11.01.11 1:39 AM ET
Why Conservatives Forgive Sex Scandals
Will these allegations of sexual harassment sink Herman Cain? It’s too early to say of course—we don’t yet know the particulars, and the particulars are what matters. But we can say this much: It’s wrong to assume that conservative voters are going to respond to allegations like these in anything like the same way the rest of the world would. Conservatives aren’t just different politically—they’re different culturally, and there’s a whole set of assumptions they simply don’t share with the rest of us, and indeed Cain could easily emerge unscathed and strengthened from this.
Before we go there, the necessary caveats. The Politico reporting seems solid, and the allegations are serious. The Cain camp acknowledges that something happened, but “something” can mean a lot of things. Politico learned about two women. Where there are two—which isn’t exactly a “pattern”—there are sometimes 12 or 22, which certainly is. There could be more dirt to come, either on the sexual politics front or other matters. And by the way, where’s this coming from? It’s a tasty little irony that while Cain has and will continue to say he’s a victim of the liberal media, the oppo dump here seems far more likely to be from Republican sources than Democratic ones, because establishment Republicans don’t want him as the nominee and Democrats presumably do. So it’s possible this is beginning of the end, and Cain will be banished, as his namesake was, to the Land of Nod to fade away.
Now. History. The term “sexual harassment” first started appearing in the early 1970s. MIT (how predictable that it would incubate in the academy!) was evidently the first institution to recognize the term as such, in 1973. Before then, back in the Mad Men days, a male superior remarking on a woman’s breasts wasn’t called sexual harassment. It was called fun. Or perhaps even flattery.
The whole business, in other words, dates to that lamentable era when cultural liberalism stomped its gray and humorless jackboot on every institution of American life and made decent, regular Americans who meant no real harm with an off-color aside start worrying about lawsuits over racial and sexual discrimination. It’s all part of the culture of complaint, to use Robert Hughes’s famous 1993 book title (Hughes is no conservative, but not really a liberal, at least politically, or wasn’t then). More maddening from the conservative point of view, the country’s institutions prostrated themselves before this hegemonic monster. Even corporations, which should be on their side, started in with the diversity training and sensitivity sessions.
Conservatives, to invoke William Buckley, have stood athwart this history yelling “stop!” It isn’t that there aren’t some real-world sexual harassers. There probably are. It is, however, that conservatives don’t share the assumptions that liberals and the mainstream media impose. The main one being, of course, that the women are probably telling the truth in such instances. We saw this in its most concentrated form in the Clarence Thomas case. Some conservatives still won’t admit that every objective indication is that Anita Hill was telling the truth (just watch this comment thread for proof of that).
The question is raised, what kind of sexual indiscretion troubles conservatives? First of all, any one committed by a Democrat, that’s pretty clear. Second, any man-on-man stuff appears to induce the willies. Larry Craig, the Idaho senator famous for wide-stancing it at the Minneapolis airport in 2007, crossed a clear line. Florida Congressman Mark Foley ditto, although those allegations included his fondness for underage boys, which added a clear legal twist.
Among heterosexual Republicans, the record is mixed. Mark Sanford served out his term as governor of South Carolina after his famous walk “along the Appalachian Trail,” but he was damaged goods—probably, I always thought, because of his attractive and pious and obviously sympathetic wife. Nevada Senator John Ensign’s support cratered, but that was because the sex got mixed up with public monies. Then there’s David Vitter. Why did he manage to skate through? My guess: because his co-conjugalist was a fallen woman.
So there are two factors at work here. One, the cultural history, which suggests that conservative voters will rally to Cain more forcefully than ever. Two, the fact that in each case, the public-opinion verdict comes down to the particulars. Right now, there are no particulars in this story. But let’s face it, that’s what it takes for these stories to achieve real lift-off. Long Dong Silver videos. Pubic hairs left on Coke cans. Wide stances and lascivious toe-tappings. Details that intensify the “ick” factor.
Lacking these, Cain will likely sail through this head wind, with the usual denunciations of the liberal media lynching a black man who had the nerve to leave the liberal plantation working wonders. And even if details emerge, to damage him, they must be details that offend specifically conservative cultural sensibilities. This was 1999, remember. Maybe he told them he understood Bill Clinton’s plight. That would be a deal-breaker.