The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The left’s quest for purity could destroy potentially worthy leaders

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) at the governor's mansion in Richmond on Feb. 9. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Carolyn Dupont is an associate professor of history at Eastern Kentucky University. In 2018, she was a Democratic candidate for the Kentucky state Senate.

Revolutions often devour their own. During France’s Reign of Terror (1793-1794), many a dedicated revolutionary’s head rolled for “crimes” of small blemishes on their ideological purity. One day’s virtuous heroes became the next day’s shamed and fallen. Leader after leader who might otherwise have steered the country through difficult times ended their righteous quest at the guillotine.

I fear we on the left flirt with a similar self-destruction.

The debacle in Virginia’s highest state offices demonstrates our present peril. A 35-year-old photograph and the revelations that followed it have prompted nearly unanimous calls for the resignation of the commonwealth’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam. The most vocal are his political allies and fellow Democrats.

It is not merely “political correctness” to insist that our leaders display deep understanding of our oppressive past and its present legacy — such empathy is necessary for a nation that would heal its wounds. To be clear, the photo on Northam’s yearbook page, for which he does not take responsibility, is a serious offense. So is his appearance in blackface at a dance contest, which he does acknowledge. By purging Northam, many on the left hope to demonstrate our intolerance of bigotry and to live up to our highest ideals of inclusiveness, respect and equality.

Yet Northam’s situation presents genuine conundrums. How can we balance a policy of no tolerance toward bigotry with one that allows for growth and redemption? And if progressives believe that life circumstances and cultural factors play a part in bringing out the worst or best in an individual, should we not apply that understanding across the board?

Northam has bungled his response. He displayed even more tone-deafness in a televised interview on Monday. A more forceful, contrite, consistent owning of his past would have carried him closer to safe harbor. Still, the behavior that now threatens his undoing lies more than three decades in the past. How many years distance do we require, and how much contrition demonstrates a genuine enlightenment? Should not his positive record of public service, including denouncing the white supremacists during the 2017 Charlottesville debacle and calling for removal of Virginia’s Confederate statues, outweigh the transgressions of 1984?

Right-wing dirt diggers and trolls lay behind the exposure of Northam’s sins, a role they have played before. They find moments of imperfection, serve them up on the Internet and gleefully leave those on the left to demolish one another. So we dance to tunes called by the purveyors of personal destruction.

At some point, if our side doesn’t allow for the honest possibility of grace, repentance and growth, we will inevitably purge worthy potential leaders among us — at a time when we need more, not fewer, candidates to enter the political arena. Where are the Perfect Ones who can pass a lifelong purity test?

More than anything, the Northam case reveals a nation that yearns to reckon with its national past. White Americans desperately need ways to say we are sorry, that we recognize how we’ve profited over the centuries from crimes against others. We need meaningful ways to offer recompense for the crushing burdens we’ve forced so many to bear. Heaping our sins on the heads of a few humiliated souls and sending them into the wilderness will not heal us. We need genuine confrontations with systemic and institutional marginalization. Healing requires changes of law and policy, greater investment in the communities we’ve damaged, empowering of silenced voices and equal representation at every level of government.

The eternally perfect person should actually frighten us. Rigid, self-righteous and blind, such folks remain ever the same, decade after brittle decade. Offenders who transcend their shortcomings often display a depth won through listening, reflection and humility. The recipients of grace more readily extend it to others.

So perhaps Northam could remain in the Virginia governor’s chair. Let him atone for his past by presiding over the removal of the five Confederate statues on Richmond’s Monument Avenue and choosing worthy heroes in their places. Let him do penance by reducing the state’s rates of incarceration, investing in public education, enacting common-sense gun legislation, promoting and empowering women, raising wages, bringing in good-paying jobs and extending health-care coverage. Some of that might show — and bring — the change we need.

Read more:

Megan McArdle: We need a single standard for Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax — and all the others

Eugene Robinson: Virginia’s leaders are hunkering down. Investigate them all.

Jonathan Capehart: ‘White privilege’ in America: The blissful ignorance of Ralph Northam

William J. Barber II: How Ralph Northam and others can repent of America’s original sin

James Comey: Take down the Confederate statues now