Politicians love to talk about how they’re not political.
In the era of coronavirus, the dishonest “non-partisan” style of politicians in ordinary times has been taken to a new extreme. Politicians now insist that their decisions are not up for debate. Politics, in fact, has been put on hold. Their decisions are backed by science: they’re unquestionable.
One leader who is taking this approach to its limit is New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo, who has received rapturous praise for his supposedly “no-nonsense” briefings on the coronavirus.
Cuomo has been lifted up by praise of his style, not so much by the content of his actual decisions—and a good thing, too, because the results have been disastrous. His state has more deaths than any other by far, and it’s not even close.
But the governor’s cold, halting tone, which sounds a bit like a mobster reading a storybook to schoolchildren, has been held up as an exemplar of “empathy” and “warmth.” Others find in his Cosa Nostra demeanor a tough, reassuring candor.
Since the president is now cast as an orange buffoon who advises people to drink bleach, Cuomo has been cast into the weird role of America’s “tough-loving dad.” But let’s stay calibrated for a second: Cuomo is a politician, not America’s dad.
Like all politicians, Cuomo has dissembled, attacked, and deflected—much like the president with which the compliant media has eagerly contrasted him. Fact is, Cuomo, like his news anchor brother, Chris, is just a performance artist. And right now, the ruling class is loving his shtick.
Say the Magic Words
As a substitute for making sound policy decisions, Cuomo has decided instead to be a patronizing windbag. In self-righteous speech after self-righteous speech, Cuomo has reminded the frustrated residents of his state that his decisions, miraculously, have nothing to do with politics at all. It is absolutely essential, he says, to ignore the emotional and political dimensions of the worst unemployment crisis in generations and focus on “the facts,” and, to be clear, he doesn’t mean economic facts.
“Be smart, follow numbers, follow data, talk to experts. Don’t get political … respond to facts and data and experts. Not to emotion . . . If we do this right, it is a science reopening, it’s not a political exercise. It is a science. It can be based on numbers and data,” Cuomo said Thursday.
The irony, of course, is that Cuomo hasn’t hesitated to point the finger at any number of people or institutions for his poor and delayed response, from the media to experts to Donald Trump.
OK, fine, that’s just the nature of politics. But something else is happening here.
By trying to subtract the economic, emotional, and political elements of the crisis, Cuomo has placed his decisions beyond reproach. His policies inevitably will have profound economic, political, and emotional consequences—and they already have. He just doesn’t want anybody to notice or question them.
“Science,” it turns out, is a wonderfully convenient way of evading accountability. When things go wrong, just blame the data. No matter what happens, just talk about facts and data and no one has a right to challenge you. You’re also absolved of showing empathy for your people. Since people being locked up at home and unemployed has nothing to do with politics, when people protest about going back to work, you can just tell them to shut up and be mindful of “the facts.”
What an absurd notion, that politics shouldn’t be about emotion. Politics is first and foremost about people, who have emotions, and suffer.
Cuomo the Ham
While he claims to follow “facts” and nothing else, Cuomo’s approach is not only unscientific, it’s illogical. In fact, it appears to be based on whim, which is an emphatically irrational way of going about things.
It makes little sense to keep a state’s economy shuttered indefinitely, especially when data shows that the “curve” is being flattened, but Cuomo’s approach has been to move along at a glacial pace, with a prejudice against any “facts” suggesting that it’s seriously time to think about moving forward. To those who might sense an impure motive in extending lockdowns indefinitely, Cuomo’s brilliant method of governing by data alone has eliminated any possibility not just of error but of corrupt intention.
Realism requires sensible policy, not just the appearance of “seriousness,” and there is nothing realistic or sincere about gloom and doom for impressions’ sake. But Cuomo’s “candor” frequently overshoots the target and dips into ham acting, with a morbid theatricality that tries to pass off indulgent pessimism as realism.
It shows a lack of empathy and proportion, for example, to describe deaths in nursing homes like a “feeding frenzy,” as if the coronavirus is some kind of flesh-eating sandworm from a science fiction movie. This isn’t candor or empathy; it’s fearmongering.
Cuomo’s ugly rhetoric is doubly unfortunate because of his own admitted role in pushing coronavirus patients into nursing homes. The catastrophe in the state’s nursing homes is nobody’s fault, he insists, because of course.
When he’s not barking orders or snapping at reporters, Cuomo can also be somewhat of a sentimental cornball, filling his briefings with platitudes about “working together” to obscure his personal role in managing the crisis.
Politics as Performance Art
Encouragement is nice, but it’s important to be clear about who’s in charge. Cuomo has been quick to sermonize about the need for New Yorkers to adjust to a “new normal” while largely eliding his mistakes, cleverly pivoting to “reimagining” New York. This allows him to transfer the responsibility for his missteps to his residents and the entire status quo.
As a rule, a leader who tries to be too close to his people—by collectivizing himself into the mass, the “we”—isn’t someone who can be trusted. Accountability isn’t possible without clarity about who makes decisions and who is affected by them, without a clear sense of distance between those in charge and the mass. But politicians like Cuomo are eager to close that distance, to create the misleading impression that they are “one of us.”
“Sometimes the people lead, and the politicians follow, and that’s where we are today,” Cuomo said Wednesday, as he took a jab at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “Politicians, try to be half as good as the American people.”
What sort of balderdash is this? Earth to Governor Cuomo, you are a politician, and it is your job to lead.
Cuomo has a habit of peppering his briefings with this schmaltz, trying to make it appear that everyone is “in this together,” that he is not really in charge and that his decisions simply emanate from the ether. But that’s not how politics works. He makes the decisions, but he isn’t suffering from the consequences of them; it’s the people who are.
To put it another way: No, we are not all “in this together.”
Like other governors, Cuomo is trying to convince Americans that politics, somehow, has been put on pause because of “science,” and that Americans are the ones responsible for adjusting to whatever the politicians dream up. But politics doesn’t stop for anything, not even a pandemic. If anything, it becomes more corrupt and more dangerous than usual.
Cuomo’s performance art isn’t policy. Don’t fall for it.