Column: On the death of shame, the once-great political gatekeeper  

Photo illustration by Ryan Rich.

Fadel Allassan, News Editor

The name Al Franken is etched on a tombstone somewhere in the imaginary graveyard of big-name figures whose political careers have been slain by scandal.

The former Minnesota senator, who acquiesced to calls for his resignation after revelations of his sexual misconduct surfaced in 2017, may be feeling increasingly isolated in this domain. In another world, it’s possible that he would have been joined by the triad of Virginia’s controversy-ridden executives.

But Gov. Ralph Northam, Attorney General Mark Herring and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax have yet to resign amid their respective troubles — the former two are battling questions about their racial sensitivity following revelations that they wore blackface in the 1980s; the latter faces allegations of sexual assault from years ago.

The three might have taken a page from the playbook of President Donald Trump, who has been virtually up to his neck in controversy since entering the political arena in 2015. The prospect of his presidency would have seemed unthinkable during a campaign in which the businessman called Mexicans rapists; said John McCain wasn’t a war hero because he was captured; and bragged about sexually assaulting women in a leaked video.

Trump’s rise to the highest office in the nation was perhaps the most high-profile testament to a norm that is becoming increasingly outdated in politics: resignation in shame. Meanwhile, it appears the new convention is to ride out a scandal until the next outrage blows it out of the news cycle.

It’s nothing the state hasn’t seen before. In fact, recent reports suggest the apparent ‘Teflon Don’ of Virginia politics, former delegate Joe Morrissey, is considering a return to the arena. Morrissey famously served a portion of his last session in the House of Delegates from jail after he was indicted for his sexual involvement with the then-17-year-old secretary at his law firm he later married.

What Morrissey understood like Trump after him — and what Northam, Herring and Fairfax are coming to understand now — is that the power of shame, once a prevailing restraint and castigator on bad actors, has been undercut in today’s politics.

There are likely a number of factors that contribute to this, but a paper on media coverage from the University of Hamburg is pretty telling on the subject. Researchers wanted to see if varying levels of media scrutiny made politicians more likely to resign from office. Using data collected from the scandals of German politicians, the analysis found that resignations were more likely in cases with more intense media scrutiny.

If this study is to be believed, then today’s rapid media cycle could have a profound effect on the durability of politicians in the face of scandal. On television news and online, stories with what some would consider massive implications don’t often have prolonged shelf life. Virginia’s scandals are an example of this — national news media largely moved on from wall-to-wall coverage of the issue less than two weeks after Northam first made headlines Feb. 1. This is despite the fact that major developments surrounding the topic streamed in as late as Feb. 8, when a second person came forward accusing Fairfax of sexual assault.

One could argue that the recent inattentiveness to the issue on the major cable networks is understandable, though. In the time since Feb. 8, a network like CNN has had to update the public on a number of developments in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, a shooting in Aurora, Illinois, and the president’s declaration of a national emergency to help fund a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, among other stories.

The rise in polarization could also have an effect on politicians staying in office. George Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, compared today’s political allegiances to tribes.

“Tribes demand loyalty, and in return they confer the security of belonging. They’re badges of identity, not of thought,” Packer writes. “In a way, they make thinking unnecessary, because they do it for you, and may punish you if you try to do it for yourself. To get along without a tribe makes you a fool. To give an inch to the other tribe makes you a sucker.”

In this regard, supporting a politician is similar to supporting a sports team. Think of a member of a political party as a Red Sox fan, for example. In this analogy, a politician facing a major scandal is like the Red Sox getting walloped in the playoffs by a much-lesser team. In both of these instances, neither the Red Sox nor the politician are likely to keep their base of support. No one said it better than Donald Trump.

“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” the eventual president said in 2016.

Northam learned this lesson this week when a Washington Post and Schar School poll showed as many people back him to stay in office as those who want him to resign. Fifty-eight percent of black Virginians, who overwhelmingly supported the governor during the campaign, still stand behind him.

“I have thought about resigning, but I’ve also thought about what Virginia needs right now. And I really think that I’m in a position where I can take Virginia to the next level,” Northam told CBS’s Gayle King last weekend. “Virginia also needs someone who is strong, who has empathy, who has courage and who has a moral compass. And that’s why I’m not going anywhere.”

The former state senator likely analyzed the political field around him. If he did, then he may have realized that not going anywhere is the right move for him politically.

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