Last Thursday, Al Franken announced his intention to resign from the United States Senate amid growing allegations of sexual misconduct. While Franken has agreed to resign his senate seat, his efforts to distract from his own actions and highlight the misbehavior of others threaten to undermine Democratic Party’s ability to stand for the rights of all women.
In his statement, Franken said,
I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office, and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party.
Franken has engaged in a logical fallacy—whataboutism. It’s a favorite tactic of Donald Trump, who uses it to try to shift attention away from his own activities to those of Hillary Clinton or his other numerous enemies. Whataboutism is a form of the tu quoque fallacy, which holds that “You avoided having to engage with criticism by turning it back on the accuser – you answered criticism with criticism.” The question of Trump or Moore’s behavior is not relevant to the question of whether Franken should serve in the senate. They are relevant to the question of whether Moore should be elected to the Senate or whether Trump is fit to be president. The allegations surrounding Trump, Moore, and Franken, however, are separate issues and should be handled as such.
Franken’s attempts to deflect his own behavior and highlight the actions of others raise troubling issues about how the Democratic Party and liberals are confronting the culture of sexual harassment. When the allegations were levelled against Trump, Moore, and Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes in the past, it was easy for those of us on the left to take the moral high ground and use it as a cudgel against those on the right. After all, the Democratic Party supports the rights of women in terms of abortion, equal pay, and a host of other issues. There are many more female Democrats in Congress than Republicans. That type of behavior seemingly shouldn’t happen in the Democratic Party.
It’s difficult for those of us on the left to believe that a progressive leader of the Democratic Party, one who votes for the things we believe in, says the right things on the issues, and has been a staunch critic of the Trump administration, is a serial sexual harasser. We ask, how can that be? Franken believes what we believe and we believe that we’re good people. We have to resist the urge to look for other explanations. Franken is not the victim of a conspiracy or false allegations or whatever else. We must recognize that it would be the height of arrogance to assume that one’s political opponents are the only ones who engage in such morally reprehensible behavior. As the recent #MeToo movement has shown, rapists and sexual harassers don’t fit into neatly colored boxes.
Additionally, by defending Franken, Democrats and liberals send the worst possible message to women who have been sexually abused, harassed, or victimized. We support you, but only when it’s politically expedient. What kind of moral leadership is that? You can’t be the party of women and then only support women who have been abused by Republicans or conservatives. You cannot defend Franken and attack his accusers while accusing Roy Moore and Donald Trump of doing the same. These behaviors perpetuate the same marginalization and stigmatization of women that prevents so many people from stepping forward against their attackers and allows the culture of abuse to thrive.
If liberals and Democrats actually want to help to end the rampant sexual abuse and assault in American culture, then they need to take seriously the women who step forward and not care whether the abuser has a R or a D next to their name.