Representative Kathleen Rice walked out of her party’s conference meeting on Wednesday, complaining that sexual harassment allegations against fellow Democratic Representative John Conyers were not being taken seriously. “I don’t have time for meetings that aren’t real,” Rice said. The New York congresswoman has been on the forefront of this issue, telling CNN last week, “Saying that we’re going to have these allegations against politicians go before an ethics committee that can sometimes take a couple of years, no offense to my colleagues who are on the ethics committee, that’s not real. That’s not real. And that’s not accountability.”
By accusing the party leadership of dawdling on Conyers’s case, Rice has widened the divide among Democrats about handling sexual harassment complaints in their midst. The rift is partly but not entirely along generational lines. While House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has defended Conyers as an “icon” who is “entitled to due process,” younger members of Congress like Rice and Representative Pramila Jayapal want the party to be more proactive and force out accused harassers. The Congressional Black Caucus, meanwhile, is letting Conyers decide his own fate, and the congressman himself seems intent on keeping his seat.
This dispute poses a thorny problem for Democrats, who have to weigh the competing claims of partisanship and justice. Rice and Jayapal have both strongly articulated the case for sticking to first principles and taking a strong stance against alleged abusers. In a statement on Tuesday, Jayapal said, “This is a watershed moment where, finally, the country seems to be waking up and realizing we need to have a zero tolerance policy toward sexual harassment. We cannot pick and choose. Democrats cannot lambaste Trump and [Roy] Moore, and then turn a blind eye to our own who face credible charges against them.”
Taking a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment would cost Democrats in the short term, creating further internal strife—and possibly even sacrificing seats in Congress—while the Republicans cynically rally around their own accused harassers. But the morally righteous path could also prove to be the politically shrewd one in the long run.
In this age of asymmetric polarization, the two parties have diverged in their responses to the flood of sexual harassment allegations that have become a fixture of public life. Following in the footsteps of President Donald Trump, who is privately suggesting the Access Hollywood tape was fabricated and has denied the sexual-assault allegations that emerged in its wake, Republicans have take a “no apology” approach. They’ve also engaged in whataboutism (by bringing up Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct) and attacks on the media (“Fake News!”) with the intent of muddying the waters so much that partisan voters will rally to the party’s standard bearer.
Roy Moore, the Senate candidate from Alabama, exemplifies the Republican approach to sexual misconduct allegations. Since being accused of molesting young teens, Moore has followed the Trump script, attacking the credibility of his accusers and the media; Trump himself has repeatedly defended Moore. As slimy as they are, these tactics are working for Moore, who has rebounded in the polls and is now the frontrunner again. According to polls by Change Research, Moore leads Democratic rival Doug Jones by five points—and only 9 percent of Trump supporters in Alabama believe the allegations against Moore.
The “no apologies” approach works for Republican politicians because it aligns with the conservative view of masculinity. Mitt Romney is far less confrontational than either Trump or Moore, but he spoke to conservative values when he titled his campaign book No Apology. Such an approach might in theory work for an accused Democratic politician, if they can rally supporters to tribalist values. That was the tack Bill Clinton took during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, shoring up his political base by casting the blame on Republicans. But in the post-Weinstein era, it’s no longer clear that Democrats would fall in line. The opposition of Rice and Jayapal to Conyers is harbinger of a broader shift in attitudes among Democrats.
As the Huffington Post reports, polls reveal that the base of the two parties have very different attitudes toward sexual harassment: “Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to admit there’s an issue close to home. Sixty percent of Democrats say their party has at least a somewhat serious problem with sexual harassment, while just 18 percent say that it does not. By contrast, Republicans are close to evenly split, with 40 percent saying sexual harassment presents a somewhat or very serious issue for the GOP, and 43 percent say that it’s not very or not at all serious.” These polls make clear that Democrats think of sexual harassment as a social problem, while Republicans are more inclined to treat it as political weapon.
From one point of view, the Republicans have the advantage here: They’ll remain unified behind their sexual harassers while the Democrats suffer from a purge; it’s easy to imagine a scenario where Moore is elected to the Senate while Conyers and Minnesota Senator Al Franken are pushed out of office. There’s also the danger that Democrats open themselves up to dirty tricks by figures like Roger Stone and Steve Bannon, who, as Crooked Media’s Brian Beutler noted, will weaponize accusations. While this double standard would be costly to individual Democratic politicians, it would be good for the party as a whole, as the gender gap in electoral politics becomes increasingly salient. Democrats already do much better among women than Republicans in presidential elections, and embracing a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment will only widen the gap.
By electing Trump and nominating Moore, the Republicans have made clear their stance on this issue. The best hope the Democrats have for regaining power is a woman-fueled backlash against sexism. As Josh Kraushaar of the National Journal wrote on Tuesday, the outlines of such a backlash are already visible in the record number of women running for the 2018 midterms. “The female-fueled backlash to Trump is poised to change the composition of the Democratic rank-and-file in Congress,” Kraushaar observed. “This year’s congressional recruiting class is dominated by women. If Democrats perform well next year, they’ll have the largest number of female senators and representatives in history—by a significant margin.” The one thing that could blunt this feminist wave would be if Democrats failed to make the hard but necessary decisions to expel the sexual harassers from their ranks. Democrats claim to be the party of gender equality. Now they must prove it.