Defending Franken is Neither Moral Nor Pragmatic

Of the many negative consequences of Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, one of the most depressing has been its effect on the psyche of many liberals. While most of the left has come to terms with what went wrong and taken at least a few positive steps to address it, a great many trusted voices in the liberal firmament have descended into either defeatism, partisan moral nihilism or both.

Today we’re subjected to dozens of curious hot takes insisting that holding Senator Al Franken to account for his abusive behavior toward women is a mistake. They argue that forcing Franken to resign for groping and grabbing at least a half dozen women inapropriately constitutes a form of unilateral disarmament that will only hurt Democrats because the Right will protect its own where the Left will not. This remarkable argument has been promulgated in one form or another by normally excellent luminaries from Dahlia Lithwick to Charles Pierce. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is facing an intense social media backlash from partisan Franken defenders in response to her call for his resignation.

Bring up the issue on social media within Democratic activist circles, and at least half the responses will be in his defense largely because his defenders feel Democrats cannot afford to give any ground whatsoever to Republicans for purely pragmatic reasons. If one counters that this is precisely the same argument Alabama Republicans use to justify voting for Roy Moore, one is accused of pushing false equivalency between Franken and Moore.

But defending Franken is neither moral nor pragmatic.

First, the obvious: Franken is now credibly accused by multiple women of inappropriate behavior over the years. Past experience strongly suggests that with this many accusers coming forward, it was likely a pattern of behavior and that many more victims remain unknown. We also know that Franken only admitted to the abuses after one of the victims came forward. When Franken was asked whether he expected any more victims to come out of the woodwork, he said “I certainly hope not.” His apologies were too few and too late, and the violations too numerous. Under the circumstances, resigning was the right thing to do, morally speaking.

But what of the pragmatic question? Franken’s defenders accuse his critics of hypocrisy because they suggest the critics’ calculus might have changed if a Republican governor were to replace him. But what of it? Not only is this argument rank hypocrisy given attacks on Alabama Republicans for making a similar judgment, it’s beside the point. A Republican governor isn’t replacing Franken with a conservative, so this should be an easy call. It’s also possible to put the shoe on the other foot: what level of behavior would Franken need to stoop to, in order for his defenders to concede he needed to go no matter who his replacement would be?

But there’s an even more important point beyond these hypotheticals. The mentality of Franken’s defenders betrays a defensive cowardice about Democratic prospects in future elections, and an unwarranted pessimism about the electorate itself.

Claiming that Democrats should man the barricades and defend even their morally compromised electeds implies that Democrats are in such danger of losing the entire country that they cannot afford to given even an inch of partisan ground. Better to keep Franken in office, they say, than to risk losing the Senate seat to Michele Bachmann with a lesser-known Democrat. The fight against Trump’s fascist movement is so crucial, they suggest, that almost any means justifies the end. Republicans won’t hold their own accountable, they argue, so Democrats must circle their own wagons just as strongly.

These arguments, too, are wrong, based as they are in a misunderstanding of why Democrats fared poorly against Trump in 2016. Most people are tired of liberal and leftist partisans relitigating the 2016 election, but this sort of thing is why it still matters. That so many of Franken’s defenders are the same people who eagerly leveled accusations of sexism against progressive activists in the 2016 Democratic primary is particularly galling in context.

First, Moore and Trump notwithstanding, Republican politicians are not immune to being taken down for sexual misconduct, as the resignations of Texas GOP representatives Joe Barton and Trent Franks make clear.

Second, the belief that (to quote Charles Pierce) “there is no moral high ground” is based on the notion that no reasonable persuadable voters still exist in the electorate. It’s similar to the misguided Serwer/Coates argument that almost every Trump voter is an irredeemable racist, and that no economic arguments could possibly have swayed any of them. This is not true. The pool of persuadable voters has certainly shrunk, but there is still a large pool of  reasonable people who will gravitate left when it becomes clear that Republicans tolerate rapists and child molesters while Democrats expel their own abusers.

There is also the question of motivating the left’s own base. The sort of voter who is so blindly partisan to be so enamored of Franken’s aggressive defense of liberal values that they are willing to excuse his predatory behavior, is not the sort of voter to stay home from the polls. But the voter disgusted by hypocrisy and the perception that both parties are the same does stay home. The progressive young woman who feels that older women won’t have her back in solidarity if she comes out against one of their heroes will stay home or vote third party.

Finally, there’s the question of the party’s national brand. Reasonable Republicans have frequently made the case about Roy Moore that whatever short-term gains the GOP may make by retaining the Alabama senate seat will be more than offset nationally by the damage he will do to their brand. So, too, is the national Democratic brand threatened by coddling its own predators–and in the case of Franken, the Minnesota senate seat isn’t even a serious threat to fall into GOP hands.

Liberals need to abandon their fear and regain their sense of confidence and optimism. Trumpism can and will be defeated. The left can and will win future elections even if some of its biggest stars are forced to step aside. Communicating progressive values with credibility and honesty isn’t just the right thing to do by the victims. It’s also the smart thing to do to regain the trust of voters across the spectrum–from the Obama voters lost to Trump, to wavering Romney voters disgusted with their own party’s takeover by Roy Moore voters, to disaffected third party and non-voters unimpressed with the party’s commitment to its own stated ideals.

Just do the right thing.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.