The arbitrariness of susceptibility to social shaming rituals is what matters in the cases of political figures from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton, to Clarence Thomas, Tom DeLay, Barney Frank, Charlie Rangel, Roy Moore, Al Franken, Jim Jordan, Greg Pruitt, Keith Ellison, and Brett Kavanaugh.
I’ve seen quite a few right-wing pundits in the last few days argue that the allegations against Roy Moore were a totally different issue from the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh. In Moore’s case, the accusers spoke out in public, and many right-wing observers found the allegations credible. In Kavanaugh’s case, we didn’t know the identity of the accuser for several days, she hadn’t spoken out in public, and many right-wing observers find the allegations non-credible. (Just today, 16 September, we’ve received a report from the Washington Post revealing her identity, and stating that they’ve had it since July.)
For the record, I have found the allegations against Kavanaugh non-credible too. But I also thought the credibility of the allegations against Moore was severely compromised by the clearly orchestrated timing of their disclosure, and the fact that there was simply no way at this remove of time to ever prove anything in a court of law.
(I note that the timing and orchestration were features that distinguished the Moore allegations from Juanita Broaddrick’s – and other women’s – allegations against Bill Clinton. Broaddrick has never had the assistance of a celebrity circus-act lawyer and the mainstream media in presenting her case against Clinton to the public. She made her allegations known very early on, and has had to speak out from the beginning without those advantages. Instead of being given a spotlight, she has been alternately ignored and vilified by the media for years in the quest to make her point.)
I don’t expect every “reasonable person” to agree with me on this. But I do require, as a condition of being considered “reasonable,” that other people acknowledge it is reasonable, and not crazy or immoral, to set the threshold for disqualifying social condemnation in a different place from where they would.
There is no law that says you can’t elect either Jim Jordan or Roy Moore to a seat in Congress, if there are unadjudicated allegations against him. There is no defined standard by which to make decisions about what the allegations mean, or how the allegations affect these men’s electability.
The decision is arbitrary, and inherently based on the social as well as moral attitudes of individuals, and not on exacting standards of defined proof or legal mandates. For these episodes, there’s no judge presiding over the drama and instructing us in what the law says as we go off to deliberate the fate of the accused. There are only attitudes, favoritism, animus, and perceptions about all three to shape the process.
Thus, JFK gets off scot-free for a well-documented history of prodigious philandering, one that was known to the media and his fellow politicians at the time. Many people are happy to this day to simply know nothing about it, and keep in their minds a view of JFK that reminds them comfortably of how they felt in a different time. (There is no need to sit in judgment on those people either.)
The allegations against Bill Clinton not only failed to disqualify him from political viability, they became – in the hands of his advocates – an instrument for deadening our shared social conscience about morality in the relations between men and women.
At this point, they are water under the bridge, but those facts showcase the arbitrariness of social shaming. It often doesn’t work. It’s unfair, and you can’t force it to work in the cases where you think it should.
Barney Frank and Charlie Rangel came under formal censure for abuses of their office that appear credible and well substantiated – yet they didn’t lose their political viability to a shaming flameout. Tom DeLay was dragged through the courts for years – call him the original ham sandwich – and yet every conviction secured against him has been overturned. His life in politics was shot down with allegations that didn’t prove out, and the weaponization of the legal system against him.
Allegations made against Keith Ellison are at least as credible as the allegations against Clarence Thomas, Roy Moore, Al Franken, and Brett Kavanaugh. Yet there is no excruciating melodrama being put on for the public over the allegations against Ellison. People disagree, often vociferously, over how good a man in each case is being dragged through the mud, but the point is that the latter four are or were, in fact, dragged through the mud. Ellison is avoiding that fate as we speak.
Clarence Thomas survived to take a seat on the Supreme Court, and Brett Kavanaugh probably will too.
But in each case, that’s because of where the particular people who need to stand with them against the attempt at social shaming draw their arbitrary line. It’s not because of a replicable, enforceable rule about where the line must be drawn.
On a similar but not identical principle, Al Franken was accepted by Democrats as a tactical loss, mainly because (a) it wouldn’t matter to future Senate votes whether he was still there or not (he would be replaced by an appointed Democrat anyway); and (b) his resignation bolstered the politically useful #MeToo theme.
The line on where tactical losses are acceptable is arbitrary and situational. A number of mega-bundlers for Democratic politics (starting with Harvey Weinstein) have been given up to tactical sacrifice. To put it in those terms is not in any way to say that they have taken their hits undeservedly. But it is to distinguish them from those who haven’t had to take hits.
Bill Clinton and Keith Ellison don’t have to take those hits, and that’s clear proof that social shaming is used as an arbitrary tool by the media and by (mostly Democratic) politicians. There are undoubtedly many Democrats who are sincerely concerned by misdeeds like sexual predation and financial or other abuses of political office. But those wielding social shaming as a tool don’t share that concern, they just exploit it.
This is why I warned in November of 2017 that joining a social-shaming campaign to derail Roy Moore would lead nowhere good. Social shaming is inherently arbitrary – and unaccountable afterward – which is why it’s such a great tool for politics. Once you’ve bought into it as a method, you’re going to look inconsistent whenever you say it shouldn’t be used, and that too becomes politically exploitable on all kinds of premises. (E.g., your inconsistent approach is because of racism or sexism or partisanship, etc.)
Social shaming is easy to turn into a trap. It’s so easy, it’s inevitable. The beauty of it is that, since it’s never held accountable in the short run, it doesn’t need truth or even real credibility on its side. It just needs the anxious, urgent dynamics of the social shaming process. For that, mere innuendo is often enough.
It is a profound moral question how humans are supposed to live without some construct of social shaming, as a means of deterrence and encouraging order and common expectations. But to say that is not to say that social shaming is a sword of actual righteousness with a well-honed edge, and one that we can consciously wield without unleashing demons on ourselves.
In fact, to live by social shaming is to live and die by a sword, and not a ploughshare. Politics simply takes that reality and sharpens it for our destruction.
Demanding that social shaming work the same way constitutional law is ideally supposed to is a fool’s errand. Constitutional law doesn’t even work that way, over time. It is forever beset by human arbitrariness, interpolated into what is written down. Wear and tear drive it away from the ideal. But it starts from a premise that the point is to restrain arbitrariness as much as possible. Social shaming doesn’t.
That’s why we shouldn’t rush to embrace it as if it’s a manifestation of righteousness. It’s not. It’s a tool grasped by human instinct, and it is used under the influence of all our prejudices and biases. Some political opponents, including those in the media, will always take advantage of that to probe our moral defenses and see how far they can go in attacking our will with social shaming.
None of this means that each of us can’t decide where we have to draw a line and withdraw political support for someone. Of course not.
But it does mean that we should be more reluctant to actively participate in a social-shaming campaign than many people on the right have been. Accusing fellow conservatives for not drawing the line where we do is particularly unhelpful. It’s swinging a sword into a fog, rather than steering a ploughshare in the sunlight in order to plant for a good harvest.
We are seeing today in full flower the consequences of jumping with both feet into mass social shaming rituals. The media and the Democratic leaders who orchestrate the rituals won’t stop – because it works so often, and because they retain the controls of the process. They won’t stop at “Brett Kavanaugh,” any more than they stopped at “Clarence Thomas.” They had you at “Roy Moore.”