When the news that Alabama Senate candidate and longtime conservative raconteur Roy Moore was accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl when he was 32, we braced for the inevitable pushback from those on the right who would defend him. Partisanship is a hell of a drug, one powerful enough to cause at least some supporters to turn a blind eye to carefully reported allegations of child abuse.
They did not disappoint. Led by the same cargo cult of alt-right types who argue it’s no big deal that the Trump administration has more ties to Russia than the Bolshoi Ballet, conservatives tripped over themselves blaming the accusers or, unbelievably, arguing that his alleged actions amount to no big deal.
If this isn’t rock bottom, pray that a comet hits Earth before we reach it.
Recalling the rabid anti-Russian attitudes held by Republicans throughout the Cold War era, it was a shock to the senses to see so many so-called conservatives excusing Trump’s obvious blind spot toward Russian malfeasance. It was hard to digest. If we as Americans could agree on anything, it’s that Russians are the Bad Guys. Doesn’t anyone remember Rocky IV?
Failing that, we can at least agree that heavily sourced allegations of child molestation are disqualifying for a job in the United States Senate. Or so it seemed.
Political science has produced evidence since as early as the 1940s suggesting that partisanship is a powerful, stable force in an individual’s political beliefs. We can overlook or excuse a lot of flaws in candidates who share our party label. Individual factors still matter, though. Certain people are unpleasant enough – in their ideas, behavior or personality – to preclude our support, even if they’re on the “right” team.
Given what we know about the power of partisanship, we should not be entirely surprised that the most hardcore Republicans among Moore supporters have stood by him. On the other hand, he is alleged to have molested a 14-year-old (an allegation Moore has repeatedly denied). If this isn’t beyond the pale, nothing is.
That said, some reporting about reactions to Moore ignores possible cracks in his base of support in the rush to depict Alabamians as cretins. Weekend polls showed Democratic challenger Doug Jones slightly ahead. These handful of polls do not necessarily predict the election outcome, but it is not insignificant that at least some Moore supporters are entertaining the idea of abandoning him.
Not all supporters will abandon him, nor would we expect them to. In a deep-red state like Alabama, though, Republicans in a statewide race should be polling near 60 percent without breaking a sweat. The mere fact that a race that should be a GOP blowout is competitive, even if temporarily, is a bad sign for Moore.
Additionally, many prominent Republicans outside of the state have condemned Moore, albeit all too often with the caveat “if true” – permitting the wiggle room to declare his accusers frauds and support Moore anyway. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is urging Moore unambiguously to step aside; the party could, after all, lose the Senate if Alabama does not remain firmly in GOP hands.
That raises a question – the kind of moral question we ask of our political system only when we are eager to be deeply disappointed by the answer: Is the Republican Party willing to protect and support an accused child abuser in order to keep a bare majority in the Senate?
Partisanship is the strongest force in political behavior, and while some Alabama voters and Senate Republicans are soft on Moore today – because, as I cannot emphasize enough, he has been accused in a reputable publication of molesting a child – they have plenty of time to talk themselves into holding their nose and supporting him when the election rolls around.
Polling throughout the 2016 presidential election offers precedent for this. Libertarian Gary Johnson, the next best choice for many a disaffected conservative, routinely polled between five and ten percent in many surveys. When the votes were counted, the Libertarian ticket barely cracked three percent. Were people who supported Johnson in the polls lying?
Probably not. They truly may have disliked Trump enough to vote for a third party. But when the time came, habit and partisanship overcame many of them. They may not have felt great about it, but they held their noses and picked the candidate with the (R) next to his name, just like always.
Moore ultimately could benefit from the same dynamic. Some Republicans who are disgusted with him at the moment might convince themselves that Democrats are worse than accused child abusers (an argument already being advanced on Twitter with a straight face by a man who wrote a book entitled The Politics of Bad Faith) and give Moore their vote.
If that happens, we will have reached a level of hypocrisy and hyper-partisanship that bodes very poorly for the ability of this system to function moving forward. Remember how the right frothed at the mouth over Anthony Weiner’s sexual contact with an underage girl? Remember how conservative Evangelicals mobilized to keep transgender people out of bathrooms to “protect our daughters”? Remember how it took Milo Yiannopoulos’ comments about pedophilia for the alt-right to turn on him?
It is bad enough that we have had to spend ten months engaging in morally relativistic discussions about treason and foreign interference in our elections. “Is a little Russian meddling really so bad?” is not a question asked in sane or healthy political discourse. Now we will end the year with the right forcing a national conversation about whether a 32-year-old man allegedly molesting a 14-year-old girl after picking her up from outside a child custody hearing is disqualifying for service in the Senate.
If this is not rock bottom, then “rock bottom” is no longer a useful concept. The epitaph for our experiment with representative democracy will be a nation asking the people of Alabama, in the words of Joseph Welch during the Army-McCarthy fiasco of 1954, “Have you no decency? At long last, have you no decency?”
Given some of the things some Alabamians have endorsed throughout American history, we may not want to hear the answer to that.