As rumors of Senator Al Franken’s possible resignation started swirling this week, plenty of Democrats felt conflicted. Would Franken really need to resign? What would this mean for the 2018 election? What would this mean for the party? And, relatedly, what would it really mean for women if the loss of Franken kept Democrats from regaining control of the Senate?
But now his fate has been decided; in a speech delivered on the Senate floor this afternoon Franken made his upcoming resignation official. A man who abused his power and privilege to allegedly sexually harass women has lost his job. This is a good thing. This is what we, as a political group, say we stand for. So why are so many on the left, myself included, still wrestling with feelings of sadness and anxiety?
It’s tough because Al is not the type of man we want to see as an abuser. It’s tough because Al is not someone we can just call a “bad guy” and toss away. It’s tough because when Al loses his job, we lose some of the comfort and security that having him in that role provided for us.
But tough is just beginning. Because most abusers are more like Al Franken than Harvey Weinstein. Because we are in many ways emotionally and financially tied to many abusers. Because most abusers are people we like and respect — even love.
Because we built a system that has encouraged and protected and revered people like Franken. Because our society has benefitted greatly from the contributions of men — of abusers — who also worked hard to advance progressive causes and to keep the worst of conservative agenda at bay. Because we made bad deals and bargained away the humanity of women in order to avoid the very hard work of having to fix what was broken.
It’s tough because Al is not someone we can just call a “bad guy” and toss away.
Al Franken was able to rise to the rank of U.S. senator without addressing the harm he had done women because we as a society and we as a political party did not think that it was that important. Because we have never held likable men who abuse women accountable for their actions unless forced to do so. Because we have always sold out the wellbeing of individual women for the benefit of the collective — as if the collective isn’t also made up of individual women.
Al Franken is not the only abuser in the Democratic party. How can we be an organization that cares about women — and that proudly campaigns on this fact — if we are just now starting to hold our own abusers accountable?
To those who still believe the stakes are just too high right now to start banishing mostly good guys, I sympathize. But not holding abusers accountable hasn’t worked so well for us, and we’ve been trying that one for, well, basically forever. Maybe we try radically living up to our ideals instead and see what that gets us.
Maybe we’ll lose some very important political seats. Maybe we’ll have to rebuild. Maybe there will be a lot of pain, and a lot of grieving.
But also, maybe women will feel safer running for office and will be more successful doing so. Maybe men building their political careers will know from the beginning what behavior is and isn’t important. Maybe abusers will be held accountable early enough, when their transgressions are small enough and their careers new enough, that they will be more easily and genuinely redeemed. Maybe our representatives will actually represent women as well as men. Maybe we’ll energize our voting base with a party no longer steeped in hypocrisy. Maybe.
Nothing is guaranteed but this: We are defined not by the things we when life is easy, but by the things we we do when life is tough. We cannot bargain away our values now because it might win us an election. If we did win, it would be a hollow victory, and to pretend otherwise would only corrupt ourselves more. If we sacrifice the humanity of women in order to battle a party that has never pretended to care about women, what will we have left outside of pretense?
What is happening now is not just a reckoning for individual abusers, it’s a reckoning for our entire society. This is going to hurt, and it’s OK to admit when it does. But that doesn’t make the process any less necessary.
Ijeoma Oluo is a Seattle-based writer, speaker and internet yeller. Her book, "So You Want To Talk About Race," will be released in January 2018 with Seal Press.