It may seem strange to have so political a reaction to the death of a spouse, but I find myself, in the wake of my wife Alison Bowles’s recent untimely death, seeing the world through her eyes. And she was, if anything, a politically opinionated person whose perspective on the world permanently changed the way I look at it. I’ve certainly done my share of entirely private grieving for her (and have a long way to go), but I can’t help feeling an imperative to preserve what I regard as her distinctive outlook on the world beyond our marriage.
This story in The New York Times about Andrew Cuomo strikes a particular chord.
Whatever my agreements or disagreements with Cuomo on policy, I’ve always found him a problematically arrogant and power-hungry figure, something put vividly on display last year during his public abuse for, and seemingly pointless termination of, Andy Byford, then the head of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Character matters to politics at least as much as policy; in practice, the two things are hard to distinguish and disentangle from one another. Cuomo’s obnoxious equation of bullying with leadership (quoted in the article above) is simultaneously a reflection of bad character and of bad policy, and it predominates not just politics but the American workplace, with effects that those of us on the receiving end feel every day, hours a day.
So it’s facile and disingenuous to think that we can lionize Cuomo as some kind of liberal hero if the allegations against him–and not just the sexual ones–end up being true. Politics is about power relations, not just the policies that arise out of them. You can’t be a liberal hero if you sporadically get the one thing right while managing systematically to fuck the other up beyond recognition.
I was sensitized to that insight by Alison, who, in the 1990s, worked for a similarly “charismatic” and authoritarian Democrat, Joseph Califano, and described in sordid and plausible detail Califano’s distinctive combination of liberal piety and power-hungry unscrupulousness. A particularly arresting theme, so to speak, was Califano’s seemless transition from militant drug warrior (and Defense Department counsel) to evidence-based substance abuse counselor.* Another was the liberal culture of hatred cultivated for Monica Lewinsky at outfits like Califano’s during the Clinton years, where she was, in Alison’s telling, routinely described as a gold-digging whore out to take down Our Noble Bill, First Black President of the United States.
Though Alison was herself a lifelong Democrat, she was often outraged by what she (often correctly) regarded as the double standards of liberal Democratic politics, particularly in “the City.” Republicans were always bad and Democrats always good in that little world, so that political discourse reduced ultimately to a tribal enterprise on par with team sports or sectarian warfare. That double standard ensured that, in bien pensant liberal circles, liberals always got away with the malfeasances for which Republicans were adamantly to be condemned. A consistent policy of specifically liberal bullshit artistry gets us from Bill Clinton to Eliot Spitzer to Anthony Weiner to Andrew Cuomo. Our guys can do no wrong.
I wasn’t willing to go quite as far as Alison was in making this sort of claim. I wouldn’t, for instance, equate Democratic malfeasance with Republican malfeasance, as she sometimes did. The distinction between garden variety political malfeasance and an all-out descent into proto-fascism seems worth preserving. In going a couple of steps too far in her claims, she often lost her audience, alienating them with the vehemence and obsessiveness with which she expressed herself.
But she had a plausible excuse: she’d been making her case for decades, on the basis of hard experience with actual politicians like Califano, mostly to the deaf ears of left-leaning New Yorkers, always eager, on the basis of sheer partisan affiliation, to believe the worst about any Republican while giving every Democrat the benefit of every doubt. Her distinctive insight here was not just that Democrats could be as power-hungry and unscrupulous as Republicans (true enough), but that their misconduct attracted distinctively left-leaning rationalizations, weaving liberal piety into the very fabric of malfeasance in such a way as to appeal to the prejudices of knee-jerk liberals. And time and again, that’s exactly what happened. That’s how Andrew Cuomo became governor in the first place.
Though I think Cuomo is innocent until proven guilty of the worst charges against him, and reject the idea that accusations are by themselves sufficient to force a resignation, the Klein-Traister analysis above has real plausibility to it that doesn’t depend on the truth of the most serious charges against Cuomo. Because it quotes Cuomo in self-incriminating fashion, it more or less speaks for itself. I would just add that Alison anticipated their analysis by decades. I didn’t always like the way she put things; I often thought she had a better case than she made. But I tried my best to listen, and learned something from her nonetheless. I wish more people had.
*For a good sense of the nonsensical quality of the Biden Administration’s attitudes toward the “drug war” (which exactly mimic the Clinton Administration’s) one can’t improve on this.
At this rate, why not go after staffers who’d abused a bit of Xanax, Ambien, Percoset, or Klonopin? Are we supposed to believe that none exist, or that none could be found with the help of the right sort of inquisition? If pot is so terrible, why not alcohol? If alcohol is too anodyne, why not search the Biden Administration with a fine-toothed comb for people with DUI or DWI convictions? Why not, for that matter, go after those who smoke cigarettes, or have points on their driver’s licenses?
I don’t address the allegations of sexual misconduct in a recent Notablog post, but I do address what I think is the more dangerous legacy of Cuomo—dangerous, ironically, not because it is specific to him, but has now become a public policy adopted by 27 states, and one that Republican Senator Mitch McConnell was calling for as part of any relief bill: a national policy guaranteeing immunity for corporate executives (in nursing homes and elsewhere) who might be putting their workers or clients at serious risk. It effectively eliminates the possibility of even class action suits against nursing home executives who can’t be held liable for actions they took or didn’t take to protect their seniors. The insider deals struck by state governors and those executives is made all the more vivid because they have contributed to the campaign coffers of the politicians advocating the immunity.
Of course, NYC Mayor De Blasio, who despises Cuomo, is now saying that this is key to the corruption of the Cuomo administration (he’s got his eyes on the Governor’s Mansion; I guess he’ll adopt the Campaign Slogan: “If you loved how I destroyed NYC, just wait to see what I can do to New York state!”).
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Well said. Very few of the principal players here inspire confidence–Cuomo, DeBlasio, the nursing home directors, the Republicans, or Letitia James. I have yet to read your blog post, but I totally agree with your comment above. The structure of our mixed economy inspires attitudes like Cuomo’s, the illusion of omnicompetent management that requires omnipresent control and covert backroom wheeling and dealing. I guess I part company with libertarians in thinking that any of this is distinctive to government. All of this is just standard-issue capitalist enterprise, whether driven by government or driven by firms, whether internal to government or internal to firms. We’ve just adopted this mind-set that transparency is a frill, honesty is dispensable, and efficacious leadership requires authoritarianism. That’s why people nowadays think it funny to say that when you conquer adversity or outdo a rival, you’ve’ come to “own” it or them, or that you’re dealing with it or them “like a boss.”
I have yet to read Letitia James’s nursing home report, but on the face of it, Cuomo’s wheeling and dealing seems to have served the goal of covering up structural problems within the long-term care industry. And as you note, he’s hardly alone in that respect. In New Jersey, it’s the Republicans who are working overtime to cover up those failings by attacking Murphy for “killing our seniors.” What I find depressing is that neither in New York nor in New Jersey has the press really stepped up to cut through the bullshit and offer a coherent account of what happened. And it’s not as though we can rely on the likes of Tyler Cowen to do it, either. So thank God for the dialectical libertarians!
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