Not all scandals are created equally.
Several weeks ago, the political world erupted in outrage against the top three elected officials in the commonwealth of Virginia. Governor Ralph Northam faced calls to resign after a photograph from his medical school yearbook was released allegedly showing him in either blackface or a Klan hood. “Why Hasn’t Ralph Northam Resigned Yet?” was a Slate headline published the day the yearbook photo was made public. In that article, Mark Joseph Stern made the succinct case for Northam’s resignation, writing, “There is no real room for debate here. It’s 2019. Racism should be disqualifying. Northam has to go.”
Soon afterwards, the crisis in Virginia extended past the governor’s mansion. On February 4th, Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax was accused by a woman of rape at the 2004 Democratic National Convention; another woman made a similar accusation a few days later. Then, Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface at a party in 1980. The country waited to see if all three of these political leaders could survive the scandals and started to predict the effects they would have on the character and future of the Virginia Democratic Party.
It seems that, at least at the national level, much of this outrage has diminished. Northam and Herring have refused to resign, and calls for them to step down have abated. Most major news sites have moved on. Fairfax is subject to an investigation and most likely committed crimes that could result in his impeachment. But governors cannot be impeached in Virginia for racially offensive and insensitive costumes. As Andrew Kragie in the Atlantic wrote recently, “The bonfire of scandals in Virginia politics has seemingly burned down to embers as top Democrats have come to accept that their tainted leaders will not be leaving office, at least not anytime soon.”
What explains the ability of the political world to forget? Why has this scandal faded when earlier social media firestorms did not? And what does the progression of this scandal say about political controversies in the Trump era?
Scandals that survive in the age of social media have certain attributes. One has to do with the narrative that is told about the scandal and the material facts behind it. A scandal involving a major crime or an action that harms a large number of people can often be turned into a neat narrative and shared widely, much more so than a faux pas or a proposed injustice that is never enacted. Another attribute of scandals that persist is that they affect the world beyond social media. A scandal connected to a law enforcement investigation, or one that is sustained by a real-world boycott, has greater impact than one simply fueled by internet discourse.
Finally, significant scandals have to find a way to stay in the news. One story can easily become lost in the flood of content that is today’s news environment. Semi-frequent updates keep the story in the public consciousness and build momentum for a galvanizing event such as a boycott, election, or legislative vote.
This sustainable aspect was the primary reason why Wikileaks decided to release the emails of Democrats in massive batches prior to the 2016 election. The damaging emails reentered the news cycle again and again, manipulating news media companies and potentially influencing a new group of voters with each story. This dynamic has also influenced the development of news stories detailing the crimes of sexual harassers. In addition to their transgressions being awful and oftentimes illegal, each person accused often committed numerous transgressions, with new stories of abuse being released regularly and keeping the perpetrator in the public discourse.
Scandals persist according to these factors of real-world impact and the ability to remain in the news cycle. Their results are not predetermined by the opinions of people on Twitter, or the universal criticism of either liberals or conservatives. The people of Virginia should continue to push their governor to take actions that will benefit African Americans and show his understanding of his harmful past actions. They should also pressure him to nominate an African American to a potentially open Lieutenant Governor’s seat. But if Northam’s scandal does not turn out to be the kind that can unseat the governor, Democrats will have to focus their energy elsewhere. Shame cannot alone unseat an elected official. Just ask the president.