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What Should the Left Do With Alex Morse?
The rising progressive star, attempting to unseat a Massachusetts congressman, was hit with allegations of sexual impropriety.
After Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush, Alex Morse was supposed to be the next unambiguous triumph for the American left. The 31-year-old mayor of the small Massachusetts town of Holyoke, Morse is trying to unseat a much more conservative Democratic congressman, Richard Neal, in a September 1st primary. Neal, the chairman of the highly influential Ways and Means Committee, is a worthy target: he wants to criminalize support for the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement; he doesn’t believe the IRS should create a free system for filing taxes; and he won’t back Medicare for All. Morse appeared on track to defeat Neal, as a young openly gay politician with a record of embracing left causes, including universal healthcare, a Green New Deal, and a reduction of the Pentagon budget.
All of that is in jeopardy now as Morse is reeling from allegations that he engaged in improper sexual conduct with men much younger than him. On August 7, the Massachusetts Daily Collegian reported that the College Democrats of Massachusetts sent a letter to Morse alleging that the politician had inappropriate sexual relations with college students before and during his congressional campaign and used “his position of power for romantic or sexual gain.” In addition to serving as mayor, Morse had been an adjunct lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst from 2014 to 2019. The university announced it would be investigating Morse’s conduct. The College Democrats said Morse would be no longer welcome at their events.
According to the letter, Morse regularly matched with students on dating apps, including Tinder and Grindr, who were as young as 18. The students included members of the College Democrats of Massachusetts, UMass Amherst Democrats and other groups in the state. The letter alleged Morse was using College Democratic events to “meet college students and add them on Instagram, adding them to his ‘Close Friends’ story and DMing them, both of which have made young college students uncomfortable.” Morse was accused of “having sexual contact” with college students where he taught, at UMass Amherst, though no allegation was made that Morse had this contact with students in any of his classes.
“We have heard countless stories of Morse adding students to his ‘Close Friends Story’ and Direct Messaging members of College Democrats on Instagram in a way that makes these students feel pressured to respond due to his status,” the letter continued.
At particular issue was the dynamic between Morse, a mayor and rising political star, and students on campus: “Cumulatively, the Mayor’s various positions of power create a significant and undeniable power imbalance between himself and the college students he sought out after meeting the at our events.”
Morse admitted to having relationships with college students, but said in a statement they were consensual. No allegation has been made of a relationship that was not consensual. “I also recognize that I have to be cognizant of my position of power,” Morse said in a statement to the group. “Growing up gay and closeted in a small city like Holyoke, I struggled with accepting my sexuality, and in high school, I had a hard time finding other openly gay students. As I’ve become more comfortable with myself and my sexuality, like any young, single, openly gay man, I have had consensual adult relationships, including some with college students. Navigating life as both a young gay man and an elected official can be difficult, but that doesn’t excuse poor judgment. That’s why I want to sincerely apologize to anyone I have made feel uncomfortable.”
On Sunday night, Morse released another statement, this one lengthier, vowing to stay in the race. “I have never, in my entire life, had a non-consensual encounter with anyone. I have never used my position of power as Mayor and UMass lecturer for romantic or sexual gain, or to take advantage of students,” Morse said. “I have never violated UMass policy. Any claim to the contrary is false.” In his statement, Morse strongly implied he was being held to a different standard because he is gay.
The allegations have split the online left, on casual but not firm ideological lines. Though a Democratic Socialists for America chapter disavowed Morse, other DSA members are defending him, either out of a belief he presents a far more palatable option than Neal or from a more affirmative position that the allegations represent an overreach, a policing of a young gay man’s consensual and legal sexual behavior. Prominent voices on the left, including the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald and Ryan Grim, have come to Morse’s defense. Others on the left, especially in academic circles, have been far less forgiving. For a number of sexual assault survivors, the allegations against Morse have demonstrated how toxic political and campaign cultures remain, with powerful men abusing their positions to prey on weaker people. For some, Morse is either emblematic of a Puritanical abuse of the Me Too movement or a long overdue course correction—another politician held accountable for untoward actions of a sexual nature. There are lingering questions, as well, about the motivations of College Democratic organizations that typically have closer ties to incumbents like Neal.
