Patriarchal violence in New York politics and beyond will not come to an end with the removal of a small number of predatory perpetrators, however powerful.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo should have resigned or been removed from his position months ago. This much is obvious. It should have been sufficient that the governor oversaw a cover-up of thousands of pandemic deaths in New York nursing homes — deaths for which he bears major responsibility. Yet even when revelations of the nursing homes scandal coincided with reports from three women accusing Cuomo of sexual harassment in March, only a small cadre of New York’s most left-wing Democrats called for the governor’s impeachment.
The release on Tuesday of New York Attorney General Letitia James’ damning 165-page report, which offers substantive evidence that Cuomo sexually harassed at least 11 women, appeared to mark a turning point. While the governor himself continues to deploy a vile mix of denial, manipulation, and pitiful cultural stereotyping to dismiss the serious and abundant claims against him, the vast majority of the Democratic establishment is calling for Cuomo to resign — including his longtime ally President Joe Biden, who was himself accused of sexual assault last year.
Whether Cuomo’s seemingly inevitable and long overdue downfall will signal a broader turning point for Democratic politics remains to be seen. It should. If we want the political stage exorcised of figures like Cuomo, who are able to enact patriarchal abuse and quotidian cruelty with impunity for decades, while overseeing systems of racist and gender-based oppression, we must reject not only this governor but the entire politics of power that he represents: oppressive hierarchy, harsh austerity, and top-down control.
It’s imperative that Cuomo be held accountable for his personal violations, as should be the top-level staffers who, according to James’s report, helped maintain a culture of fear and intimidation in the administration. Yet patriarchal violence in New York politics and beyond will not come to an end with the removal of a small number of predatory perpetrators, however powerful. The downfall of prominent abusive patriarchs is crucial but insufficient to rupture the systems that allow sexual violence and patriarchal abuse to perpetuate on an endemic scale.
As I noted when allegations of Cuomo’s sexual assault first went public, the end of Cuomo’s tenure should also entail a break from his legacy of governance: away from mass incarceration, sex work criminalization, privatization, and austerity, and toward housing rights; free health care; and economic, racial, and social justice.
A Cuomo-style realpolitik treats workers as worthy of exploitation or disposal.
It’s no accident that it was a group of self-identifying democratic socialist New York legislators, including state Sens. Julia Salazar and Jabari Brisport, who first called for Cuomo’s impeachment earlier this year, making explicit that the governor’s deadly nursing home scandal should be understood in a continuum of abuse with his workplace sexual harassment. A Cuomo-style realpolitik treats workers, particularly women workers and workers of color, as worthy of exploitation or disposal.
Camonghne Felix, a former Cuomo staffer who, in 2015, was the first Black woman to work as a speechwriter for the governor and was the only Black person on his press team, has previously spoken out about the gendered and racialized abuse — both verbal and structural — that she experienced in the administration, and directly from the governor. In response to the attorney general’s report, she wrote in The Cut, “This isn’t a moment. This is social evolution.”
As Felix put it: “Amid a national eviction crisis, an imminent recession, and a deadly pandemic — what has our commitment to abusive power gotten us for our people? Has our loyalty to power created more resources, is it keeping people off the street, is it getting vaccines into medical deserts?”
I agree wholeheartedly with the former staffer that “we’ve been doing it all wrong.” The suggestion is not, however, that by electing politicians who reject Cuomo-style technocratic austerity and embrace an agenda of racial, social, and economic justice, we will therefore ensure that no sexual predators hold office. The ability to espouse, even with commitment, a liberatory political platform does not ensure that a given politician is exempt from being an abuser. The left is rife with such figures, and organizers continue to struggle to establish systems of accountability and justice without relying on the violences of the carceral system.
Equally, many supporters of structurally oppressive political regimes do not themselves sexually harass and bully their colleagues. Yet a system of vastly unequal power, ordered along the intersecting fault lines of gender, race and class, is per se a system of abuse, of which Cuomo’s years of impunity are a reflection. After Cuomo, it would be no win for feminism to simply elect a more congenial technocrat who treats their own co-workers with respect but still supports the continuance of oppressive systems of incarceration, policing, and impoverishment, in which sexual violence thrives.
It would be a pyrrhic victory indeed, to finally see the end of Cuomo’s political career but to watch his politics of power long outlive his tenure.