What is there to say about this special election in Alabama? In the race to fill an open Senate seat in the Heart of Dixie, a neck and neck campaign is being waged between two candidates with significant baggage. On one side, we have Roy Moore, an incendiary demagogue who was twice removed from the Alabama Supreme Court for refusing to follow federal court orders, has advocated policies criminalizing being gay and prohibiting Muslims from serving in congress, has brandished a pistol at a campaign rally, and who has molested, assaulted, propositioned, and chased after a procession of children when he was more than 30-years-old. And on the other side stands Doug Jones—a Democrat. Bemoaning the conservative culture that has made this contest a fair fight has become tedious. Stressing the stakes has been done to death. Decrying our society’s moral perversion at the hands of partisan politics is nearly trite. There is no ambiguity here. The facts are simple; the consequences clear. This is a contest between a mainstream, center-left politician and the forces of evil. The only question to be answered is who will win.
It is a component of that open question that is up for debate right now. Not so much who will win—that will be decided cleanly on December 12th—but how will they win and who is responsible? Because Alabama is repeating the distressing storyline we have watched time and again about male predators and pigs up for election—that it’s up to women to stop them.
This latest retelling comes from the Washington Post, which recently ran an article titled: “Allegations against Roy Moore create awkward choice for suburban women in Alabama.” The crux of its analysis was that the upcoming Senate race would be won or lost with the votes of “white suburban women who typically support GOP candidates but who, unlike many of their male counterparts, have become uneasy about Moore.” Implied but left mostly unsaid was the presumably obvious conclusion that rural voters and, more meaningfully, men faced no such moral qualms in choosing a child molester over a Democrat. As former Alabama Representative Parker Griffith distastefully put it: “Women are not so brand-oriented. They look at these things from a survival standpoint: ‘Who’s going to be best for my children?’ A man doesn’t seem to have that problem.”
The Post article’s unsettling focus isn’t necessarily misplaced in identifying this phenomenon. The reactions of women—and educated, suburban women in particular—have proved decisive in similar elections past. On the positive side, the 2012 Missouri Senate race proved that Republican women could doom a sexist GOP candidate. In the same election where Barack Obama lost to Mitt Romney by 9.6% statewide and carried only four counties, Democrat Claire McCaskill swept the educated Republican exurbs of St. Louis en route to a 15.5% drubbing of Rep. Todd Akin following Akin’s comments during a local television interview that women could not get pregnant from a “legitimate rape.” The difference? McCaskill took 58% of Missouri women, while Obama garnered only 45%. On the other side, women were supposed to flock to Hillary Clinton after Donald Trump’s misogynistic campaign, his admissions of sexual assault, and the dozens of credible accusations from women who claimed that he groped and attacked them. Instead, Trump won white women by nine points, and Clinton did only a single point better with women overall than Obama in 2012. Nor was there a surge of women turnout. From these and other examples, it is reasonable to conclude that the reactions of women to sexist political rhetoric and behavior very well could be electorally decisive.
Yet, mindlessly focusing on such an analytical framework puts all the onus on women. Meanwhile, men remain steadfastly retrograde.
The race in Alabama is shaping up to be more of the same. Preliminary reports suggest conservative men are having no trouble explaining away Moore’s deviant past and prominent male Republicans are aiding that process. Local GOP county chairs leapt to Moore’s defense with appalling (and inaccurate) claims like, “there’s nothing wrong with a 30-year-old single male asking a 19-year-old, a 17-year-old, or a 16-year-old out on a date,” and, “other than being with an underage person, he didn’t really force himself.” Alabama Representative Mo Brooks, a defeated primary opponent of Moore’s outrageously accused one of the women of forging Moore’s signature in her yearbook, stating that she was “clearly a liar.” And then there’s Moore himself, who instead of taking responsibility has vilified the children—now women—he assaulted as liars and agents of a liberal conspiracy against him.
Why is it so difficult for conservative men to echo the simple truth articulated by Moore-accuser Leigh Corfman, who wrote in an open letter to Moore that his conduct: “should be revolting to every person of good morals”? A better question, though, is why must we place the responsibility for policing sexual violence and chauvinistic attitudes in politics on women alone? Why are men not expected to put what’s best for their children first and instead allowed to reflexively indulge ideology and “brand”?
The view that women are pristine and pure—or as John Kelly might have it, “sacred”—is discriminatory, not laudatory. It limits women’s agency and absolves men for their irresponsibility in enabling those unfit for office. Nor is it effective. As seen in 2016, plenty of women aid and abet the patriarchy. So, if Alabama’s episode of “to elect a predator” ends as anticipated, let’s demand accountability from men and women alike. Expecting women to rectify male misbehavior trades in the same tired stereotypes that allowed such abuse to occur in the first place.