The Real Reason Progressives are Dumping the Clintons

What to make of these tweets from MSNBC’s Chris Hayes?

Or of Caitlin Flanagan’s piece in The Atlantic asking a generally left-leaning readership to “not forget the sex crimes of which the younger, stronger Bill Clinton was very credibly accused in the 1990s” and criticizing old school feminists like Gloria Steinem for defending him?  Or Vox’s Matt Yglesias wishing Clinton had resigned?  Or even Michelle Goldberg’s NYT op-ed, in which she drags herself kicking and screaming to Juanita Broaddrick’s side against Bill, while doubting other accusers like Paula Jones (to whom Bill paid a $850,000 settlement)?

The first reaction of many on the Right (myself included) is to snort about the convenience of progressives having this political epiphany when Donald Trump has been elected President and Roy Moore’s candidacy for the Senate is consumed with allegations that he preyed on teenage girls.  But this reflex may miss something important about the current state of the progressive Left.

A related reaction is to cynically assume this is the response of Democrats jostling for position within the party by writing off the Clintons as a political force following Hillary’s embarrassing loss to Trump last year.  This reaction may be closer to the bullseye, but not a direct hit.

A third reaction may be more charitable, hoping that this moment focused on the problem of sexual assaults and harassment by powerful men — which politically includes Trump and Moore, but culturally includes progressives like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and a swath of Hollywood beyond them — has caused some on the Left to look in the mirror and perhaps move forward on a less nakedly partisan basis.  As we’ll see, there is an element of sincerity on the Left here, but even this take fails to capture the larger context of this moment.

I am reminded of a Twitter exchange between Ross Douthat and John Podhoretz shortly after the death of Hugh Hefner:

What’s captured here (I think) is the idea that America’s sexual morality is shifting or has shifted from a traditional framework (one with its own problems) to one informed by feminism and increasingly by the most identitarian variants of feminism.  The latter is arguably more puritanical than the stereotype of the former.

As is so often the case, the obvious examples of this dynamic are seen on college campuses, where students promote formal contracts for consenting to sex and administrations decide sexual assault cases without due process, under the rubric that the accuser has “the right to be believed.”

This is the cultural context in which progressives are starting to revisit and reject the Clintons.  It is the decades-long march and increasing influence of so-called identity politics that suggests this rejection is mostly sincere.  Granted, the rejection is also political, because identitarians’ generally totalitarian view makes everything political.  But the scandals of the moment are largely fueling a pre-existing trend.

That dynamic suggests that this seeming moment of unity over Weinsteingate and related stories is fragile and likely illusory.  The Right and Left are reaching this transitory agreement on the basis of ultimately very different ideas about sexuality and culture.

This may be why some on the Right, in discussing Roy Moore’s sex scandals, cannot help but bring up prior press failures regarding this subject, like Rolling Stone‘s phony story of rape at a UVA fraternity.  Given how well-reported the Moore story has been, I find that talking point unwise on more than one level at this particular moment.  But it’s possible that subconsciously, conservative pundits mentally jump there because they fear the Moore story may carry the culture back toward the reflex of believing uncorroborated and facially fishy accusations.

In this sense, there is also a rough parallel to the debate over whether to remove Confederate monuments.  One branch of this debate pits conservatives who would not defend the monuments against those who fear the iconoclasm of the moment will sweep away monuments to the Founders.  And of course, the more identitarian progressives attacking the Founders lend weight to the latter argument, precisely because identitarianism tends toward totalitarianism.

So by all means, enjoy this shining moment of bipartisan revulsion over the abuse of women by powerful men.  Given the different moral lenses producing this revulsion, we will all be at each other’s throats again all too soon.

[Note: My schedule is such that I may skip Thursday, but I should have something for Friday.]

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