The Awful Game Theory Behind Ralph Northam

History shows he might be better off staying the course.
February 4, 2019
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Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. (Photo by Alex Edelman/Getty Images)

Let’s stipulate that Governor Ralph Northam is a bad person—or at least a person who, as an adult, did something really stupid and hurtful by dressing in blackface and/or Klan garb. Let’s also stipulate that plenty of Democrats want him to step down for totally valid reasons. The real question is, according to his own interests, should Northam stay on as governor?

And the answer is: Yes. 100 percent. Yes.

Keep in mind that when we say “should” we’re not talking about morality or cosmic justice. By any normal standards of behavior, of course Northam “should” resign. But America’s politics no longer hew to any real standards of behavior. And politicians have learned that, when facing an existential crisis, brazening it out gives them at least a 50-50 chance of survival.

Think about Northam’s incentive structure here. If he were to resign in disgrace, his political career would be over, full-stop. He’s well-to-do—he’s a pediatric neurologist—but he doesn’t have family money. He is currently on leave from the medical practice he founded. Do you think that practice would be able to re-absorb him? Do you think hospitals will want the trouble associated with giving him privileges? Me neither.

So if Northam were to leave voluntarily, he’s screwed. The only thing he’d get in return would be the serenity of having done the right thing. For normal people, that might count for a lot. For people who think blackface and the Klan are jokes and that infanticide is okay, maybe not so much.

On the other hand, if Northam looks to recent history, he’ll see a whole bunch of guys who, when faced with sure political death, outlasted the storm.

The obvious example is Bill Clinton, who committed perjury and either inappropriate workplace behavior or sexual assault, depending on how you look at the world. That’s probably worse than Northam’s infaction. A better analogy might be Donald Trump, who got caught on tape merely bragging about sexual assault. Plenty of people wanted him to drop out of the race. He stuck it out and, by his own lights, was right to do so. Trent Lott is an almost perfect analog: He stuck out his own racist problems, won re-election, and then went on to a successful lobbying career.

Remember Roy Moore? Everyone wanted him to go away, but he came within 22,000 votes of becoming a U.S. senator. Todd Akin didn’t get as close in Missouri, but he at least had a chance by going all the way to Election Day. If he had thrown in the towel when he was embarrassing the Republican party, he wouldn’t have gotten even that much.

The lesson in each of these cases for the disgraced politician is to hang tough and double-down for your base. Clinton vetoed very popular partial birth abortion bills (twice) in the run-up to impeachment. Trump kept reminding Republicans that he was the last defense against a liberal Supreme Court. Moore’s supporters constructed cockamamie arguments about how voting against him was a vote for abortion. Ditto Akin.

So if Northam refuses to leave and then goes full-infanticide, there’s at least a chance that some portions of the left will come around on him purely out of negative partisanship. After all, they have a history of going out of their way to alibi people who did and said much worse things, but were good on reproductive rights. Northam just has to go so far that Republicans stop attacking him for the blackface and start attacking him for taking radical policy positions. This won’t be hard.

It’s not a fool-proof strategy. Larry Craig stuck it out, but then retired, because re-election was impossible. But when disgraced politicians allow themselves to get muscled aside by the party establishment—think Jack Ryan and Al Franken and Eric Greitens—they get nothing. And what is the Democratic party going to do to Northam? He can’t run for reelection. They can’t remove him from office. And if he goes hard enough to the left, they’ll have to support him against the evil Republicans.

You know, it’s a binary choice and all that.

It’s important to say that none of this is good.

In a perfect world, bad people like Northam (and Trump and Clinton and Moore) would go away after being publicly shamed. Even Richard Nixon—God bless him—had the decency to do that.

But we don’t live in that world anymore. Instead,the ideological sorting of the parties has weaponized partisanship.

When all of the conservatives are Republicans and all of the liberals are Democrats, then partisanship manifests as a pure pursuit of power, über alles. And this warps incentives structures so that the parties find themselves tolerating bad actors. The bad actors notice this and then realize that their best chance of survival is sticking out a crisis and becoming politically radical in order to harness the power of negative partisanship. (Harvey Weinstein tried doing this at the end only to find out that the dynamics don’t work in Hollywood because it’s a monoculture.)

I mention all of this not because I want Ralph Northam to continue on as governor, but merely to note that Northam’s persistence is just one more example that our political culture is so screwed up that unless we start making some truly foundational changes—maybe start with killing all gerrymandering, everywhere?—we’re doomed.

SMOD 2020, here we come.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is executive editor of The Bulwark.