By Paolo von Schirach –
WASHINGTON – Beyond the numerous, fairly well documented allegations of sexual harassment against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the lengthy report ordered by Letitia James, New York State Attorney General, reveals a powerful public official –Governor Cuomo– who routinely behaves like a moody despot. Based on this report, we learn that Governor Cuomo created a climate of fear and intimidation in his office. He often shouted and mistreated his staff, while also exhibiting bizarre behavior, like asking some to learn songs by heart and sing them to him on command. These aspects of his personality and overall “management style” are not the main focus on an investigation focused primarily on sexual harassment allegations. Nonetheless, they reveal an imperious, capricious and somewhat unbalanced individual as the leading elected official in New York State. In an average private sector work environment a CEO consistently exhibiting this kind of behavior would not last very long.
Rules do not apply to special people
Yet apparently Cuomo did all this, routinely, for years. Did he have any doubts about the appropriateness of his behavior? I think not. My sense is that Cuomo truly believes that he belongs to a special caste of almost super human leaders who have the latitude to make their own rules, simply on account of their exalted status. By virtue of the high office he was elected and re-elected to Cuomo believes he must be special. Being special, by definition his behavior must be unobjectionable.
While Cuomo’s behavior may be somewhat egregious, I suspect that it is not such a unique aberration among perennial public officials. I suspect that in varying degrees other popular elected and re-elected public officials engage in unorthodox behavior, implicitly assuming that somehow the rules that apply to other common mortals do not apply to them. They enjoy high favorable ratings. They get re-elected. Therefore, they are special. In a sense, the high office they hold “belongs” to them. They “own” it. And with the job come certain unwritten perks, such as latitude in engaging in sexual harassment, along with intimidating underlings, or indulging in capricious behavior.
Professional politicians are a problem for a democracy
How did we get here? Very simple. As a society, we have come to accept as “normal” that some people look at running for public office again and again as their life time “career”. Of course, not all of those who try succeed. But some do. Indeed, if you are somewhat capable, look good on TV and are a bit lucky, soon enough you learn the ropes. You figure out how to organize effective re-election campaigns. Using to the fullest the advantages of incumbency, (rewarding supporters, bestowing favors, appointing friends, and more), you run again and again and you keep getting re-elected.
Soon enough, holding high public office has become your profession. You have become a professional politician. But over time something happens, at least in some cases. You cease to be a public servant. You treat the job as your power perch. You get a high by giving orders. You relish the flattery you receive from constituents and powerful business leaders who would like to obtain special favors from you. You like to see your face on the front page and like to watch the news when you are the lead story on TV. Overtime, you may begin to think that you are invincible, or at the very least a cut above all other people.
Some may argue that perhaps there is some value in having experienced individuals running public affairs. Indeed, government at every level has become bigger and bigger and ever more technical and complex. If at every election cycle every few years you have new people coming in, they will face a steep learning curve. Isn’t it better to let those who know the system by virtue of experience keep running it?
The answer is no. It is not good in a democratic republic to allow the creation of an elite club of perennial office holders. This invites collusion, shady deals and potentially corrupt practices. Beyond that, at least in some cases, unchallenged power clouds judgment and may allow the false belief that one can do certain otherwise questionable things without running any risks, or suffering consequences.
Public service is not a profession
If we go back to the origins of America, our Founders did not envisage a democratic republic run by a small number of individuals who would want to be in public office for ever. The generally accepted view was that public service would be something that dedicated, civic minded individuals willing to lend a hand in the effort of advancing the general welfare would do —for some time. George Washington could have been easily re-elected after his second term as President, but he chose to retire from public office, this way creating a space for others.
In the end, while Andrew Cuomo may be an extreme case in terms of abnormal behavior, having allowed the creation of a super class of semi-permanent elected public officials who come to treat their office as a private domain has corrupted the very foundations of this republic. At the root of good governance you must have civic minded, humble individuals willing to do their best by holding public office —for a while. Perennially re-elected politicians may become hubristic and vainglorious. While Cuomo is now in the news, it would be a mistake to believe that he is the odd exception.
Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.