Writing Good Politics with Crooked Lines: Against Resigning after a Scandal
If you can peer back into the past, before the mists of COVID descended, you might remember that two years ago this month, Virginia was engulfed in a spectacular political scandal.
It began in early February 2019, when Governor Ralph Northam confessed that he had appeared in blackface in his medical school yearbook. In the post-Charlottesville riot world, the calls for his resignation were immediate.
Many activists on the left were excited at the prospect of Justin Fairfax, the Black Lieutenant Governor, succeeding Northam. Just weeks earlier, Fairfax had won national acclaim for demanding an end to “Lee-Jackson Day” as a state holiday; for decades Virginia had honored Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson with a paid day off the week before the MLK federal holiday. Fairfax was of a new generation, one that believed no honor should be paid to anyone who wore a Confederate uniform; Fairfax was young, dynamic, a prophetic speaker — and well to Northam’s left.
Within hours, disaster. Multiple news sites reported that Fairfax had been accused of sexual assault. A few hours later, there was a second accuser. In the #MeToo era, it was unthinkable that someone convincingly accused of sexual misconduct could become governor.
Attention shifted to the next-in-line, which according to the Virginia constitution was the Attorney General. Mark Herring was white, like Northam, but had no pending assault claims against him. Herring, however, announced that he too had worn blackface to a college party in the 1980s. (He knew that there were pictures, and chose to get in front of the story.)
All three scandals broke in the space of a single week. Activists on Twitter and Facebook declared that the Democratic Party could not tolerate a single instance of racism or sexual assault; all three men would have to go. Eager to show how different Democrats were from the party of President Trump, many on the left were willing to end the careers of Northam, Fairfax, and Herring in one fell swoop in order to seize the moral high ground.
The problem, you may remember, is that the next in line to be governor was Kirk Cox – the Republican Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates. Cox wasn’t just a Republican, but an enthusiastic fellow of the right, and a strong supporter of President Trump. All of the Democratic plans for progressive action in Virginia would be immediately derailed if Cox were to become Governor.
It was unthinkable that Northam and Herring resign, but leave Fairfax, the accused rapist, in power. It was equally unacceptable that Fairfax resign and leave two white men who had worn blackface unpunished. And to the Democratic Party of Virginia, which had big plans for education reform, raising the minimum wage, and ending the death penalty, ending up with a Republican governor would be a disaster for the Commonwealth.
In recent years, the chief rule on the left has been that if you are accused of anything untoward, you must resign, regardless of the fallout. It was just starting to get popular in 2019 to re-litigate the Clinton Impeachment, and the Woke were now saying that it would have been better if Bill Clinton had resigned in 1998. The left had had a #MeToo epiphany, and now felt that they had been wrong to dismiss what Bill did with Monica Lewinsky as a consensual affair; by a modern calculus, he had been a predator and she a victim. The power differential between them made it impossible for her to consent, her adulthood and her claims of agency notwithstanding. A great many important pundits on Twitter opined that in 1998, the left had —regrettably — thrown its support behind a reckless and selfish man simply because he was a Democrat. They could not do so again; this is why Al Franken was forced out of the Senate for what seemed to be, at best, minor accusations of vulgar behavior.
When I brought up this issue on my Facebook page, my friends spoke loudly in favor of forcing Northam, Fairfax, and Herring to resign, even if it brought a Republican to power. They echoed the argument made in a viral Slate article: Democrats Should Not Think Twice About Canceling Racist, Sexist Politicians:
“In the long term, a commitment among Democrats to ‘cancel’ politicians with a history of cruel behavior is essential to rebuilding a strong, sustainable party,” claimed Christina Cauterucci; “by turning against men like Northam and Fairfax, Democrats accomplish far more than any single left-leaning politician with a tarnished reputation could. They decline to tacitly condone actions that evoke long, painful histories of racist and gender-based violence. They set a precedent for what’s expected of leaders in their own party, and they possibly even make it more difficult for members of the other party to shrug at similar instances of racism and sexual misconduct. They also help shore up the party’s reputation among the young voters, women, and voters of color that make up the party’s base and future.”
And yet. Northam, Fairfax, and Herring didn’t resign. They resisted the pressure from the cancellers, marking the first time in nearly a decade that the puritans hadn’t been able to end the careers of Democratic politicians accused of misconduct. Cauterucci and others had predicted a backlash from voters if the three didn’t quit; yet in November 2019, Virginia went bluer than ever, putting solid Democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature. (The Governor, his lieutenant, and the AG were elected to four year terms in 2017; those terms are up this fall.)
With control of the legislature, Northam, Fairfax and Herring could fully implement their progressive agenda. The party’s “base and future” turned out in record numbers to support the very party led by three tarnished men – the folks on the ground understood that progress isn’t about purity, it’s about smart politics.
Virginia is now a solidly blue state, the most progressive in the Old South. The death penalty is gone; the minimum wage is up; the COVID response has been among the best in the nation. If the Woke had had their way, Trumpian Kirk Cox would still be governor, finishing out Northam’s term that expires later this year. People who are alive now would likely otherwise be dead. Only someone completely unconcerned with the lives of the marginalized and the poor (such as those on death row!) could claim it would be “worth it” to have Cox rather than Northam, Fairfax, or Herring.
Contrast all this progress with the case of Katie Hill, the intensely charismatic Democrat from the Los Angeles suburbs who was elected to Congress in 2018 – and forced out just months later, after it was revealed that she had had an affair with a staffer. Hill was a victim of revenge porn by her ex-husband, but the prigs and prudes on the left were adamant she had to go; sexual relationships with subordinates could not be tolerated. Despite pleas from party moderates to stay, Hill could not resist the overwhelming pressure from the left to resign.
The seat Hill represented? Now held by conservative Republican Mike Garcia, who has stood with President Trump and declared the 2020 election results to be fraudulent. For the people of Hill’s district, the left’s ruthless focus on moral blamelessness has had real, harmful consequences. Worth it? Not if you’re a progressive who lives there.
Northam, Fairfax, and Herring survived because of a particularly odd (and for their sakes, fortuitous) set of circumstances. But survive they did, and a good thing too. They weathered intense criticism, they endured mockery, and they pushed back against the warning that by refusing to resign, they were hurting the party and the principles they claimed to represent. Northam, Fairfax, and Herring dared to believe that the voters were savvy enough to accept human imperfections, even if those imperfections include past instances of bigotry and sexual misconduct. They declared that they were all changed men, and that they could serve the public best not by slinking away in shame but by declaring that an unpleasant past need not be an impediment to valuable, useful public service.
There are no perfect leaders, no perfect people. We are all shades of gray, and no adult reaches maturity without having done or said something that would be disqualifying if it were made known to the world. We can push for a fairer world, a safer world, a more just world and we can do so with imperfect leaders. Thomas Merton, the great mystic and theologian (and a man who knew what it was to give into temptation), famously remarked, “God writes straight with crooked lines.”
We are fools if we demand to be led by the blameless. There may or may not be a God, but the story of American progress will be written by the crooked, because crooked is all we have and all we are.
And the next time a politician finds himself or herself in hot water, may they look to the Virginia example and find the courage to stay.