Will Power Trump Values in Virginia?

For over 50 years, the Democratic Party has carried the banner of racial and gender equality, and all the more so during the Trump era. In contrast to an increasingly dystopian Republican Party, Democrats from the left and the center have united behind an idealistic image of their party as a rainbow coalition of resistance again racism and sexism.

The last 10 days in Virginia have thrown all of that into disarray — and demonstrated that political power will always trump political idealism. But rather than throwing away their power in pursuit of moral purity, or cynically accepting the realities of American politics, the party is finding its way to a more calculated wisdom: that power and idealism may undermine each other, but they are also inextricably linked.

For the Democratic Party, the recent series of blackface and sexual assault scandals at the top of the state’s leadership at first seemed like a moment for a thorough house cleaning. By the standards of an institution that has recently redefined itself in part by what Donald Trump and the Republicans are not, we would expect Democratic politicians to call for everyone’s resignation. Racism should have no quarter in the Democratic Party. Neither should sexual assault.

But reality, as the party is once again learning, is never that simple, especially where power is involved.

The ouster of Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, who have both admitted to wearing blackface in their youth, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who is accused of multiple sexual assaults, may demonstrate the party’s moral stance, but it would also hand over the reins of state power to the Republicans. Virginia residents will end up with a policy and political agenda that the majority of voters rejected in 2017.

It is the kind of agonizing Catch-22 that immediately provoked varying levels of schadenfreude from politicians and pundits on the right, even though they have been far more explicit in their disregard for race and gender and their desire to obtain power by any means necessary.

In fact, the alt-right organization that jump-started this saga by leaking Mr. Northam’s racist yearbook photo on the first day of Black History Month admitted to doing so in the hopes of torpedoing the governor’s policy agenda — and producing the sort of internal gridlock that would come from forcing the party to weigh its legacy on racial and gender equality against its desire to retain power in the state.

But a funny thing has happened over the last few days. Democratic leaders and politicians, once strongly united in calling for Mr. Northam’s resignation, abruptly switched gears after two women accused Mr. Fairfax of rape. Most of the prominent Democratic presidential candidates, who had called on the governor to resign and for an investigation into the lieutenant governor, have flipped; now most are urging Mr. Fairfax to resign, and Mr. Northam and Mr. Herring to stay in office.

Even Mr. Fairfax may get a reprieve, at least for the moment. Last week Patrick A. Hope, a Democratic member of the Virginia House of Delegates, declared that he would bring articles of impeachment against Mr. Fairfax unless he resigned; then, over the weekend, Mr. Hope circulated a softened resolution to explore a recommendation of impeachment, based on an investigation of the sexual assault allegations (both of Mr. Fairfax’s accusers have expressed a willingness to testify publicly).

On Monday morning, Mr. Hope reiterated his support for Mr. Fairfax’s accusers while admitting that he was open to approaches other than impeachment, provided they feature the voices of the women.

The Democratic Party’s whiplash-inducing change of stance, and the furtive negotiations that have gone into that maneuvering, have been revealing. Though a trickle of Virginia lawmakers continues to call for Mr. Northam’s resignation, it is increasingly apparent that Democrats in Virginia and across the nation have adopted a political tactic that explicitly is about protecting their power.

But in doing so, they have also tentatively crafted an argument that suggests that maintaining Democratic power is both a moral and a pragmatic matter of justice — moral in the sense that the Democratic Party has an obligation to its base to guard against the Republicans’ agenda; pragmatic in the sense that Mr. Northam and Mr. Herring, as exposed racists (or racial ignoramuses) are indebted to the party’s base of core supporters and loyalists — namely black women and men.

Read more opinion coverage of the scandals in Virginia.

It is no surprise that as Mr. Northam continues on his cringe-inducing apology tour, the one noteworthy spot has been his repeated promise to make racial concerns and issues the centerpiece of his political and policy agenda.

Nor is it surprising that at least part of the Democratic base apparently endorses this approach — in a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll, nearly 60 percent of black voters favor keeping Mr. Northam as governor. Those voters, so long oppressed by the political system, seem to understand better than anyone the importance of accepting the imperfections of politics as a means to an end.

Leah Wright Rigueur, an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, is the author of “The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power.”

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