Andrew Sullivan, Roy Moore, Bill Clinton, and the Wrong Side of History

If you haven’t read Andrew Sullivan’s “The Danger of Knowing You’re on the ‘Right Side of History’,” it’s worth your time, albeit with the caveat that anything by Sullivan is likely to sprinkle nonsense atop insight.

He’s entirely right to meditate upon the danger of identity politics consuming our major political parties, even if he doesn’t want to acknowledge his role in it.  He’s also correct that “to believe with absolute certainty that you are on ‘the right side of history,’ or on the right side of a battle between ‘good and evil,’ is a dangerous and seductive form of idolatry.”  But I want to focus on two grafs in particular:

The religious right’s embrace of Trump is of a similar trope. It is not some kind of aberration in the transformation of a faith into a worldly and political cause, it is its logical consequence. The Christian right’s support for a sociopathic, cruel, and vulgar pagan was inevitable, in other words, from the moment the Moral Majority was born. If politics is fused with religion, and if your opponents are deemed evil, then almost anything can be justified to defeat them. Sooner or later, you’l [sic] find yourself defending the molestation of a minor. Which is why I have long refused to call this political movement Christian, but Christianist. It is not about faith; it is about power.

But evangelical Republicans are not, of course, the only group susceptible to such corruption. Democrats are human as well, as we have so abundantly discovered. Many of them have also made their political struggle into a secular form of religion, and found myriad ways to defend the indefensible because the cause demanded it. I vividly remember Gloria Steinem’s op-ed defending Bill Clinton’s sex abuse at the time (she still refuses to disown it). I remember how many wanted to conflate sexual abuse with private consensual sex. I also recall a bizarre very-Washington lunch in that period when, for some reason, I was seated next to Barbra Streisand (my first and thankfully last encounter with the singer). I mentioned Paula Jones’s lawsuit — which I’d just defended in the pages of The New Republic — just to see what she’d say. Streisand’s lip curled. ‘Ugh,’ she scoffed. ‘She’s a little kurva.’ I later discovered that this means ‘whore,’ ‘bitch,’ or ‘slut.’ And that was by no means an unusual Democratic response of the time.”

My first observation is that Sullivan doesn’t have the best analogy here, although I understand that his mind went there because of the rash of liberal pundits reassessing Clinton’s sexual misconduct.  A more apt analogy would be the way in which Democrats looked the other way when four men came forward to publicly accuse Seattle Mayor Ed Murray of raping them or paying them for sex as teenagers.  It took a fifth man, Murray’s younger cousin, to cause Murray to resign.  Or the way in which Democrats did not react to fmr. Portland Mayor and Gov. of Oregon Goldschmidt had a relatively open relationship with a 14-year-old babysitter.  One of those who covered for Goldschmidt is Win McCormack, the current editor-in-chief of The New Republic, where Sullivan was once editor himself.

I don’t mention these scandals in a spirit of whataboutism, as I’m not excusing anyone’s sexual misconduct.  I’m noting that these more apt analogies suggest that the issue is tribal partisanship shading into identity politics, not religious conservatism.  It turns out Democrats are just as capable of downplaying child molestation without “Christianism.”  Again, I understand how Sullivan’s mind went to the Lewinsky scandal instead, but the less apt analogy stacks the deck a bit in his favor.

Second, it’s simply not true that social conservatism necessarily leads to defending the likes of Roy Moore.  Plenty of religious conservatives have criticized Moore, and the data suggests that the more devout are less comfortable with character issues like those that surround Pres. Trump.  Nor should this surprise Sullivan, who led his column praising an evangelical law professor for making this point.

Third, insofar as Sullivan addresses those liberals reassessing Clinton’s misconduct, it’s interesting that his only reference to his own position at the time is to note he’d defended the Paula Jones lawsuit in the pages of TNR.  If you read “The Scolds” (Oct. 11, 1998), which ran in The New York Times Magazine, you’ll find that he thought Bill Clinton should have resigned over the Lewinsky affair, but couldn’t make it through the Starr Report, let alone support impeachment, because the Religious Right was just so thoroughly repellent to him.

(Two brief side notes: While Sullivan raises issues of LGBTQ rights in the piece, he spends far more of his time objecting to the GOP being pro-life, which was pretty much Steinem’s objection as well, though presumably nothing would have changed under Pres. Al Gore.  Also, perhaps Sullivan ought to read the Starr Report — which Ross Douthat recently re-read to find: “The sexual misconduct was the heart of things, but everything connected to Clinton’s priapism was bad: the use of the perks of office to procure women, willing and unwilling; the frequent use of that same power to buy silence and bully victims; and yes, the brazen public lies and perjury.” )

The key point of “The Scolds” for today’s post is that Sullivan objected to the so-called “new moralism” this way: “It is an orthodoxy, to put it bluntly, of cultural and moral revolution: a wholesale assault on the beliefs and practices of an entire post-1960’s settlement.

“[A]n entire post-1960’s settlement” is a fascinating phrase, primarily because it is another of Sullivan’s continuing delusions.  Had there been any such settlement, Nixon would not have been elected in 1968 or won a a landslide against the McGovernite platform of “amnesty, abortion, and acid” (as it was caricatured at the time).  Had there been any such settlement, there would have been no Moral Majority, let alone the much larger phenomenon of Reagan Democrats.

Indeed, we might ask “an entire post-1960s settlement of what, exactly?”  Sullivan accused the conservative moralists of waging “kulturkampf,” as if his “settlement” did not refer to a prior round of political fights over culture.  The reason Bill Clinton’s candidacy and presidency was dogged by cultural strife was because he so obviously represented one side in an ongoing cultural struggle dragged into the political realm.  He was the candidate of zipper problems and bimbo eruptions, of avoiding the draft during Vietnam, of admitted drug usage.  Bill Clinton could be Exhibit A in the argument against Sullivan’s imagined settlement.

You would think that someone who professes to believe (correctly) that there is no “right side of history” would realize that some past settlement of the kulturkampf is a figment of his imagination.  That’s really not how a democratic republic works.

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