Polarization has accelerated this shift. When Clinton’s Oval Office affair with Monica Lewinsky came to light in 1998, a number of newspapers called for him to resign from office, but Democrats mostly circled the wagons. (There were some notable exceptions.) They believed, not unreasonably, that Republicans had spent years searching for any scandal they could drum up to force Clinton’s early retirement. More recently, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) resigned in the wake of sexual harassment allegations — but a number of Democrats now regret his departure, and the faltering performance of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) during the 2020 presidential primaries was due in part to her now-unpopular role in pressuring Franken to leave office. Gillibrand, notably, was slow to call for Cuomo’s resignation during his recent travails.
This isn’t just a Democratic trend, though. When the Access Hollywood tape emerged in 2016, some Republicans openly criticized Trump, then found themselves on the outs when he won the presidency anyway. Trump, of course, went on to endorse Roy Moore in Alabama’s 2017 Senate race. Moore just barely lost that election, despite allegations he had behaved improperly with teen girls. These days, party matters more than propriety.
Something has been lost in this whole process. The notion that virtue or decency matters in public life or personal conduct has been largely displaced by “Flight 93 Election” thinking that ignores those qualities as luxuries to be abandoned in a political war against one’s political rivals. A politician who missteps can always blame “cancel culture” or shadowy conspiracies for their misfortune. Short of a criminal conviction, only shame would ever compel an official to give up their power. There is precious little of that left in politics. There is no use for it. Which is why there is little reason to expect that Matt Gaetz or Andrew Cuomo will resign anytime soon — not, at least, until something better comes along.