Editor’s note: Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. This column does not necessarily reflect to views of Capitol Report.
Now that the tumult surrounding the sexual harassment charges and consequent resignation of Minnesota’s Sen. Al Franken is beginning to subside, how has the state and national political world changed? In three detectable ways.
First, the wave of sexual harassment charges against Franken and other prominent men in entertainment, business and politics augurs the formation of new sexual rules in the workplace. The new norm, rapidly being established, is “zero tolerance” of improper sexual behavior in workplaces and social interactions. This rule makes no excuses for sexual identity or preference. Gay and heterosexual men and women have all be held to public account for violations of the new rule.
Much more problematic than the rule itself are the means of accusation, prosecution and enforcement of the rule. What is a reliable accusation and how to determine this? There are legal procedures for enforcing laws against sexual harassment and assault, but the current wave of prosecutions have not resulted in court action. Rather, accused miscreants have been tried in the media. In many cases, accusation has equaled conviction as the accused have lost their jobs and occupational associations.
The Franken case exemplifies this. Eight women accused the senator of various inappropriate behaviors, all involving unwanted touching or kissing. One compromising photo of the pre-senatorial Franken allegedly fondling Leeann Tweeden’s breasts during 2006 USO tour went around the world as evidence of objectionable behavior.
Franken’s senatorial career ended when a group of Democratic female senators, in response to the seventh and eight allegations against Franken, called for his resignation. This led to a cascade of senators joining the ouster chorus, including Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Franken himself never confessed guilt for the incidents, other than admitting shame over the indefensible photograph. He argued that some charges were false and that he remembered several incidents differently than did his female accusers.
Some argued against Franken’s resignation. Former GOP Gov. Arne Carlson urged him to rescind his resignation, writing in the Star Tribune that “a rush to judgement is totally unacceptable.” Carlson argued that Franken “should continue to serve the people until a legal determination has been made.” Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., argued that Franken’s treatment by his fellow partisan senators was “atrocious,” and Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, reportedly told Franken that he regretted asking for his resignation.
Franken indeed was denied his “day in court” as have many recently accused men in other fields of endeavor. What is important to remember is that the process that produced his resignation was political, not legal. Franken’s fellow partisans in Minnesota and the U.S. Senate dictated an end to his political effectiveness. Much is fair in politics beyond the courtroom.
“Zero tolerance” as a norm at this point means avoiding the prospect of any accusation that can’t be definitively disproved. In politics, business and entertainment, this is the new rule. It is far from meeting legal standards of due process, but it is the product of much unwanted sexual behavior in the past.
A second consequence of the spate of sexual allegations concerns future career paths. Aspiring politicians, entertainers and business leaders will now have to accept and be guided by the “zero tolerance” norm for the foreseeable future. The strong and dramatic imposition of the norm should send a clear signal to budding careerists that legal standards of sexual behavior have been superseded by a more restrictive norm in practice.
A third major consequence of the sexual accusations involves the staying power of the new rule. Politically, this new norm is likely to be here to stay. Why? Because it has proven to be a bipartisan problem producing difficulties for both Democrats and Republicans. Neither of the parties has anything to gain by loosening the new standard.
Democrats have been quick to enforce the new rule on Franken and others, given the importance of female voters in their coalition, the considerable number of female Democratic legislators, and the strong streak of liberal feminism that characterizes the party.
Political opportunism also speeded Franken’s demise. The prospect of the moral high ground provided them by his resignation combined with Judge Roy Moore’s possible victory in the Alabama special U.S. Senate election proved inviting to Democratic senators. The charges against Moore were older but more disturbing than those against Franken. Alabama voters, however, did not cooperate with the plan.
What remains to be worked out are the appropriate punishments for violating the “zero tolerance” norm. Franken still argues his innocence, as do others accused of similar offenses. It’s difficult to equate his alleged indiscretions with those of Roy Moore, Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein. Do all deserve similar punishment?
Punishments will be worked out in various workplaces and social situations, and probably not in court. Legal proceedings will remain the province of the most serious sexual crimes. But politicians, businesspeople, and members of the entertainment industry have some big challenges before them. Just what sort of punishments are appropriate when enforcing our new “zero tolerance” rule? The answer as of now is far from obvious.