This piece was originally published on Medium.
Widespread sexual violence allegations against powerful politicians and entertainers in the past month evidence a shifting social conversation about abuse. Recent allegations that Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore molested a teenager in 1979 have forced Republicans to publicly square their support of President Trump, who admitted on tape that he sexually assaults women, with the stakes of continuing to back accused sexual predators.
A reckoning has finally come for all of us, and it is poised to take down powerful men once believed invincible in their fields. Still, as this national conversation grows, we must be willing to recognize the protection of abusive elites as a bipartisan issue. In a historical pattern both frequent and profoundly disappointing, state and national Democratic parties also appear willing to look past their leaders’ abusive and misogynistic histories, likely because of their progressive political gains in other areas. This is a pervasive and sinister problem in liberal politics, and one that is particularly egregious given Democrats’ purportedly progressive platform.
The Democratic party’s failure to speak up for sexual violence victims when they are facing powerful liberal men occurs at all levels of government. Former Seattle mayor Ed Murray resigned in September following six months of accusations that he sexually assaulted five men over three decades ago. While it is surprising that Murray refused to step down for so long, more puzzling was the scarcity of Democratic and liberal leaders pressuring him to do so. Washington state politicians have generated national attention as beacons of liberal resistance since the 2016 election, championing progressive causes and fighting for vulnerable populations. Still, before Murray’s resignation, only two of nine Seattle City Council members called on Murray to resign. Four former mayors, all major state level officials, and mayor-elect Jenny Durkan also retained support for him. Durkan called Murray’s endorsement of her an “honor” months after multiple men accused him of abuse, and she did not delete the endorsement from her website until Murray announced his resignation. In July, Council President Bruce Harrell told reporters, “I’m not asking [Murray] to step down… [Seattle residents] did not ask us to judge someone for something that happened 33 years ago or didn’t happen.” The lack of political support for sexual abuse survivors in a comparatively progressive city was, and remains, blatant.
Sexual violence allegations rocked state legislative politics last week after four women accused former Washington Democratic Rep. Brendan Williams of sexual harassment and assault during his time in the legislature. This discord is bolstered by allegations that the Democratic party allowed former Rep. Jim Jacks to quietly resign in 2011 following sexual misconduct allegations without publicizing the incident. In California, an aide for former Democratic Assemblyman Steve Fox reports that she was fired after she complained that he sexually harassed her. In 2016, following a series of sexual violence accusations leveled against state leaders, the Detroit News asked all 109 Democrats running for the Michigan state House to sign a pledge saying that they would speak out against any elected official caught sexually harassing others, regardless of party affiliation. Of these, 108 refused. Last year, Democratic California Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra was “elected to the Assembly with the backing of an army of fellow legislators and Capitol insiders, and more than $1 million in backing” eight years after he was disciplined for allegedly sexually assaulting a staffer.
Perhaps the best example of selective blindness to sexual misconduct is Democrats’ eagerness to ignore allegations against former President Bill Clinton. At least five women have accused Clinton of sexual assault or harassment, but his inner circle and supporters dismissed his accusers as unreliable and sexually promiscuous. Sexual violence allegations are simply inconvenient for the Democrats, who view Clinton as a central figure in progressive history and still regularly invite him to headline campaign events. In another example, few discuss how poorly former Vice President Joe Biden treated Anita Hill when she made sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas. This is likely because Biden championed women’s rights and sexual assault victims in the years to follow.
Democrats’ silence surrounding sexual abuse was on full display during the 2016 election. The party made surprisingly little of President Trump’s Access Hollywood tape where he brags about the ease with which he sexually assaults women. Few campaign ads raised this issue beyond the immediate backlash. Then came a repugnant spectacle: the women accusing President Trump and former President Clinton of sexual violence paraded on national television as pawns in American political warfare. Republicans, seemingly content as a party known for embracing sexual predators, responded with hand-wringing and occasional displeasure. Democrats circled the wagons, deflected blame, tread lightly in their response to the tape, and once again delegitimized Clinton’s accusers to protect the legacy of their standard bearer.
Democrats’ abdication of responsibility to sexual abuse survivors tells them that the party is willing to sacrifice them to achieve other political goals. As the national party re-positions itself, policy shifts suggest that this situation is not improving. In July, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Ben Ray Luján announced that in an attempt to build a broader coalition, the party would not withhold financial support from Democratic candidates who oppose abortion rights. As Lindy West points out, “to be anti-choice on a policy level is absolutely indefensible from a racial justice, gender justice and human rights standpoint.” It is also indefensible from a sexual violence standpoint. The fundamental anti-abortion sentiment is the same idea that normalizes sexual violence: women cannot and should not have control about decisions over their bodies. By spending campaign dollars on anti-abortion candidates, Democrats fund the entrenchment of this idea in our society. This is dangerous, and is a grave disservice to women and sexual violence survivors.
In this changing political climate, Democrats have an opportunity to do better and to become better constituent representatives. The party needs to show up for sexual violence victims not because it is politically advantageous, but because it is integral to the economically, racially, and gender-equitable vision of society that they say they believe in. Democrats must start by examining the failures in their own ranks to take abuse seriously when it strikes close to their political home. To become a compelling progressive party, they must grapple with their difficult history of treating sexual violence victims as disposable and begin prioritizing survivors over political expediency.
Meredith Loken is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Washington researching and teaching on gender and violence. She recently conducted a training on sexual violence with the Washington State Democrats.