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.