Ask a woman about her experience with sexual assault and you’re likely to hear that a trusted female confidant, perhaps a mother, aunt, pastor’s wife, or authority figure, pressured her to keep silent. They may have even blamed her. Their advice often came with a subtle warning of ruined prospects and the looming hostility of once-trusted allies. Cover your bruise, put that flag pin on your lapel, and smile pretty. Your initiation into the conservative women’s club is complete.
Perhaps nothing about the Kavanaugh saga has been as depressing as the response from white conservative women. What seems like an opportunity for women in the conservative movement to assert their intellectual and moral independence has instead triggered the instinct toward herd discipline. We find ourselves confronted once again with lessons from the Iron Law of Oligarchy, institutional needs will trump public interest almost every time.
A CNN panel of Republican women, asked about the Kavanaugh allegations, featured quotes like this, “tell me what boy hasn’t done this in high school.” Another brave sister explained, “I have no sympathy,” and “maybe he didn’t pay attention to her afterwards.” Kellyanne Conway described herself as a sexual assault survivor in an interview, before carrying on her lucrative job defending a sexual predator’s agenda. A mom in Montana, cornered for a “person on the street” TV news interview stated, in front of her daughters, that groping was no big deal.
The money quote comes from West Virginia’s GOP Chairperson and pearl-clutching church-lady, Melody Potter, “I’ve got women in my church who were not politically active at all who were incensed with this.” Yea, I bet you do. No one will do more to intimidate, ridicule and silence sexual assault survivors than the women around them who benefit in even the smallest way from the status quo. That tends to be true, perhaps even more so, if those women have themselves experienced an assault. Once initiated, there is a terrible urge to force others to walk the same path.
German sociologist, Robert Michels, first described in 1911 what he called an “iron law” that democratic institutions must inevitably harden into oligarchies. His core concept wasn’t so novel. It was an obsession of the architects of the American revolution, filling volume after volume of the Federalist Papers. When Jefferson somewhat rashly explained in 1797 that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” he was describing the institutional rot our founders thought was inevitable in any social system.
What Michels added was an understanding of the organizational dynamics behind this tendency toward oligarchy, borrowed in part from Max Weber. In order to accomplish anything once in power, a new order must embrace a degree of specialization and hierarchy. People carve out places for themselves all up and down that hierarchy, developing an attachment to the existing order stronger than their other interests. Even those relatively low in the order develop a pathetically sad stake in its preservation. Whatever policy or ideological goals may have inspired the system at its birth, the urge toward institutional survival eventually gains primacy.
Once an oligarchy has taken hold, an individual within it is faced with a choice between the ideals that benefit people like them generally, or a chance to gain one tiny advancement in an established institution. They will almost always chose their own modest, relative advancement, even if it harms their interests in absolute terms. That’s how the Iron Law of Oligarchy operates.
These oligarchies are not, in fact, either unstoppable or unbreakable, but they are very persistent. Under conditions of vibrant political competition and independent law enforcement, and weakened by high levels of education and broad prosperity, these oligarchies struggle to mature. However, in any human system insulated for a time from competition, free flow of information, or the regenerating influence of failure and regeneration, the Iron Law of Oligarchy takes hold. Any system that cannot die will develop horrifying rot.
Why would someone like Kellyanne Conway agree to work for a sexual predator, helping him harass and intimidate prey like herself? Call it the Conway Gambit. How much do I have to gain personally, from cooperating with the machine against my own larger class or identity interests?
For a soulless sellout like Conway, the formula is simple. If she wasn’t a women defending an administration hostile to women’s rights in every way, you never would have heard of her. Her gains are measurable on a 1099 form, making the choice comprehensible, if reprehensible. The calculations get more obscure as you move farther down the institutional hierarchy. At the level of that mom in the TV interview defending sexual assault in front of her daughters, the role of tiny increments of relative status in guaranteeing compliance becomes more powerful and sickening. At the lower end, there’s no TV glamor in the Conway Gambit, just a crab-basket dynamic corroding all our interests in pursuit of tiny, purely relative, individual advantages.
Examine her comments carefully.
