Franken’s.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.