The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Object lessons from the uproar over Ralph Northam

Protesters rally against Virginia Governor Ralph Northam outside of the governors mansion in downtown Richmond, Virginia on February 4, 2019. (Logan Cyrus/AFP/Getty Images)

We have seen this so many times before: A well-liked politician is caught in scandal. He delays in addressing it. A news conference goes badly or is too perfunctory to address the issue. The other side demands resignation, while a few trusted allies quietly tell him to get out. Finally, at the risk of personal humiliation by his own party, he departs — for the good of the voters, of course. Politicians generally avoid resignation only when they and their supporters are utterly lacking in shame (e.g., President Trump, Roy Moore), or they do a boffo job defending themselves (e.g., former New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s marathon news conference).

A peculiarity in the case of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) was that his own party jumped out first, both publicly and strenuously, to urge that he go. Two other factors make the Northam case unusual.

First, Democrats have figured out that they can make their own side look good by pouncing on their own malefactors, thereby exposing the other side’s hypocrisy. You’d think this would be self-evident, but we’ve come to see that unvarnished tribalism has a way of clouding politicians' judgment. Trump and his party of enablers (who countenanced serial racist outbursts, a parade of corruption scandals and heaps of ugly lies) arguably made this an inviting opportunity for Democrats. (Those Republicans who’ve publicly tut-tutted Northam have been whacked with “When will you demand that Trump and Rep. Steve King resign?”) Still, give Democrats credit finally for taking pride in holding to a different standard than Republicans, rather than whining about a double standard.

Second, we see what years of racial gerrymandering, voter suppression and dog-whistle politics have done to our two-party system. Republicans have disincentivized themselves when it comes to civil rights, voting protection and zero tolerance for bigotry. Having chased so many nonwhites out of the party and having made their power dependent on those who cheer — or, at least, are not bothered by — white-grievance politics, they now cannot police their own. They’ve created a closed, evil reinforcing cycle in which those on the ballot with an “R,” by and large, have every reason to cater to the white-grievance set and less and less incentive to serve the interests of nonwhite voters.

Follow Jennifer Rubin's opinionsFollow

Now, what Republicans didn’t think through sufficiently was the effect their propagation and tolerance of racism would have on other groups of voters — including women and college educated Americans who are revolted by the GOP’s incarnation as a modern-day Dixiecrat Party (anti-intellectual, anti-immigrant and anti-minority).

No American should be comfortable with this state of affairs, both because election of Republicans inevitably leads to regression on civil rights and heightened racial antagonism, and because we wind up intensifying racial and other divisions. To be Republican, or at least a Trump loyalist, means to be in favor of voter ID and to be hysterical on immigration. One cannot rationally discuss or reach compromise on voting laws and immigration if one’s identity is caught up in repression of minority voting and the exclusion of immigrants. When racial and cultural identity become synonymous with political identity, our politics ceases to be about problem-solving, and becomes about sharpening divisions and weaponizing racial incidents.

If Republicans insist on becoming the new Dixiecrats, they are headed for political oblivion, and the country is in dire need of a center-right party that is not based on racial identity and cultural grievance. Our democracy depends on it.