Why is it that a sexual harassment scandal toppled Cuomo, but not revelations about preventable elderly deaths?
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has fallen from grace.
Ironically, Cuomo had been hailed as an American hero until quite recently. While his three-term tenure was marked by many impressive accomplishments, from raising the minimum wage to the passage of marriage equality, it was only following the pandemic’s outbreak that he rose to national prominence.
Cuomo’s daily no-nonsense briefings led many Americans to perceive him as the voice of reason, representing the antithesis of President Donald Trump, who played down the threat posed by COVID-19 through denial and the dissemination of misinformation. In fact, Cuomo’s stature and popularity grew to the point where the media and many within the Democratic Party began to speak about his possible presidential run.
Cuomo’s star status, however, began to fade in the fall of 2020 when rumours started circulating about his administration’s underreporting of the number of coronavirus deaths in nursing homes. State policy at that time – promoted by the governor’s office – barred nursing homes from denying admission to patients “based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19”. As a result, thousands of elderly people likely died.
The simmering public outrage was not only provoked by the controversial state policy, as other states had similar policies, but by accusations that Cuomo and his administration had actively manipulated the data in order to misrepresent the numbers and mislead the public.
In the end, however, it was not the deaths of thousands of older people and the subsequent cover-up that brought down one of the most powerful men in New York state, but rather the testimonies of sexual harassment by 11 courageous women.
This raises an important question: How can we explain why Cuomo’s fate was sealed only after the publication of New York Attorney General Letitia James’s report corroborating the sexual harassment allegations?
Disposable populationEven as the nursing home deaths remain under investigation, it is quite likely that Cuomo would have survived the scandal, because the elderly, as Shir Shimoni has pointed out in these pages, are often perceived as a disposable population. Their untimely deaths, even if caused by flawed policies, neglect and deception, do not end political careers.
Similarly, a decade ago Cuomo might have been able to prevail over the charges of sexual harassment as well. If it were not for important shifts in public perception it is unclear that the governor’s hand would have been forced here, either.
#MeTooFirst, since the emergence of the #MeToo movement, accusations of sexual harassment and assault – particularly on the part of powerful and wealthy men – have become more difficult to dismiss. This is not to say that they have not been successfully shrugged off – Trump is the most conspicuous example.
But when women recount experiencing sexual misconduct, today it is much more likely than in the past that these testimonies will be taken seriously. This, in itself, produces a certain dynamic, where more women who have been harassed or assaulted are willing to come forward.
Second, media exposure has changed. Mainstream news outlets have had to contend with the speed and scope of social media, which arguably has, in turn, compelled traditional news media to take on stories that they might otherwise have refrained from covering (often due to ties of powerful harassers to media conglomerates).
Third, due to movements like #MeToo and continued grassroots pressure, more workplace anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies have been adopted and legislation passed, such as the 2018 Congressional anti-harassment bill. Ironically, under Cuomo, New York state passed some of the most sweeping and comprehensive workplace anti-harassment legislation.
Finally, today there are more women in positions of power – from Attorney General James to New York Assembly representative Yuh-Line Niou – who care about these issues and are helping to shift the political terrain.
All of these changes help to explain why Democratic party leaders, including President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, were quick to call for Cuomo’s resignation after the New York State General Attorney’s report was published.
They also help explain why Cuomo’s enablers, many of whom are themselves, women, could no longer defend the hostile environment that he had created. Indeed, the report details how his top aide, Melissa DeRosa, had actively attempted to discredit one of Cuomo’s accusers. While she resigned only after it became clear that the governor was likely to be impeached by the State Assembly, the public disgust at her behaviour also points to changing cultural sentiments around victim shaming and victim blaming.
Political context also matters. One of the differences between the Democrats and Republicans today is that the former are beginning to reject apologists for and enablers of sexual harassment and assault, while the latter continue to support former President Trump even after he has repeatedly been accused of sexual harassment (and even in the wake of the January 6 insurrection). If Cuomo had been a Republican, it is not at all clear that his party would have denounced his actions in such uncertain terms, let alone pressured him to resign.
A movement for the elderly: #NotDisposibleCuomo’s resignation is certainly a good thing. But it is only the first step. The former governor should now be impeached both so that he cannot run for office again and so that the message to other politicians and powerful men remains clear. Cuomo’s enablers, from Melissa DeRosa and his brother Chris Cuomo to Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, also need to be held accountable, if not in the court of law, then in the eyes of public opinion.
And, yet even as holding individuals responsible is necessary and important, it does not get to the heart of the disease. Only a public reckoning with rampant and institutionalised sexism followed by systemic change will provide a long-term antidote to this American pandemic.
Sadly, while public sentiment about sexual harassment has indeed shifted, the rampant ageism plaguing society has not. US culture still treats elderly people as invisible and disposable. This is yet another piece of the puzzle that helps explain why one scandal forced Cuomo’s resignation whereas the other did not.
If #MeToo has managed to precipitate certain transformations in public perception, legislation and accountability, then the elderly and their allies can surely do the same. But it will take organising, mobilising, and yes, even creating their own hashtag movement. We are #NotDisposible.
Catherine RottenbergRottenberg is co-author of The Care Manifesto (Verso, 2020) as well as author of The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism (Oxford UP, 2018).