As an adjunct professor myself—about the same age as Morse—I can understand the condemnation. Professors should not, under any circumstance, engage in romantic relationships with students they teach. Morse says he did not do this and no evidence has been presented to prove otherwise. But he did allegedly engage in relationships with college students while holding a teaching position at the same university, which is problematic. A professor should avoid relationships with students they could very well teach. For those in academia, this is rather cut and dry. The greater question, for Morse and those who are following this campaign, is if such actions warrant Morse dropping out, as some have called on him to do, or demonstrate he is unfit for Congress. This is a thornier proposition. There are prominent politicians who entered into consensual romantic relationships under circumstances that would be questioned or outright condemned by those who are criticizing Morse today. The argument against Morse is that, by being an older and more powerful individual, he initiated relationships that were inherently unequal and couldn’t produce the truest form of consent, though consent was given. What to do about Emmanuel Macron, the French president? Macron, famously, is married to a woman 24 years his senior, whom he first met as a 15-year-old high school student when she was a 39-year-old schoolteacher. At 18, they became a couple, and are happily together today. Macron, at least, did not believe he was inappropriately groomed by a much older, more powerful person.
The French president should not be wielded as a shield for improper behavior, but his example presents the reality that legal relationships between partners who are distant in age or station do happen, and not infrequently in every day life. Unconventional relationships occur and will continue to occur. What is the difference, then, between censuring an unhealthy power imbalance and aggressively policing a consensual relationship between two adults? In Morse’s case, the easiest answer is his university position. Would his critics still have come for him if he were simply dating college students in his sole role as an elected official, not teaching at the university? If the answer is yes, then the censure is not necessarily arriving in good faith. A single, and very young, elected official presiding over a college town—Morse was elected at 22, during his senior year at Brown University—could end up dating a college student aged 18 or higher. Since the allegations lack detail, it becomes difficult to assess the range of relationships Morse engaged with, and if any of the students were, in fact, near his age or even older. Colleges are filled with nontraditional students, working parents seeking degrees later in life or military veterans. Did a 28-year-old Morse, for example, date a 25-year-old undergraduate? If this student did not attend any of his classes, declaring this kind of relationship blanketly inappropriate becomes a challenge.
There is the overarching dilemma, which the Me Too movement has been forced to reckon with since its inception in 2017, of due process. Certain tenets of the discourse, as Michael Powell of the New York Times has written about, come into direct conflict with how we’ve understood the criminal justice system in the United States of America. Me Too arrived, rightfully so, to empower survivors of sexual abuse and hold accountable vile, powerful people in a wide array of public and private industries. Women subject to harassment and abuse were encouraged to come forward; toxic titans like Harvey Weinstein, once untouchable, were brought to heel. Much deserved scrutiny came for the political field, both for the exploitative environments of campaigns and governmental offices, where underpaid, younger staffers are subjected to serial abuse. Politicians in 2020 are less likely to engage in predatory behavior than they were even five years ago and new policies have been created to safeguard these gains. All of these outcomes are unalloyed positives. In this arena, few worry about the rights of the accused, and it’s understandable why. Shouldn’t we believe survivors of sexual assault? Shouldn’t we not unfairly interrogate them? Though we all want to say yes, absolutely yes, there is the reality that even the most insidious individuals in America must be presumed innocent until evidence proves them guilty. Morse has been accused of improper behavior three weeks before a primary, with little time to clear his name. The UMass investigation could be resolved expeditiously—or drag on, as most investigations do, for months. What if the outcome exonerates Morse of violating any kind of university policy? What if, in time, the allegations are somehow proven false? This is why workers who are organized into labor unions have fought so hard for due process and why tenure is treasured for faculty. Though these mechanisms are easy to deride, they exist to allow the accused to offer a defense and for evidence to be presented and properly examined. The evidence presented against Morse deserves healthy scrutiny, as do all allegations of any degree. Ideally, public opinion would be formed along these lines—judgement not rushed—though it rarely is. For Me Too proponents, there is the matter of what the movement’s greater aim should be, if the scope should be around cases of rape or sexual assault, or if it should seek to redefine consensual encounters that could have, in the eyes of some, concerning undercurrents. Arguing for an expanded scope of problematic conduct will, inevitably, trigger much more debate and potentially open a Pandora’s box.
The voters will ultimately render a verdict on Morse. So far, the prominent progressives organizations that have endorsed him, like Justice Democrats, the Sunrise Movement, and the Working Families Party, have not disavowed him, a sign that Morse’s alleged transgressions are not enough for him to be abandoned by the institutional left—at least not yet. These organizations are making calculations of their own, weighing whether the allegations are worth short-circuiting a once promising progressive campaign. A candidate’s politics should not be the determining factor here. All ideological camps should be able to hold their elected officials and candidates accountable for behavior that makes others deeply uncomfortable. At the same juncture, Morse’s alleged transgressions occupy contested ground, revolving around the question how we evaluate consensual affairs of adults. This is a debate that is not going away.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated Richard Neal voted for NAFTA. He did not.