Why Ralph Northam and Mark Herring Should Not Resign
I have lived in Virginia for most of the nearly 40 years of my life and have been a Democrat for about the past 15 years. I grew up in a conservative Republican family, and the process of changing my political views was a gradual one. In my youth, I was anti-gay and insensitive on racial issues. Today, I know better.
As I have been following the story of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring confessing to wearing blackface in their college days, I have been struck by how quick so many Democrats are to condemn these elected officials who, by all accounts, have thoroughly reformed their character and beliefs as they grew up into fine human beings and public servants.
Many people in their teens and 20s are confused about who they are and what they believe. If they came from a conservative family, they will likely continue to act in ways that are consistent with a conservative cultural and political identity until they deeply examine their beliefs and change their minds and their behavior. If they grew up in the mid 1900s in Virginia, some of their former views and behaviors on matters of race may seem appalling by today’s standards.
I am of a younger generation than Messrs. Northam and Herring, but I can sympathize with their situation as sincere Democrats whose actions in youth conflicted with their beliefs and values today. Northam, in fact, used to be a Republican. Can we really expect him to have never done the kinds of things that were regarded as routinely acceptable in Southern Republican circles several decades ago?
I have changed a lot in the 40 years I have been alive, and I’m proud that in many ways I have changed for the better. When I was in college in the late 1990s, I said and did some things that were consistent with the toxic attitudes of movement conservatism at the time. Since then, I have grown tremendously as a human being, and realize that many of my former attitudes were wrong. I don’t believe this should disqualify me from robust participation in the political process — and perhaps even running for political office someday under the Democratic Party banner.
The character of a well-lived life is to rise from whatever condition into which we are born, open our hearts and minds, learn from our mistakes, and become the best that we can be. I think perhaps we should have more elected officials who have gone through such an evolutionary process and speak openly about it, not fewer. Such people can set a good example for others, bringing hope that both as individuals, and as a society, we can be redeemed.
There is another recent Virginia governor who serves as an important point of comparison: George Allen. Unlike Ralph Northam, he did not demonstrate through the actions of his career that he had reformed himself from his racist past. In fact, quite the opposite: Gov. Allen “used to keep a Confederate flag in his living room, a noose in his law office and a picture of Confederate troops in his governor's office.” (source)
As if that weren’t bad enough, Gov. Allen also “personally initiated an association with the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), the successor organization to the segregationist White Citizens Council and among the largest white supremacist groups.” (source)
These were things he did while serving as governor of Virginia. And later on, while running for reelection to the U.S. Senate, Allen mockingly called a journalist of color a “macaca,” a racial epithet that means “monkey.”
George Allen did not resign from either the office of governor or senator for these terrible offenses. In fact, there was no widespread call for his resignation. He continued to run for reelection in his Senate race, and fortunately was defeated.
Now, Ralph Northam, who has not shown any racism during his career in public service, is being pressured to resign because of racially offensive conduct decades ago when he was in his early 20s. And Democrats are leading the charge to drive him from office. Some on the left are even calling for the resignation of Attorney General Mark Herring because he dressed up as a rapper at a college costume party when he was 19 years old and wore blackface as part of the costume — despite that he has apologized for this insensitive act from his college days and has not demonstrated any racist conduct during his entire political career.
Why are Democrats so quick to turn on our own? Nobody is perfect. Yes, what Northam and Herring did in their youth was offensive and stupid. But most people have probably done something bad in their youth, something that could be used against them politically. Republicans don’t typically resign over such things — in fact they don’t even resign when they do egregiously racist or sexist things while holding or running for office. For example, Donald Trump for many years falsely accused President Obama of not being an American citizen, a slander which was obviously racially motivated. And this is but one of his many terrible scandals — yet he remains in office, staunchly impervious to any calls for his resignation.
But Democrats masochistically beat ourselves up, tear ourselves apart, and damage our party and our cause, by demanding a lifelong moral purity from our leaders according to today’s more highly evolved standards that did not exist in the past from which these politicians have emerged. In doing so, Democrats make themselves look absurdly obsessed with “political correctness” in the eyes of the general public, which is one of the reasons why so many former Democrats voted for Trump.
Tolerance of human imperfection, and forgiveness for past sins overcome during the course of one’s life, are among the characteristics of maturity. I hope my fellow Democrats will grow up — and fast — before we cannibalize our entire party in pursuit of a purity that does not and cannot exist. We should use minor scandals like that of Ralph Northam and Mark Herring as a teaching moment — a time to reflect upon how morally degenerate our society used to be on matters such as race, how far we have come in the past few decades, and how much farther towards justice we still can go, if we embrace rather than condemn our fellow citizens who are trying their best to grow in a good direction.
In conclusion, Gov. Northam is far from perfect. He hasn’t handled things well since the blackface story broke. But at least he isn’t supporting or enacting racist policies as governor. Many Republicans would. Northam has grown greatly as a human being since the racism of his youth. Many Republicans haven’t. Until Republicans start resigning over the terrible things they say and do in the present day, I won’t be calling for Democrats to resign for their past flaws. To do so is politically irresponsible, unjust, and harmful to our country during this time when we, as a nation, are struggling to make further progress on issues of social justice and so many Americans are ready to give up.
Note: This article was originally posted at Daily Kos.