The three highest ranking elected officials in Virginia, all Democrats, are each in deep political trouble for acts they committed well before they took office. That’s the simple part of the story.
All three are resisting calls to resign. Not only have their political futures become interlinked, despite real differences in the accusations against them, but the Virginia saga has raised a number of broader issues nationally. What actions should cause a public official to resign? Are there circumstances which should allow people to be forgiven for past acts? And perhaps most difficult of all, are we able to make distinctions between different kinds of offenses?
To say there is no national consensus on how to answer those questions is a dramatic understatement. In truth, we have not even started a serious conversation about the issues. Instead, until the Virginia debacle, every transgression was addressed largely in isolation. Moreover, the discussions are, for the most part, being carried on by Democrats while Republicans maintain an eerie silence. More on that point shortly.
How far have we as a society come on race relations? Whatever your personal answer to that question, we do have a broad albeit far from universal consensus that certain behaviors are unacceptable. I’m not referring to violations of the law, but rather to actions that show overt bias or disrespect. Whatever the extent of racial prejudice that still exists in the general population, we have the right to expect our elected officials to adhere scrupulously to the notion of racial equality.
That Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring believed in the 1980s that appearing in blackface was acceptable is stunning. That Northam wasn’t sure which person he might have been in a racist photo in his medical school yearbook defies common sense. Those of us who lived through the latter part of the 20th century are dumbfounded that they didn’t know better.
Do their actions then disqualify them forever from holding public office? If you hold that view, and I certainly take it as a legitimate response, where should the line be drawn? In what circumstances are apologies enough? Is redemption possible?
Another current example demonstrates the complexity of these questions. Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar, one of two recently elected Muslim Members of Congress, was hit with a firestorm of criticism after two tweets that were widely seen as anti-Semitic. The good news is that she quickly apologized. The bad news is that she could straight-facedly deny in 2019 that she was engaging in anti-Semitism. At the same time, can we distinguish between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of the government of Israel and some of its American supporters?
We are, moreover, living in a time when some national leaders seem to be giving permission to others to act out racial prejudices. That President Trump could declare that there were “good people on both sides” at the racist march in Charlottesville needs to be factored into our discussions about contemporary race relations.
Whether we forgive Northam or insist he resign should not be determined by Donald Trump’s racism or by the lilly-white complexion of the Republican Party. On the other hand, trying to make thoughtful distinctions between different acts is worth the hard work it will take. The payoff will be a clearer consensus about race relations in this country.
The charges against Lt. Gov. Jordan Fairfax are of quite a different nature. He has been accused by two different women of sexual assault. Coming to a determination about the validity of the accusations has to be the first step, but the category is, if proven, a criminal act. That Fairfax, bookended by offenses by two white office holders, is African Americans certainly impacts people’s reactions.
Rape and other forms of physical assault on women should be seen as at one extreme of the MeToo movement. That’s not to argue that other forms of harassment and insensitive behavior are not worthy of condemnation. The question that has not really been adequately discussed, however, is whether distinctions can and should be made among various forms and levels of offensive behavior.
Donald Trump again can be seen as creating part of the context for this discussion. Republicans are unwilling to criticize his many examples of demeaning and offensive behavior toward women, from the Access Hollywood tapes to accusations of paying off women to remain silent about affairs to incredibly sexist language in everyday conversations. The “Republican standard” is no standard, but it does complicate the political dimensions of the issue.
Democrats, with a rapidly growing number of women in their elected ranks, have been active in calling out sexism. What’s not yet clear, however, is whether there can be distinctions between different sorts of acts and whether some behavior can be forgiven.
The very hard political case for many Democrats remains that of Al Franken. There are understandable differences of opinion on how serious his transgressions were and on the motives of people like Kirsten Gillibrand in pushing hard for his resignation.
There is real value in a serious public debate about the ethical standards we should expect our elected officials to meet. If the outcome is to be constructive, however, we need to work much harder at thinking through the standards rather than just jumping to conclusions about individual cases.