Policing Our Own: Why Zero-Tolerance Policies Are Never the Answer
"If there was an organization whose work you were against but offered to contribute to your cause, would you accept their offer?"
Eleven months ago, I was asked this very question as part of a job interview for a local community-based nonprofit. It was not a question I was expecting and it gave me pause. As I fumbled my way through an answer, I eventually tried to express how this decision can and should be a group decision and it should be done in the best interest of the people with whom the nonprofit sought to serve. My interviewer nodded and smiled and confided that there was no right or wrong answer but wanted me to think along those lines as this very situation can, and did, come up often in the kind of work that the nonprofit was doing.
This past week, I've been thinking a lot about that question. Not because of how it may have affected my job prospects, (I didn't get that particular job) but rather how today's Democratic Party has to deal with similar situations on a national level. At a time when the Republican Party continues to decay into depravity, the Democratic Party is now on the precipice of becoming the paradigm for moral and ethical behavior in this country. As we've seen in Alabama, compassionate Conservatism and devolved into open support for a racist, Islamophobic pedophile who has twice been fired for failing to adhere to the Constitution. This is not simply an Alabama thing with both the RNC and the current White House occupant also expressing support for this candidate because a tax cut for the rich is more important than the safety and security of fourteen-year-old girls.
Nobody will accuse Democrats of supporting pedophilia. That one is easy. But like my job interview question, most situations are not black and white but rather a shade of gray. This week, in the wake of Al Franken's resignation, Democrats throughout the country (and here in our very own TPV community) were torn over how the resignation occurred. On one side were those supported the Democrats in taking a zero-tolerance stance on inappropriate sexual behavior, even if it took away a powerful ally in the Senate. By doing this, Democrats had policed their own and laid out a strong, powerful statement that dramatically contrasted with Republican support of Roy Moore in Alabama. On the other side of the argument were those who agreed that Franken had acted inappropriately but who wanted an ethics investigation to run its course. Those saw this as a way to avoid any rush to judgment and to give Democrats a chance to show that they took accusations seriously and wanted to resolve the situation to allow all the facts to come to light.
The debate here and throughout Democratic circles represent the exact same conundrum that I faced during my job interview. There are no easy answers when it comes to questions of morality, especially in the age of Trump. We've progressed from the days when an ill-timed screech immediately disqualified someone from higher officer to the days when an open pedophile can run with the full support of a major political party. What Democrats must now deal with is not the obvious condemnation of someone like Roy Moore but what happens to those among their own ranks who may be involved in lesser, but still serious allegations. Do Democrats always adhere to a zero-tolerance policy? Is it done on a case-by-case basis? Should decisions be made by leadership or the voters? Is it worth continuing to take the moral high ground when our opponents are consistently playing an entirely different game where the rules do not apply?
Again, there is no easy answer to these questions. However, from my own personal experience, I can say that I would be extremely hesitant for the Democratic Party to adopt a zero-tolerance policy. Having taught in public schools for seven years, I have always been a firm opponent of zero-tolerance policies because there is always, always an exception to the rule. Yes, it makes sense to have a policy in place to prevent weapons in school, but do we really want to expel the eight-year-old who accidentally leaves her butter knife in her lunchbox? Zero-tolerance policies are black and white, there is no gray. Are Democrats really willing to adopt such a blanket policy? If so, does it apply to those at all levels of government? If a Democratic city council member is accused of inappropriate behavior, does he have to resign, no questions asked?
If those questions are bothering you, they should. They bother me. And they bother me specifically because I know how Republicans operate. They can and will attack their opponents without evidence. I've written about my own experience being the target of a Project Veritas "sting" investigation. I was cleared of any wrongdoing by an internal investigation. But the accusation was there, it was public, and it created a nightmare for the local Democratic Party. If the party had a zero-tolerance policy, I would have been forced out, no questions asked. Project Veritas would have continued to be empowered as they would realize that they can target any Democratic member, no matter how big or small. All they would need to do is to launch some far-flung, unverified accusation against any officeholder and that person would have to immediately resign due to the precedent that had previously been set. We've already seen them try to do this in Alabama where they tried to discredit Roy Moore accusers through a botched sting operation set up through their New York headquarters.
Republicans are ruthless. They play to win. They will intentionally ruin lives to promote their agenda. It's bloodsport for them. Yes, we unquestionably have to listen to the women who feel that men have acted inappropriately. There's a reason the #MeToo Movement is Time's Person of the Year. But we also need to understand that a zero-policy tolerance is not the answer. Even Al Franken's most vocal critics would be hard to fault him for going through with a thorough, nonpartisan ethics investigation. If that investigation found wrongdoing and Franken did, in fact, step down then hardly anyone would claim the Democrats were wrong for allowing the process to take place. On the other hand, if the investigation did not find any wrongdoing, then Franken would be allowed to continue to serve in the United States Senate.
But rather than letting this investigation run its course, Democrats chose to make this grey issue one of only black and white. You are either clean or dirty, there is no in-between. Despite wanting Franken to have an opportunity to explain himself in mid-November, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand became the first senator to call for his resignation this past week, followed shortly thereafter by more than two-dozen Democratic senators. While Gillibrand is now being seen as a high-profile presidential candidate who provides a stark contrast to Donald Trump, the Democratic Party has lost a champion of net neutrality as well as the senator whose public questions led to Jeff Sessions' recusal from the Russian investigation. In addition, Franken's Senate seat will now be up for grabs with former governor Tim Pawlenty already expressing interest in a 2018 Senate race that will be razor thin. Democrats may very well look back and realize they jumped the gun in forcing Franken's hand when he was completely willing to allow an ethics investigation to run its course.
Republicans play to win. Democrats play not to lose. But none of it matters in a game where there are no rules. And that's where we are in late 2017. Unfounded accusations can ruin lives or careers. Republicans know this and will use this to their advantage. We've already seen them try to bring down outspoken Trump critic Richard Blumenthal with false sexual assault allegations originating from two anonymous Twitter bots. Republicans can and will exploit the #MeToo Movement for their own personal gain. They know that Democrats will react poorly as they have done with both Shirley Sherrod and ACORN and they know Democrats will fold like a cheap suit once public opinion turns against one of their own. While Democrats in Minnesota are dealing with the timely process of replacing Al Franken, Michigan governor Rick Snyder is intentionally keeping Democratic representative John Conyers' seat open for 11 months because, again, Republicans are simply ruthless in what they do.
There is black. There is white. And there are multiple shades of gray. If Democrats are going to be successful in the age of Trump, they have to realize this. Republicans are out for blood at all costs and will destroy any lives they deem necessary, from a lowly field organizer to a potential Democratic presidential candidate. This is war and the future of our republic is at stake. Any Democratic candidates or officeholders need to be given an opportunity to properly defend themselves from any and all allegations. If wrongdoing is found, that person needs to step down. Period. But a blanket zero-tolerance policy only plays into the hands of a Republican Party who will lie, cheat, and steal in any way possible to hold on to power and to remove any perceived threats in their quest. Moral victories may make the Democratic Party feel good, but in the end, they do nothing to prevent the Republican Party from actively trying to turn America into a fascist, authoritarian state.
Preventing that from happening is the only thing for which the Democratic Party should have a zero-tolerance policy.
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