“Politics is not about power and money games, politics is about the improvement of people’s lives”
– Sen Paul Wellstone (D-MN), paraphrasing Eleanor Roosevelt
Sen Al Franken (D-MN) resigned today from the seat once held by Paul Wellstone. It came after many of his colleagues in the Senate expressed a lack of confidence in him from numerous allegations of inappropriate touching of women.
It is a sad day in Minnesota, but we move on. There are many lessons here, but what’s most important is that in a truly open system based on service to the people of the nation no one is indispensable. We are shaping the Democratic Party to be one which stands for principles first.
The charges against Franken were not especially severe compared to many of those leveled against other celebrities and politicians, but they were numerous. He is a touchy-feely kind of guy with the kind of boisterous expression of life anyone would expect from a professional comedian, his first gig. They represented a pattern which suggested that he was not to be trusted.
A disclosure is essential – I did not vote for Franken in his first election in part because I knew these kinds of things were in his background. As time went on, I came to see him as a genuine champion of the people, a man who asked the questions that needed to be asked. But none of this surprises me.
Many Democrats believe this is ridiculous. Are we willing to sacrifice our leaders for a high standard of purity which is going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to meet? Why are we so willing to take out our own when the “other side” completely overlooks not just sexual assault but bragging about it as well as statutory rape in the case of Roy Moore in the Alabama election?
Yes, I say, we must be willing to make that sacrifice. We must stand for high moral values and make that very clear.
In most open democratic systems no politician is ever seen as indispensable, and it is common practice to resign for far less than what Franken was accused of. For example, when David Cameron lost the Brexit vote, he immediately stepped down. He didn’t have to and he did nothing wrong at all. But he felt that he had lost the public trust and it was up to someone else to regain it – for the government and for the party. Theresa May stepped up as the Tories and the UK hardly missed a beat.
Our system seems to emphasize the power of individuals as leaders rather than ideals. Politics is a personal contest fought out in nasty elections which percolate through social media interaction into nasty tribal warfare. The key to tribalism is always the chief, the personality which defines the organization. It’s still Trump vs Clinton out there for far too many people.
This is the core of our toxic politics.
American politics is rarely about ideals, but instead about building consensus through analysis, debate, and ultimately compromise. Through this process it builds to be more personal at each step, relying on people skills more than policy points. We rely on personalities heavily because they are indeed at the core of the Republican apsect of our representative democracy.
The last few decades have seen an increasing divide open up in our nation supposedly along ideological lines. That is largely fake. Democrats are called “socialists” even though they are no such thing simply because it reinforces the need for tribal loyalty which is actually defined by personality and a desire for power by those personalities. Democrats have been losing this particular game in large part because our leaders tend to be bland and focused on actual policy.
We simply do not have the charisma to compete in this world.
Turning politics away from the cults of personality is going to be difficult, but it has to start with a rigid adherence to actual strong values. For far too long Republicans have eagerly told the electorate that they are the party of values, nevermind what those particular “values” might be. Democrats, by contrast, appear to stand for nothing.
A politics of ideology first hasn’t caught on among the left because it is not really how our system operates. When we do talk about ideas and policy, one of two mistakes happens easily – either an academic point which is difficult to explain is presented with very little attempt to actually explain it, or a long laundry list of “points” is thrown out hoping that everyone with a grudge will be happy enough with their own fave single issue to just shut up and let those in charge keep on keepin’ on.
This may seem like it’s straying away from the Franken issue, but it’s not.
Becoming a party of genuine values has to start with the values themselves, and they have to be genuine. They have to mean something. First and foremost, they have to be basic human values of decency and the desire to serve the public, to very much be in office for the purpose of improving people’s lives.
It’s not that Franken didn’t lead the way in this area, but it’s that it is hard for him as a person and the Democrats as a party to do that if there is a tolerance for sexual harassment. As we have seen, this is a serious problem in our nation which destroys lives and marginalizes a tremendous amount of talent which we need. We can’t rely on the old boyz network any longer, and that means that we have to be a genuinely open society and government.
Franken’s resignation shows that we are serious.
This is a statement of values. These are not academic values or little scraps tossed at a group of people to pacify them. This is about solving a serious problem faced by half of the population of this nation. It’s about basic human decency. This is real and absolutely essential if we are going to stand for something critical to the future of this nation.
And no one is indispensable. Our values must come first.
This is a sad day in Minnesota for many reasons. But it is a good day because we now see the path forward. Politics cannot be about one person or the power that they wield, it has to be about improving people’s lives. When someone loses the public trust, they have to step aside. We must have faith and we have to show that we do indeed have critical public morals.
It hurts, yes. But to be truly decent is to do the right thing when it is difficult, not just when it is easy.