Democrats are finally figuring out how to reclaim the political high ground

They should purge big donor money like they are doing with sexual abusers

Democrats on top?
(Image credit: Illustration by Lauren Hansen | Images courtesy iStock)

Finally, Democrats are getting their act together on sexual harassment and assault. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) has resigned, and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has said that he is also going to step down shortly.

This goes a considerable distance toward the party reclaiming the moral high ground on sexual assault and harassment. But they shouldn't stop there. Democrats should follow this basic plan when it comes to other serious problems like the plutocracy that is feasting on the American innards: First clean house, then pin the problems on Republicans, then win and fix the problems.

Franken's speech announcing the resignation was rather mealy-mouthed and vague, but he did make one very true point: "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."

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On one level, it is a double standard that Franken faces massive social pressure to resign, while Republicans are circling the wagons around President Trump and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, both of whom are accused of far worse. (Indeed, if half of the accusations are true, they both should be in prison.)

But that's simply a function of the fact that the Republican Party is absolutely debauched. No argument or evidence of any kind is going to convince an institution that diseased and riddled with nihilistic propaganda to do the right thing.

Therefore, the first way to get Republicans on sex crimes and abuse is by making them pay a political price. They have to be nailed down as the party that refuses to deal with the issue — that in fact nominates and votes for credibly accused sexual predators. But you can't do that without cleaning house first (in addition to punishing sex predators being, you know, morally correct). Partisan hypocrisy, no matter how unfair in actual moral terms (two wrongs do not make a right, after all) really does sap the political force behind moral condemnation.

A fair number of liberals have turned this around, arguing that Franken shouldn't resign while Republicans continue to be so bad. But that is just a way to ensure that neither party ever comes clean.

National Review's Rich Lowry, by contrast, understands this logic quite well: "Democrats obviously want to clear the decks to get a clear line of fire on Roy Moore and Donald Trump, and Franken realizes he can't stand in the way." It might be a coincidence, but it's also true that after the Franken and Conyers announcements, the House ethics subcommittee recently reopened its investigation into Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) for alleged sexual harassment, and Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) immediately resigned after apparently asking some members of his staff to serve as surrogate mothers.

The Democrats face a very similar and arguably harder choice when it comes to anti-plutocracy policy. For decades now, Democratic Party elites have been cloistered with their own donor class, which is significantly coextensive with the Republican donor class. There are many important exceptions of course, but big money has big influence over the Democrats.

This has very badly warped their basic political ideology. Back in the 1990s, there was short-term political advantage to signing on with big money. But today, America has a full-blown case of plutocratic cancer, and it's metastasizing into all manner of backlash politics.

Ironically, the backlash that helped put Trump in office led to total plutocratic control. At the moment, a tax bill that amounts to outright looting of the middle class on behalf of the top 1 percent is on the verge of passage. But to harness the political mood without stoking bigotry, you need a political champion who is not deeply implicated with that plutocracy. In other words, you need someone who is not Hillary Clinton.

To be clear, I'm not equating the morality of sexual assault with the morality of taking money from, say, Donald Sussman, only the political structure. But while it less wrong, it still is morally compromising to take money from an ultra-rich hedge fund plutocrat with a pro-finance agenda, and it is politically poisonous to boot.

Many liberals excused Hillary Clinton's secret buckraking speeches to Wall Street banks (as well as Barack Obama's post-presidential career of the same) because Republicans have done the same or worse. But Democrats can do far, far better than behaving slightly better than the worst major party that currently exists in the industrialized world.

Indeed, they will have to in order to win a secure political victory. They might take power on the strength of a pure anti-Trump backlash, as they did in 2006 and 2008. But unless they conduct the top-to-bottom overhaul of American society that is desperately needed, they will fall again to the same backlash politics that felled congressional Democrats in 2010 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. That means aggressive policy on health care, the minimum wage, taxation on corporations and the wealthy, monopolies, climate change, opioids, and a dozen other crises. It means in every case helping the middle and working class at the expense of the donor class.

If they listen to the fanboys who excuse everything Democrats do, then they'll never get there.

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