Virginia Democrats and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

The political tribulations facing Virginia Democrats have been extensively covered all over American media. Even the revelation that the richest man in the world texted below-the-belt selfies to his girlfriend has taken a back seat to the Virginia story, though it might not feel that way to risqué photographer, Jeff Bezos, who heads Amazon, owns The Washington Post and recently announced that he and his wife were divorcing.

For overseas readers, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, was discovered by a right wing blog to have included a picture of two people on his medical school yearbook page. One was in blackface and the other was in a Ku Klux Klan hood. It was not immediately clear which was the Governor and, in a fumbled press conference, he denied being either of them. Also his wife had to stop him from moonwalking.

Next up was Lieutenant Governor, Justin Fairfax, also a Democrat, who would succeed the Governor in the event of a forced resignation. A woman came forward alleging that Fairfax forced her to have oral sex with him at the Democratic Convention in 2004 and, almost while Fairfax was in mid denial, a second woman alleged that he had raped her while they were students at Duke. The right wing blog was again implicated, but Fairfax did himself no favors when he was alleged to have said, “f.ck that b.tch” about his first accuser.

Not to be outdone, Attorney General Mark Herring, yet a third Democrat, announced that he too had worn blackface, now becoming known as Virginia business casual.  He came forward to get ahead of the story in a technique known as self-inoculation though he chose not to announce that part.

These are the only three Virginia officials elected on a statewide basis and Republicans narrowly control both houses of the state legislature. Virginia is transitioning from a conservative state to a more progressive one as prosperous Washington and Richmond suburbs expand.

The near term politics are dreadful for the Democrats. If all three of the top elected officials are forced to resign, political power will return to the Republicans just before every member of the Virginia Senate and House of Representatives stands for election in November (though the Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General are only up in 2020).

If Laertes had been headed for a career in Democratic politics instead of to Paris, Polonius would have counseled, “neither a racist nor a rapist be” instead of admonishing him about borrowing and lending. The Democrats receive the majority of their votes from women and claim overwhelming African American support. Hence the party has staked out absolutist positions on issues related to both.

The absolutist position on race requires such purity of thought and deed that capable, thoughtful and supportive people fail to meet the standard and are essentially excommunicated.

As to gender, nobody argues in favor of assault but the absolutist position requires that all accusers be unquestioningly believed. The words “due process” meaning let’s decide that the accusation is true (or at least credible) cannot be spoken, again out of fear of excommunication.

Absolutist positions are easy when we apply them to our enemies. They get harder when we have to look in the mirror. Political positions are easy when we only think short term. They get harder when we have to imagine every circumstance in the future.

With 12 Democrats running for President (six of whom are women) be alert for high-minded pronouncements designed more to position themselves versus their adversaries than to guide their Virginia colleagues.

Virginia’s Democratic Party is at the center of this seething mess and finds itself with no easy way out. Politicians, to say nothing of entire political parties, are not known to favor hara-kiri so handing power to the Republicans by bouncing all three alleged offenders seems a choice to be avoided.

Nor is this the last time we should expect a week like this for either party because opposition research is not only mandatory against a political opponent; it is the standard first step when a candidate decides to run for office. “Let’s see what we can find about the candidate because the other guys probably will too” asks the clever campaign manager. “Oppo” practitioners are skilled at what they do.

The gap between reality and image can be significant in politics. What a candidate or official is might be quite different from what the candidate or official wants you to think he or she is, and maintaining that image – otherwise known as living the lie – can be tough to do.

This would be a good moment to provide a brilliant solution but I don’t have one, especially if any level of grace, principle or consistency is thought to be important.

A good question to ask about any rule is does it apply to the person who made it? The better rules do and the better rule makers are happy they do. Absolutism might trouble Voltaire, well known for saying, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

A good question to ask about behavior is, “was the conduct known to be wrong at the time it took place?” Clearly, sexual assault has always been wrong and it seems likely that wearing blackface was known to be wrong by the 1980s when the two incidents happened.

A word to Republicans, who are perhaps too gleeful: “forgiveness, you never know when you might need it.”

There is another question that nobody appears to be asking: how many capable people are watching this unfold and deciding that politics is not the best career choice. Our loss.

 

 

 

 

 

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Haven Pell

At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Without hesitation, Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

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  • One of your most lucid analyses. I especially like the racist/rapist parallel.
    One might also consider that while this racism may not be pleasant, it does no physical harm, so less repellant.
    Just saying. Not sure that is a modern popular view

  • Nice article, Haven. There is not a person alive who has not done something, and probably several things of which they are not ashamed.. It might have been a bad week for Virginia Democrats, but could turn out to be an excellent week for the nation if people stop to think about the consequences of “absolutism.” Unfortunately that will not happen. Meanwhile, forgiveness and repentance seem to be out of favor, as you point out. Democrats will undoubtedly find a way out of their conundrum which does not involve admitting either hypocrisy or political convenience, probably falling back on Virginia legalese where apparently the only impeachable offenses are those that take place during tenure. That being the case, the decision to resign or not becomes a personal one, making it easy for Democrats to publicly denounce the individual offender(s) while doing nothing about it. That could have short term consequences for Virginians (inability to govern and making the state something of a laughing stock), but really has no effect on the nation long term. If Virginia were solidly red or blue, perhaps, but it is still purple. Even though I love to see Democrats squirm, is a 30 year old photo in a Med School yearbook really something worth national attention? Good grief. We have become a nation of PC “prissies.” Who knows the context of that photo? I doubt even Northam can remember.

  • The most terrible, horrible , no good shoe polish week of all time may have occured in 1927, when, reports the Wikipedia page, of Oscar winning producer Hal Roach’s “Our Gang”, there appeared the :

    “Original theatrical poster for the Our Gang comedy Baby Brother, in which Allen “Farina” Hoskins (center) paints a black baby with white shoe polish so that he can sell him to a lonely rich boy, Joe Cobb (right), as a baby brother”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Gang

    Hoskins own page invites the reader to:

    “Remember Farina, the kinky haired little “girl” in “Our Gang” comedies of the silent movie days? Farina is in the Army now. Farina is Pvt Allen Hoskins, Company D, 47th Quartermaster Regiment, stationed at the Presidio in Monterey. When Claudette Colbert, visiting the Presidio leaned from her automobile and called “Say, don’t I know you?” Hoskins told the actress only his rank and detachment. “Why didn’t you tell her you were Farina?” asked a fellow soldier. “Well, [he replied], “Farina was the name of that other guy she was thinking of – a little guy in a white dress whose contract called for more money in a week than I now make in a year. Farina’s grown up. I’d rather she remembered me as I used to be before the world lost its sense of humor.”

    Alas, that sense of humor faltered in the Fifties, along with that of that of the Congress, which hauled him before The House Unamerican Activities Committee to explain his particiation in the Young Communist League and the Socialist Workers Party.

    • My guess is that today, anything remotely related to Our Gang would be excommunicated from pretty much every kind of discourse to say nothing of political discourse.