In a stunning political upset, Alabama Republican Roy Moore was defeated in Tuesday’s special Senate election. A complex combination of factors, involving shifts in multiple demographic groups, gave Democratic challenger Doug Jones electoral success in a state that overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Despite the accusations of child molestation against Moore, 91 percent of those voters who identified as Republican still voted for him, as did 63 percent of white women. However, there was a significant swing of suburban voters against the Republican candidate, and white rural Republicans stayed home. A detailed analysis in the Washington Post explained: “Typically reliable and sizable Republican wins in the rural North and South of the state evaporated into razor thin margins. Between that and an increased margin in the Black Belt, Jones was able to eke out a 21,000-vote victory, while Republicans normally win by more than half a million votes … These swings can be seen in counties majority white and black, Republican and Democrat. And that means it couldn’t have just been a surge in African American turnout, or just rural Trump voters staying home, or just Republicans crossing over to vote for Jones. Jones’ campaign was able to achieve a combination of the three that drove him to victory.”
The increased margin among African American voters reflected an exceptionally high mobilization of this community, with grassroots activists joining an important ground campaign to get out the vote. The New York Times reported that black voters at Jones’ victory celebration had long found Moore’s brand of evangelical politics distasteful. “But many others said that the Jones campaign uncorked the intense feelings of alarm and distaste that many African-Americans harbor toward President Trump, who had given Mr. Moore his full-throated endorsement in the campaign’s final days.” Jones was not particularly known in the African American community, but he had a track record of successfully prosecuting two white Klansmen for the 1963 bombing of the Birmingham church that killed four African American girls, and in the last weeks of the campaign he turned out to black churches and gained support from African American personalities, including Obama.
Michael Nabors was at the celebration with his wife, Ella. He told the Times that black voters were paying attention to Mr. Moore’s comments in September, in which he said that America was last “great” during the days when slavery was legal. He added that “they paid attention to Mr. Jones’s most famous case as a prosecutor. ‘Those four little girls are on their feet tonight at 16th Street Baptist Church, celebrating,’ he said. ‘They’re celebrating in spirit’.”
But despite the complex of factors at play in the historic result, the #MeToo women’s movement was quick to claim the credit for Moore’s defeat. Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty called the result “a watershed moment for the national movement around the issue of sexual abuse,” and Tarana Burke, the founder of the “#MeToo” movement tweeted: “I hope the 9 women who accused Roy Moore feel some vindication tonight.” Mother Jones reporter Pema Levy told Democracy Now “You can absolutely look at this election last night through the lens of the “Me Too” movement and say that they had a huge victory.”
The danger is that the Democratic party leadership will also view the victory through the lens of the #MeToo movement and will fight the next election with the same failing strategy of foregrounding identity politics and attacking Trump’s character, instead of energizing their base and independents by focusing on core issues of healthcare, tax cuts for the rich, jobs and housing.
This tendency of leading Democrats to prioritize corporate-friendly identity politics is manifested in Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand coordinating statements by Democratic politicians that forced Al Franken to leave his Senate seat. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Franken stepped down one day after nearly all the Senate’s Democratic women — and most Democratic men, including the top two leaders — called for him to resign. Democrats appear determined to grab the moral high ground in an environment in which they hope sexual harassment becomes a wedge issue in the 2018 midterm elections — even if it costs them popular colleagues and political icons.”
Franken was a dogged and effective questioner of Republican appointees, including Jeff Sessions, then a senator, during his confirmation hearing to be attorney general in January. He pressed Sessions about reports of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, which he denied, later recusing himself from the Justice Department’s investigation which led to the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel. He would have been a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, and his downfall removes a rival from Gillibrand’s own ambitions.
The Hill commented: “Those sympathetic to Franken suggested it was craven for her to be the first out with a statement Wednesday calling for him to resign, and suggested she was both seeking attention and building her brand on a fallen progressive hero. Gillibrand has won headlines with her action that could be useful if she chooses to run for president in 2020 against what could be a crowded field. … ‘All this reeks of is political opportunism and that’s what defines Kirsten Gillibrand’s career,’ one Democratic strategist said. … When it came to Franken, Gillibrand was ‘twisting in the wind until the goose was cooked and then saw an opportunity,’ the strategist added.”
Law professor Zephyr Teachout writes: “I also believe in zero tolerance. And yet, a lot of women I know — myself included — were left with a sense that something went wrong last week with the effective ouster of Al Franken from the United States Senate. … Zero tolerance should go hand in hand with two other things: due process and proportionality. As citizens, we need a way to make sense of accusations that does not depend only on what we read or see in the news or on social media. …
“We need a system to deal with that messy reality, and the current one of investigating those complaints is opaque, takes too long and has not worked to protect vulnerable women and men from harassment. And the current alternative — off with the head of the accused, regardless of the accusation — is too quick, too easily subject to political manipulation and too vulnerable to the passions of the moment. We don’t have the system I’m suggesting. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on process. … As citizens, we should all be willing to stay ambivalent while the facts are gathered and we collect our thoughts. While the choice to fire the television hosts Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer were the choices of private companies, condemning a sitting lawmaker is a public choice and one our representatives should make judiciously.”
The absolutist nature of the political climate tends to create a moral equivalency between those like Franken and those like Trump or Moore. This has given opportunists an easy way of denigrating and neutralizing their political opponents, since context is omitted and all allegations are assumed to be true. A parallel development across the Atlantic in the UK has seen claims of anti-semitism and sexual harassment made against supporters of Jeremy Corbyn in the course of vicious infighting within the British Labour party, even while the Tory government is falling apart over Brexit. In the case of one Labour MP, Clive Lewis, the party exonerated him after multiple witnesses made clear he could not have done what had been alleged. But there are other party members and MPs, like Luton North’s Kelvin Hopkins, who are still waiting their due process.
Denial of proper investigation and due process means that the media coverage of accusations and forced resignations is obscuring real problems of racism, ongoing sexual harassment for average women and men, and political corruption, as well as the real oppression of women and families – such as class war measures like defunding the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in the US while giving huge tax cuts to the rich. While high profile cases get pilloried in the media, punitive policies against middle and working class women go unchallenged. Only when the Democratic party addresses the unequal power and wealth relations that structure harassment and predation in our society will the opposition to Trumpism and the Republicans be a rallying point for the different constituencies that are needed for victory and real change.