“The Silence Breakers” are Time magazine’s Person of the Year. The voices of women are ascendant. Clearly, we’re in the midst of a new and genuine cultural movement.
Unless we’re actually not.
Sexual harassers are falling from grace in some parts of America, but meanwhile the deep-red state of Alabama is enduring a special election that raises serious questions about whether real change has taken root. On the ballot are Doug Jones, a moderate Democrat best known for prosecuting the Ku Klux Klan perpetrators of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, and Roy Moore, a deeply conservative Republican now infamous for allegedly preying on teen girls while he was in his 30s.
If we’ve made advances in shaming abusers and lowered our national tolerance for sexual misconduct, why are these two candidates polling neck and neck ahead of Tuesday’s election? Moore, in fact, may be creeping ahead.
Whoever wins, the fact that this election is close at all is a sobering reminder that heightening awareness has not been enough to make victims’ safety a national priority. It’s fair to wonder whether #MeToo remains more “moment” than “movement.”
It’s an all-too-obvious fact that partisanship and tribal allegiance often outweigh commitment to newly accepted principles, especially ones for which women would be the main beneficiary. It’s happened time and again: Creating new leadership opportunities is seen as secondary to the success of the team already in place; promoting equal pay is less important than keeping costs down.
When the allegations against Moore first appeared serious enough to bury his electoral bid, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Ky., solemnly declared before a crowd of cameras that he “believed the women” - a hashtag-ready announcement — and that Moore should step aside. But now that the seat seems within reach, McConnell and the rest of his party are willing to defer judgment. Is it time to take a stand? Well, let’s let the voters of Alabama decide.
Republicans don’t have a monopoly on this kind of calculus. On the Democratic side, it’s fair to wonder whether Sen. Al Franken would have resigned had Minnesota’s governor — who will pick Franken’s successor — been a Republican.
For all the lip service, allegations of sexual assault still come second to more tactical party goals. Many in the GOP have proved quick to sacrifice protection for the abused on the altar of an older agenda. Alabama’s Republican governor, Kay Ivey, stated that even though she had “no reason to disbelieve” Moore’s accusers, she was supporting him anyway. “I do believe that the nominee of the party is the one I will vote for. We need to have a Republican in the United States Senate to vote on the things like Supreme Court justices.”
What Ivey — and many others in her party — have made clear is that the possibility of adding conservative justices to the Supreme Court in the future is more important than believing women today. Taking a hard line on sexual misconduct is a nice idea but not a priority.
Moments turn into movements — imperative events that have a lasting effect on our politics and culture — only when they begin to take clear precedence, only when other priorities are set aside to honor them. We can tell that this is happening when the consequences for not prioritizing the movement’s demands are unequivocal and inescapable.
Clearly, that isn’t the case within the Republican Party’s leadership apparatus. But what about the voters? Alabama’s special election will serve as a litmus test for the #MeToo moment. Will everyday citizens make it clear that they won’t tolerate abusers, even if it costs them something else they care about?
This moment of taking women seriously will remain just that — a moment — if it only applies when it’s convenient.