In a matter of months, #MeToo has caused a seismic cultural upheaval. First and foremost, the movement has sparked a national, even global, reckoning for men who have engaged in a range of misconduct toward women, from verbal abuse to rape. In field after field, titans have been felled: film producer Harvey Weinstein, journalist Charlie Rose, chef Mario Batali, comedian Louis CK, casino mogul Steve Wynn, editor Lorin Stein, and prominent politicians including Senator Al Franken. But #MeToo isn’t just a punitive movement. It’s sparking change, however incremental, as corporations, colleges, and cities are creating more rigorous policies to protect women.
#MeToo has also sparked a backlash, with critics ranging from anti-feminists to liberals. Many rehearse familiar arguments that #MeToo lumps disparate behavior into the same broad category and encourages a rush to judgment, thereby violating the rights of the accused to due process. But National Review writer David French, a leading voice among Never Trump conservatives, has a different concern: In an article earlier this week, he contended that the #MeToo movement, because it has hit liberal Hollywood and the Democratic Party especially hard, is undermining the moral authority of Trump’s critics, aka the #Resistance.
“There are very good reasons why there is collapsing trust in American public institutions, and #MeToo has only hastened that collapse,” he wrote. “Make no mistake, it’s a welcome reckoning. But it’s also dismantling progressive moral credibility. It’s revealing a deep rot and entrenched corruption. And it’s leaving Americans with a profound, unanswered question: You say the Trump GOP is morally bad, but where is your morally superior alternative?”
French is right about this much: The left, broadly, and the Democratic Party, specifically, have no claim to moral superiority on the issue of sexual harassment, at least in practice (as opposed to policy). From Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton to Franken and, most recently, former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, the Democrats have as disgraceful a history of mistreatment of women as Republicans do. This is a societal problem, after all, not a partisan one.
He is also right that, as he wrote, “Moral arguments are always perilous to make.” But those words apply as much to him as anyone else.
French’s argument goes awry on a number of fronts, principally his conflation of #MeToo with the #Resistance, which are two very different movements. “Me Too” actually began more than a decade ago as a non-partisan grassroots feminist campaign. It became an international movement last fall, as the #MeToo hashtag went viral after The New York Times reported on the myriad allegations against Weinstein. But #MeToo remains politically inclusive: Beverly Nelson, the woman who accused Republican senatorial candidate Roy Moore of molesting her as a child, was a Trump voter. The #Resistance, by contrast, is partisan by definition; it’s made up overwhelming of Democrats who want to unseat President Donald Trump, with perhaps a smidgen of Never Trump Republicans.
This is not to say there’s no relationship between the #Resistance and #MeToo, but it’s a complex dynamic. Anger over Trump, who has bragged about grabbing women’s genitals and been accused by many women of sexual misconduct, has undoubtedly added fuel to the #MeToo movement. As comedian Chelsea Handler said last month, the #MeToo movement is “a complete referendum on Donald Trump being elected to the presidency.” But #MeToo is about, among other things, exposing all men who mistreat women, whereas the #Resistance is explicitly focused on taking down one single man.
How, then, has #MeToo “undermined the #Resistance,” per the headline on French’s piece? His argument rests on multiple false equivalences between the right and left.
To buttress his case that Democrats don’t occupy the moral high ground, French claims that Hillary Clinton’s record on women is no better than Trump’s. “Trump is a predator?” he wrote. “Voters who lived through the 1990s remember ‘bimbo eruptions,’ Monica Lewinsky, a rape allegation, and a wife who consistently covered for her husband’s horrible behavior. The Clintons were a package deal, and that deal included a legacy of tawdry, shocking sexual scandal.” Even if one accepts this entire quote as fact, it’s not clear how covering for a despicable husband is equivalent to being a sexual predator.
French also claims that Republicans have been just as responsive to #MeToo revelations as Democrats have:
Progressives might immediately respond, “Well, at least we’re cleaning house.” And it’s true that the number of politicians and celebrities who’ve resigned or been fired is growing long indeed. But conservatives have their own retort: “We are too.” Bill O’Reilly is off Fox. Roger Ailes was forced out before he passed away. Roy Moore lost an unlosable Senate seat. Missouri’s governor may well face impeachment.
The firings of O’Reilly and Ailes seem to have been business decisions; O’Reilly was targeted by an effective boycott, while Ailes was a legal liability. Moore won the Republican nomination in Alabama and indeed had the support of the party even after multiple women came forward with credible allegations of sexual assault and preying on minors. And, lest we forget, the party’s current leader is the predator-in-chief.
If the #MeToo movement has especially impacted “major progressive cultural institutions,” as French claims, it’s not because progressives are disproportionally inclined to mistreat women; it’s because progressives, being more committed to gender equality than conservatives, hold themselves to a higher moral standard on the issue—and are more willing to expose members of their own tribe, like Weinstein and Schneiderman, who prove to be #MeToo hypocrites. The fact that Hollywood is reeling from #MeToo more than Wall Street, and the Democratic Party more than the GOP, suggests that conservatives are less inclined to expose the abusive men among them.
But #MeToo isn’t only about punishing harassers. It’s about creating a more equal society, one where abusive men no longer enjoy impunity. One of the clearest ways to accomplish this is by elevating more women to positions of power. The answer to French’s question for Democrats—“where is your morally superior alternative?”—can be found in the historic number of Democratic women who are running for office in this year’s midterm elections.
As of last month, a record 309 women had declared their candidacy for the House of Representatives—231 of them as Democrats. Of the 60 women who have already won House primaries this year, 52 are Democrats. The likely result of this surge is a further widening of the gender cap between the parties on Capitol Hill. “Democrats already have about three times as many women in the chamber as Republicans, including Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader,” the Times noted.
As they field many more female candidates than the Republicans, Democrats are fully embracing their identity as a feminist party. While French and other conservatives continue to engage in whataboutism, there’s little doubt that a politician like Bill Clinton—whose offenses were much worse than, say, Franken’s—would stand no chance of surviving in today’s Democratic Party. And if the recent special elections are any indication, suburban women are rewarding the party for its shift.
David French argues that “justice has a way of revealing truth, and for the Left that truth is hard to face: In the battle for American hearts, it has lost the standing to make its moral case.” The opposite is true. The left may have had no standing before, but it is slowly earning a moral authority over Republicans on gender equality—not by echoing the slogan #MeToo, but by trying to live up to the principles behind it.