“Groping a woman? At 18? I mean, how many guys do you know who think that’s no big deal? It doesn’t take away from his character and his job to do what he needs to do as a Supreme Court nominee. If he was pro-abortion, the liberals wouldn’t be fighting this hard.”
Here’s her message to her daughters: You are weak and insignificant. Your bodies and your experience are “no big deal.” It’s your obligation as a Good Girl to accept that men of the finest leadership character will assault you. That’s their right. You must focus on the vital institutional goal of insuring that all women’s rights are permanently limited.
Absent institutional logic, her comments are flatly insane. However, if you’ve ever belonged to a conservative church congregation her reasoning is clear as sunshine. I may have nothing specific to gain from tolerating a morally repugnant mandate from the institution, but if I ever express a whiff of dissent, my place there will be lost beyond recovery. I may have little money, little power, and little status, but that authoritarian community can nonetheless be a lifeline of emotional and even material support. A nod of disapproval from a pastor or from a pearl-clad alpha-church lady can destroy whatever meagre place I once had in a vital social institution. Shunning is the ultimate silence.
When her daughter comes to her with a story of sexual assault by a prominent member of their community, what do you think she’ll do? That script has already been written.
Imagine you’re a woman who’s been victimized in this oppressive system and gained some protection and status by suffering quietly. Who do you come to resent more, the man who sexually assaulted you or your female cousin, classmate, or former church member who rebelled, had an abortion, went off to college, and built a prosperous, independent life that functions as a daily insult to your life choices? Nobody loathes independent, successful women with quite the intensity of the angry Good Girls who accepted the toll for remaining in their assigned place. Institutions have power which they protect by doling out their own meagre currency, in this case the sanctimonious righteousness gained from principled suffering. No one will defend patriarchy with the vigor of the women who live by the crumbs falling from that table.
Nothing about the left leaves it immune from the Iron Law. Twenty years ago most of the icons of feminism were defending Bill Clinton and denigrating women he abused to protect their cherished institutional goals. However, recent history demonstrates why liberals have stopped coddling their sexual predators. As Trump-era conservatives have doubled down on racism and misogyny, the opportunity they’ve left open is too good to ignore. Republicans aren’t just tolerating rapists, they’ve elevated them into icons. For the left, this has created incentives for reform too attractive to resist. Nevertheless, old habits persist. Last year when Al Franken and John Conyers faced convincing sexual harassment charges, the dean of the institutional left leapt to their defense.
Nancy Pelosi could have been reading from Donald Trump’s cue-cards as she deployed the standard dodge-and-doubt tactics against the victims, but her defense quickly crumbled. With their rhetorical guns trained on comically skeevy Republican targets like Roy Moore, the institutional left had little to gain from continuing to protect abusers in their ranks. Institutions, exposed to multiple voices and competing interests, are sometimes capable of painful change.
Though the Iron Law is not unbreakable, it doesn’t break gently. Left, right or center, everyone who wants to effect change of any kind in a political system must come to terms with this reality. In a healthy system, significant change is sometimes possible through compromise, consensus and “win-win” arrangements. When a system has stagnated into oligarchy, the terms of the iron law take over and change can only emerge from a thudding defeat.
Changes that created modern American life rose from the most lopsided trouncing in modern history. A decade of reform followed in the wake of the 1964 Democratic revolution, ending Jim Crow, creating Medicare, granting women the right to work and own a credit card, creating the Environmental Protection Agency, workplace reforms, the Clean Air & Water Acts, and hundreds of other measures without which we would live in a 3rd world country. Those measures rose not from compromise, but from dominion established through a comprehensive electoral revolt. Major change is almost never possible through compromise and consensus.
Once again, as will happen, our core institutions have calcified. Evolution in our wider society is placing pressure on those hardened institutions to bend, to undergo another process of reform and regeneration. There is no reform without losers, and the losers are fighting back. Many of the unlikeliest foot soldiers against women’s rights are conservative women bitterly oppressed by this system. Most will happily battle their sisters to gain the tiniest additional scraps rather than join with them to overturn the table and benefit everyone. Make no mistake, they will have to be defeated, not persuaded.