At 11:45 a.m. on Thursday, Al Franken, the Democratic senator from Minnesota, stood on the Senate floor and announced his intention to resign. He didn’t admit to allegations of groping and unwanted kisses, but argued that they’d become too great a distraction for him to serve effectively. “Minnesotans deserve a senator who can focus with all her energy on addressing the challenges they face every day,” he said, implying he’ll be replaced with a woman.
While Franken is on his way out of the Senate, Roy Moore, R-Ala., may be on his way in. Moore stands credibly accused of molesting a 14-year-old whom he picked up outside her mother’s custody hearing and of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old after offering her a ride home from her waitressing job. Nevertheless, Moore has President Donald Trump’s endorsement. The Republican National Committee, which pulled financial support for Moore in November, has restored it. Recent polls show him leading in the special election set for Tuesday.
Franken noted the asymmetry in his resignation speech: “I of all people am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
This irony reveals the limits of the #MeToo movement. This week, Time magazine named those who’ve spoken out against sexual harassment – collectively called “The Silence Breakers” – as its Person of the Year. “When multiple harassment claims bring down a charmer like former ‘Today’ show host Matt Lauer, women who thought they had no recourse see a new, wide-open door,” the cover article says. In truth, however, this new door is open for only some people – those whose harassers are either personally or professionally susceptible to shame.
Since October, when the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was outed as a serial sexual predator and shunned by the social worlds he once ruled, an astonishing number of powerful and famous men have been fired and disgraced. It sometimes feels as if we’re in the midst of a cultural revolution where the toll of sexual harassment on women’s lives and ambitions will finally be reckoned with.
But the revolution is smaller than it first appears. So far, it has been mostly confined to liberal-leaning sectors like entertainment, the media, academia, Silicon Valley and the Democratic Party. It hasn’t rocked the Republicans, corporate America or Wall Street – with some exceptions – because these realms are less responsive to feminist pressure.
Certainly, Fox News has jettisoned men exposed for egregious misconduct, like Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly. But the Fox Business anchor Charles Payne is back on the air despite a lawsuit from the former Fox pundit Scottie Nell Hughes, who claims that he raped her. Republicans are not lining up to demand the resignation of Blake Farenthold, the Texas congressman who recently agreed to pay back $84,000 in public money he used to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit by a former employee. Moore has the president’s support.
Then, of course, there’s Trump, who has been accused of sexual assault or harassment by over a dozen women, but has faced few consequences. His administration is hostile to sexual harassment victims; in March, for example, he reversed a 2014 Obama administration rule that made it harder for federal contractors to keep sexual harassment and discrimination cases secret.
The difference with the Democrats is stark. True, Democratic Party leaders initially dithered in their responses to Franken, as well as to John Conyers, the Michigan representative who, like Farenthold, used public funds to pay off a former employee who accused him of sexual harassment. But eventually, the party decided that given its stated beliefs and progressive constituency, keeping accused harassers in office was politically untenable.
It’s not similarly untenable for Republicans, because the Republican Party is not the party of people who are fundamentally opposed to sexual harassment. Democrats, by and large, want their politicians held accountable. Republicans, by contrast, just want Democratic politicians held accountable. In a November HuffPost/YouGov survey, a majority of both Democrats and Republicans said sexual harassment is either a very serious or a somewhat serious problem in the Democratic Party. Only 36 percent of Republicans said the same about the Republican Party. Most Republicans said that Franken should resign, but only 31 percent said Moore should drop out.
So while the current frenzy to expose sexual harassers is, in large part, a reaction to the trauma of Trump’s election, it has not yet touched Trump himself.
A great many liberal women were forever changed when they saw the grotesque beauty pageant impresario defeat the first female major-party candidate for president. In response, women all over America have poured into local politics, determined to find places where it’s still possible for them to have influence. The same impulse led some women to go public about sexual harassment and abuse. As Susan Fowler, a former engineer at Uber who exposed a pervasive culture of sexual harassment at that company, told Time: “When Trump won the election, I felt a crushing sense of powerlessness. And then I realized that I had to do something.”
For doing something, she and all the others who have exposed the sexual degradation that mars so many professional lives deserve our gratitude and admiration. They’ve made things tangibly better for the women in their industries. But ultimately, the cultural currency of the #MeToo movement is not a substitute for political power. The incendiary rage unleashed by Trump’s election needs to be directed back at him. Otherwise, only those who already advocate women’s equality will be forced to grant it.