- The fall of NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other politicians is the end of an era of image-based politics.
- Liberals used to be swayed by the image and charisma of politicians, but that seems to be changing.
- Trust in government is at an all-time low, which might be a good thing.
- P.E. Moskowitz is an author, runs Mental Hellth, a newsletter about capitalism and psychology, and is a contributing opinion writer for Insider.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
Looking back, it seems like a parody — countless opinion writers, TV news hosts, and brands lining up to declare themselves “Cuomosexuals.”
“It’s been genuinely inspiring and refreshing to see a leader like [Andrew] Cuomo,” Daily Show host Trevor Noah told Ellen DeGeneres early on in the pandemic in a segment where they both revealed they were Cuomosexuals.
Women declared themselves in love with the New York governor. A popular liberal comedian said he hoped Andrew Cuomo became king of earth. Companies produced Cuomosexual sweaters (which you can now get re-stitched to say “believe survivors”), mugs, and even underwear.
Sure, some of the fervor for Cuomo can be attributed to the state of shock people were living in at the beginning of the pandemic. Americans were looking for leaders that could make them feel secure and protected, so a masculine, father-like figure like Cuomo fit the bill, according to Virginia Goldner, a psychoanalyst.
But the lust for Cuomo was also the swan song of a particular brand of liberalism that has infected politics for decades — one in which personality, demeanor, and media likability dominate over policy and material impact. We are, hopefully, coming to the end of this era.
Cuomo’s fall has been linked to his sexual harassment scandal, but people should have known he was a bad person and a terrible leader before that. Even at the height of the Cuomosexual days, New York was one of the places hit worst by COVID in the entire world. And as COVID cases climbed, Cuomo handled the crisis slowly, and hindered the state’s health department from doing its job. He also hid thousands of deaths in nursing homes to protect his reputation. What people liked about Cuomo was not his governing, but his ability to make them feel calm, inspired, and protected; they liked his image.
It’s not just Cuomo
While Cuomo is the most egregious recent example of this hollow, image-based politics, he’s by no means the only one. Democrats applauded House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for making a sarcastic clap during Trump’s State of the Union. Politicians like Rep. Ted Lieu built massive online followings not for helping pass any notable policy, but for dunking on Republicans on Twitter.
Barack Obama was the poster child for the influencer-Democrat: Liberals today still hold him up as the image of a perfect politician, one who’s only scandal was wearing a tan suit. (I would argue his biggest scandals are drone bombing innocent civilians and bailing out Wall Street banks while providing Americans with almost no relief.) Today, Obama acts more as an influencer than a politician, releasing music playlists and reading lists, and inking massive deals with content companies for podcasts and movies.
This is by no means a new phenomenon — President John F. Kennedy might have been a pioneer, successfully selling himself on image, but his actual policies were less consequential than presidents before and after him. But with the Cuomosexual craze, the “liberal star” reached its fever pitch.
Now, thankfully, it appears that the liberal, image-based politician is on a downward slide. In addition to the precipitous fall of Cuomo, there’s also Gavin Newsom — the once-liberal-darling California governor who is now facing a recall election that for a time looked closer than expected, partially because he can’t inspire people to turn out for him. Even Obama is falling on hard times image-wise, with previous fervent supporters like New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd calling him out-of-touch with the masses. When Apple recently announced that Jon Stewart — perhaps the most-loved media figure of 2000s liberalism — would be returning to TV, the response was largely “why?”
That doesn’t mean we’re done with branding-based politics — political ad spending was higher than ever in 2020, totaling $8.5 billion. But there’s increasing evidence to suggest that this ever-higher ad spending does little to convince Americans to vote a particular way. And, I’d argue, the crop of candidates who did well in 2020 was proof of a growing rejection of this kind of politics: Sen. Bernie Sanders became the most popular politician in America not with sleek branding, but by convincing Democrats and some Republicans that policy — specifically policy meant to help the working class — and morals were what mattered in politics. And though I’m no fan of his policies, I’d even argue that the election of President Joe Biden, perhaps the least charismatic politician in America, was a good sign that people are beginning to see through branding-based politics and place more emphasis on things that actually matter.
Americans are sick of branding
Where we go from here remains to be seen — voters’ rejection of the mainstream, image-based style of politics can break two ways. It can mean that voters go for right-wing outsiders who promise to dismantle the usual political order: Trump rose to prominence largely by criticizing the hypocrisies of Democrats and the mainstream media. His speeches, which attracted huge crowds, were often focused not on policy, but on mocking the people his supporters viewed as responsible for the hollow politics-as-usual status quo. (In my opinion Trump duped people into thinking he was an outsider, when he really represented the interests of those with the most power. But part of the attraction to him was the correct recognition that modern-day politics was phony and hypocritical.)
But there are signs that the dissolution of politicians-as-influencers is going in a more positive direction, one in which people fight for actual, material change over representational change. At the height of the Obama years, and the height of our image-based politics, support for unions — which are perhaps the opposite of image-based politics — was at historical lows. Now it has increased by nearly 20%. Thousands of people are joining grassroots organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America. And trust in the government is at all-time lows, a sign that people have given up on the idea that any leader, Democrat or Republican, will live up to their carefully crafted images.
It may be scary to witness the fall of the decades-old political modus operandi, but it also provides an opportunity to refocus on what really matters — not representation, not popularity and charisma, but actual policies that better people’s lives.
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