The Political Immunity of Sexual Harassment
Progress is a funny thing. Hegel famously makes it seem definite and predictable, with history necessarily advancing towards a more egalitarian society . Other theorists, whom I prefer, take a moderated approach and instead believe that history is more complicated. Progress in one area, such as science, does not indicate that there will be a more equitable society and may in fact speed up the deterioration of certain parts of society.
Despite considerable advances in technology, the deterioration of public morals over the last couple of years has been readily apparent—consider the discussion of Donald Trump’s hand size on a presidential debate podium. With the downfall of powerful men in a variety of industries due to their disgusting behavior towards women, we are quite simply witnessing a long overdue but nonetheless welcome development. Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Louis C.K., Matt Lauer (and the list goes on) have all been prominently and swiftly taken down from their positions of power. It is immensely satisfying to see men, some of whom were so clearly creepy, be removed from their perch as defining voices in the public sphere.
Equally impressive is the speed in which these men have lost their positions of power. Indeed, Charlie Rose was fired from CBS the morning after the allegations about his exploits came to light, and the premiere of Louis C.K.’s new feature film was similarly canceled before The New York Times even published its piece on his transgressions. It might have taken much too long for most of these allegations to surface, but at the very least they were quickly acted upon after coming to light. No byzantine legal hoops needed to be jumped through; good ol’ fashioned well-researched and corroborated journalism is all that was needed. The public’s response to this journalism has been an expedient and necessary process of correcting wrongs and overcoming the silencing power of hush money. There has been no need to stick within the boundaries of traditional legal procedures that require dispelling all reasonable doubt .
This tremendous and fast-acting progress makes the relative endurance of politicians who have been accused of sexual harassment that much more dumbfounding. Many voters still took Judge Roy Moore seriously as a political player despite numerous allegations of his predatory behavior, Donald Trump still has the support of nearly 40% of the country and there have been only unsubstantial efforts to depose him within his own party despite the eight corroborated accusations of sexual assault to his name and his infamous boast about grabbing female genitalia, and it took multiple weeks for Senator Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers to face any serious pressure to step down.
It appears only non-political professionals are properly paying the price for their actions despite the similar timing of these revelations . Many of the accusations levied against President Trump came out over a year before the fallout from the Weinstein revelations, yet a similar pattern exists in his case. Trump’s “locker room talk” partner-in-crime Billy Bush was immediately fired from Today and separated from his wife, yet Trump has not since faced any meaningful consequences, even as the public climate towards accused sexual perpetrators has only become more heated.
What is behind this pattern? The most timely answer seems to be our polarized political moment. As some lawmakers from both parties (including the President) argued recently, they would rather have someone they know to be guilty of sexual assault in the Senate than a political opponent with no offenses to their name. A cold calculus is being made: even if a member of our team lacks respect and morals, it is better to elect him and/or keep him in office than to surrender the seat. The course of deposition-following-revelation which has now become standard in the media world is suspended in the governmental world in order to advance political programs.
Some argue that another reason offending politicians have not faced any consequences is that the political world does not have the mechanisms to fire someone on a dime. While businesses such as the Weinstein Company and NBCUniversal are more nimble than the United States Congress and can depose even very prominent employees at a moment’s notice, the same cannot be done to elected officials. But why is this the case? Why is it so beyond the realm of possibility to create mechanisms for deposing icky men in politics? Constitutional provisions could certainly be overcome if there was a real drive to remove a dangerous person from Congress.
These questions point to an additional layer of democratic inefficiency that helps elucidate the difference in response between politicians and non-politicians. Business and media personalities are not elected into their positions by the American people. Elected officials are held on a certain pedestal because they supposedly embody the untouchable democratic will. On the other hand, no one elected Charlie Rose to anything, and his show is not sacred the way Americans perceive their democracy to be. Politicians are enshrined in office until the next election, whereas media professionals and businessmen represent the interests of culture and capital. This tendency of seeing elected officials (as well as elected officials seeing themselves) as sacred embodiments of a uniquely American democratic will—even though many of them just represent private interests—works together with and reinforces the tribalistic sentiment that we are seeing with regards to Roy Moore. People can be put in power due to tribalism and then justify staying there through a misplaced worship of democratic decisions--the people elected me, so it’s my duty to stay in office.
This political immunity is a perversion of democracy even if the sentiment it represents stems from a place of care for our institutions. It is good to be concerned about democracy and to respect the democratic will, but many Americans have become too focused on wholly self-interested and unadulterated emotions rather than on the values that this democracy is supposed to represent. If the media is representing “what the public wants” by quickly firing their industry’s misbehaving men, it appears “what the public wants” is different in the cases of politicians who are advancing the public’s political (whether they are economic, xenophobic, or something else) interests. People do care about protecting democracy, they just do not have a fully nuanced view of how we should be viewing our very human lawmakers. Our way of going about electing officials might be pretty good, but it still is very much a process that is not absolutely perfect and therefore should be treated as such.
By confusing the means and ends of our democracy, Americans are falling far short of what we should be really caring about—the values which our elected officials are supposed to exemplify and push for—and not just the heft these politicians are adding to our wallets or the tribalistic sentiments that they amplify. Instead of being embodiments of the collective virtues of their constituents, members of Congress have become monuments to the power of democratic decision-making and tribalism. People seem to care so much about policy gains—the future of a vacant Supreme Court seat or the fate of their Medicare benefits—that they undervalue the moral quality of the people pushing those policies.
Despite all that, there is progress being made in the political sphere, even if the House Minority Leader initially refused to reprimand Rep. John Conyers on Meet the Press before calling on him to resign several days later. Congress is being pressured to release the records of previous harassment settlements and Conyers has stepped down from his powerful role at the helm of the Judiciary Committee and since “retired” from his seat in the House (even though it seems to have been at least partly due to his ill health). These are steps in the right direction even if Donald Trump continues serving as President despite his own sins. After all, progress is a funny thing.
 Of course, this is a problematic summation of Hegel’s philosophy of history, as all one sentence summations of any Hegelian idea should be.
 I find any concerns about “witch hunts” to be misplaced here. True, the court of public opinion acts quickly in these cases, but thankfully journalists have been very responsible vetting what gets reported each of these cases. The Washington Post was rightfully proud to boast that they were not fooled by a woman who falsely claimed to have been impregnated by Roy Moore when she was 15. Of the seventy some odd men named in the infamous “Shitty Media Men” spreadsheet that was circulating in newsrooms and detailed specific instances of assault and harassment, fewer than ten of those men have been publicly exposed in the professional news media from what I can tell.
 Though The Atlantic’s David Graham explained with great erudition how politicians have fared differently to allegations of sexual misconduct based on various factors, he neglects to point out that all of the politicians he writes about were still in office or were still viable candidates.
//Matt Landes is a senior in Columbia College and Managing Editor of The Current. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.