I want to confess — and I mean that sincerely — that I have difficulty assessing what disclosures warrant someone resigning from elective office.
- It seems clear to me that Roy Moore and Brett Kavanaugh were guilty of things that are clearly disqualifying.
- I didn’t think Bill Clinton needed to resign 20 years ago, as some called for him to do.
- I still don’t think it was right for Al Franken to have to give up his Senate seat.
And when the news about the Northam yearbook picture first surfaced, I wasn’t clear about how disqualifying that should be.
I thought about how Virginians might have expected, when they elected him, that a guy with his background — a white Virginian born in 1959, in the region in which he was raised, who went to college where he went, and who voted twice for George W. Bush for President — would likely have had a mindset 35 YEARS AGO in which he might have been blind to the destructive and injurious meanings of a white man wearing blackface.
(That sense of him is why, back in 2017, I expressed misgivings about him and advocated strongly for Tom Perriello to be the Democratic nominee.)
He has governed pretty much as we would have expected on Election Day, 2017. He has not been visibly guided in his way of governing by any of that the racist consciousness he showed decades ago.
Does it matter if he’s perhaps no longer racist in the ways he was? Or is it that the stain of racism lasts a lifetime, even if the racism itself was abandoned?
So it wasn’t immediately clear to me that he should resign.
I find it possible to imagine historians of the future judging the avalanche of “resign now” as somewhat surprising, maybe judged excessive. Unless they saw how it happened in the context of other forces.
The response to the racist yearbook picture is indicative of a whole set of forces at work in the culture.
That includes the ongoing battle that touches on other areas than racism — e.g. the #MeToo movement. What happened to Franken illustrates this: it seems he was driven out of office more for the when of the sexual behavior issue than for the unforgivableness of the what of Al Franken’s jerky conduct a while back, when he played the role of comedian.
So, in today’s political environment, we seem embarked on a campaign to end once and for all the casual acceptance of dominant groups oppressing subordinate groups, in speech as well as in action.
And it includes our battling a racist President, backed by a Party that deals in racism.
In the central political battle of this historic moment, with a moral monster serving now as President and supported by the Trump Party, the Democrats are called upon to define themselves as the side that cares about moral authority, in contrast to the Trump Party which will stoop however low it needs to in its quest for power.
And in Virginia, we are up against a Republican Party that lately nominated Corey Stewart — whose racism so far transcends anything we’ve seen from Northam — and it would be squandering our position in that battle to have a Governor who carries the taint of racism in the eyes of those whom he must lead.
In that context, it is important that the Democrats vigilantly protect their moral authority, so as not to be weakened by a muddled position.
So whatever the objective judgment might be of this event, shorn of this historical context, it is now crystal clear that Northam must step down.
We need moral authority in our leaders.
Moral authority is not a property of a person. It is conferred upon someone by others by how they perceive him/her.
And the response from the political world shows that Northam has lost such authority.
(In particular, the statement from Senators Warner and Kaine and Representative Scott suffices to prove that Northam has lost such moral authority. For these are the men best in a position to speak for Virginia, and specifically for Democrats in Virginia, to declare that he must step down.)
The words from all over the Democratic world prove that Northam no longer has the moral authority we should require in our governor. And thus he must resign.