“Politicians should be under no obligation to return campaign donations from serial-harassing Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein,” writes Quin Hillyer in the Washington Examiner. “Particularly, it is logically incoherent for conservatives who support the Citizens United v. FEC campaign finance regime to call for the return of Weinstein’s money, or indeed for the return of donations from just about anyone subsequently revealed to be unsavory. Unless there is some connection between the donor’s behavior and that of the politician, or reason to think the politician knew at the time he accepted the donation that the donor was unusually degenerate, then the politician is not morally compromised by the cash.”
I usually agree with Quin, and in the context of the Citizens United case, he’s right. Past donations from Harvey Weinstein are not “corrupting” of the recipients, unless there is some future revelation about some lawmaker being quiet or taking some action to help hide Weinstein’s behavior. (At this point, there’s no evidence to suggest this.) But I think he’s missing why lawmakers are returning the money.
The returning of the money and/or donation of the equivalent amount to a charity represents a rebuke to the donor and a moral cleansing of the candidate. It is a statement to Weinstein, “your actions are so reprehensible that I cast you out in every possible way; even the money you gave me is tainted by once being in your hands.” In most of these cases, the campaign and the candidate can easily handle the financial loss, so this is entirely meant as a symbolic and cultural gesture.
We hear the term “virtue-signaling” thrown around and it’s usually a pretty negative context, but I think this form of “virtue signaling” is pretty good and useful. In this case, it may be particularly useful; we need to see that Weinstein’s money isn’t good “here” anymore, because his enormous wealth bought him a lot of immunity from the usual consequences of being a perpetual sexual predator. Returning the money is a relatively easy form of declaring, “There are some things that are more important than money.”
We live a in a culture that will shame you for some pretty minor stuff — social media gaffes, tasteless jokes, arguments that are misconstrued or poorly-considered. In Weinstein, we’ve finally encountered a figure who deserves every bit of public shaming that can be mustered. Returning his money is part of the shaming process: “You are so morally bankrupt that even the money you once held no longer has any value, and I no longer will accept it.”
It also says, “you cannot purchase my forgiveness or goodwill.”
Quin suggests that returning the donations now is a form of “moral preening.” Where do you draw the line between “moral preening” and taking a stand that you think is morally right?