Farewell, Al Franken, the latest well-known American public figure to see his career upended — very possibly destroyed — amid allegations of sexual misconduct.
His case was a complicated one. For one thing, most of the alleged incidents of groping and forcible kissing occurred before he became a U.S. senator. He has not been accused of harassing subordinates in the workplace or of breaking any laws. What’s more, the Minnesota Democrat still has not conceded that the allegations against him are true — rather, he has denied some and said he remembered others very differently.
But the writing was on the wall. Women in his own party — including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) — turned against him; Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer apparently decided it was time for him to go. The politics were such that Franken quickly realized his time had come, so he acknowledged that he could no longer effectively serve the voters of his state and said that he would resign during the next few weeks.
What are we to make of it all? Naturally, some conservative commentators have dismissed the Franken episode as a bit of political theater crafted to give Democrats some sort of moral authority over Republicans. According to this argument, it was easy for Democrats to throw Franken under the bus because they know he’ll be replaced by another Democrat appointed by Minnesota’s Democratic governor. Meanwhile, they have freed themselves to attack the many Republicans who are still backing Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who has been accused of molesting underage girls when he was a young prosecutor. And they’ll be able to turn up the heat on the party’s top office holder, President Trump, who has bragged about getting away with groping and unwanted kisses.
No doubt there’s some truth to that cynical view. But it misses the bigger point: What Franken is accused of — a pattern of groping and forcibly kissing women, attested to now by six different women — is not just spirited hijinks or “locker room talk.” Nor are the people who find it repugnant merely puritans or prudes. Groping isn’t sex; it’s aggression. Yes, on the scale of sexual misconduct, an opportunistic butt squeeze or a tasteless photo taken on a USO tour is a far cry from child molestation. But it is unacceptable, boorish, creepy and should not be ignored.
Whether Franken’s alleged transgressions should qualify as career-enders is debatable. Certainly there are gradations of sexual misbehavior and not all allegations merit the same kind of response.
But the fact is, the country is in the midst of a tremendously important cultural reckoning that is more healthy than unhealthy, more to be applauded than lamented. It would have been wrong for Democrats to turn a blind eye to Franken’s misbehavior because of his progressive politics.
The ongoing mistreatment of women at the hands of powerful men is real, and the scope and scale of the problem has been ignored for far too long. As we have said repeatedly on this page, the best outcome of this remarkable moment-in-time would be for women to feel empowered to come forward about sexual harassment and misconduct — and for men to understand that such misconduct has consequences.
Of course, the nation is still feeling its way through the new landscape, which makes it difficult to know with any degree of certainty what is the correct response in each case. That’s why it’s so important that there be standards and a functional process for properly evaluating allegations in the workplace (including Congress). Many of the current processes, such as the one employed by the U.S. House, seemed designed to discourage, rather than facilitate, reporting of sexual harassment. That’s changing, thank goodness. Zero tolerance for sexual misconduct does not mean every offense requires the same severe response, only that every offense should be given credence and dealt with appropriately.
We can speculate about whether the Democrats in the Senate would have ushered Franken out as quickly if Minnesota had a Republican governor. Frankly, it seems unlikely. Nevertheless, Franken’s resignation sends a message that the #MeToo movement isn’t just a fleeting vogue, but a shift, we hope, toward a fairer society in which one gender doesn’t have to accept mistreatment at the hands of another.