by Reid Fitzsimons
Recently the Speaker of the New York State Assembly, Sheldon Silver, was arrested on predictable corruption charges. Some people expressed surprise at this development, likely the same people surprised to discover liquids are wet or one shouldn’t eat batteries.
New York is ostensibly a state-level bicameral democracy but in reality it is a three-person oligarchy consisting of the Governor, Senate Majority Leader, and Assembly Speaker. The members of this troika usually include a Democrat from the assembly, a Republican from the senate, and one or the other as the governor and it generally rules by decree. The party affiliation doesn’t really matter because the policies and practices never really change. The members of this elusive body of three tend to hang around a long while, like that car up on blocks a few houses down that never gets repaired. Sheldon Silver, for example, has been Speaker for over 20 years. One of his brethren from the senate side was Joseph Bruno, who assumed the high office of Majority Leader in 1994 and remained until he resigned in 2008- soon thereafter he was convicted of fraud but, to be fair, this was overturned on appeal and he was acquitted at a retrial in 2014. I haven’t been to the Albany airport in a while but at one time at least there was a bust of him on display, artistically quite hideous in my opinion and it seemed kind of freaky overall considering he is still living, convicted criminal or not.
Every few years a political scandal surfaces that can’t be contained by the usual means, so a highly touted ethics commission is formed. They of course make obvious and inane recommendations that are further diminished before being voted on by the legislature. They may or may not pass, or sometimes they just kind of disappear. A reasonable person might observe that if an adult, at least chronologically, hasn’t picked up on the concept one doesn’t coerce sexual favors, accept bribes, steal, or use other people’s money to benefit friends or one’s sexual appetite, it’s probably not going to happen, the commission’s recommendations notwithstanding.
This brings up the bigger issue- the psychology of the prevalent New York voter. Prior to his short-lived governorship, Eliot Spitzer was the NY Attorney General. He used his office to shake down businesses. In a country and state where mere existence means a person or entity is in violation of some law or regulation, it was easy to find marks for his scheme: pay a huge fine now because when it goes to court it will cost you much more. Spitzer’s M.O. was certainly not original or even remarkable, but the voter’s response was- they couldn’t get enough. Finally someone was sticking it to the fat-cat corporations and making them pay for screwing me, the little guy! Spitzer might not have known how to keep his dalliances with whores hidden but he knew an outraged New York electorate was a happy electorate.
That voters succumb to the charms of an ethical and moral reprobate the first time around is understandable, not unlike people dissatisfied in life sending cash to shady televangelists upon hearing promises of great rewards. What is both fascinating and disturbing is that they continue to re-elect them. Anthony Weiner, whose wider celebrity is based on his 2011 foray into the cybergenitalia world, had been in congress for over 10 years. His biography up to then had been completely devoid of accomplishment meaningful to any person of reasonable sensitivity and achievement- high school, college, degree in political science, aide to Chuck Schumer, politician. Even more perplexing was his attempted return to elective politics in 2013, perplexing not because he yearned for such but that New York voters actually gave credence to his comeback hopes. These dreams were halted only by revelations that he had continued to lavish gifts of penis photos on several lucky recipients.
New York voters contentedly elected as their current governor the offspring off a former governor, recently deceased. Perhaps there is some feeling of emotional stability to be found in hereditary office holding; no doubt they would elect Chelsea Clinton to the office of chief neurosurgeon and particle physicist if there were such a thing- New Yorkers do like their expensive name brands. Sometime back the present Gov. Cuomo made a disgraceful but refreshingly candid statement to the effect, if you don’t agree with my progressive positions, get the hell out of my state! A traditional democrat in the non-partisan meaning of the word might be rather mortified by this suggestion of philosophical ethnic cleansing, but there wasn’t even a blip in his popularity. His father Mario perpetually espoused the oxymoronic position that he was personally opposed to abortion but didn’t want to force his views on others. Despite being disingenuous and self-serving (i.e. weasel-like and spineless) it repeatedly satisfied the voters. I seriously doubt the elder Cuomo would have been troubled by a disarticulation abortion three hours before birth, but I’ve wondered if even the meekest expression of pro-life sympathies (“I’m personally opposed….”) would have at some point disallowed him from residence in his son’s progressive and diverse New York.
In many ways the New York electorate is motivated by old-fashioned values: greed and selfishness and mindless stupidity. The first two are no more complex than the crony-capitalist who is assured a sweet deal once his guy is re-elected or the public employees union confident of a big raise when the contract comes up for renegotiation. On the stupid side are especially people who can’t really think beyond slogans: I support him because he’s for the common man, he’s for a living wage, he’s for the children, etc. What is less explicable is their willingness to keep returning truly feckless, hypocritical, power obsessed, and corrupt politicians to office even when they are known to be so. The secretive triumvirate system never ends and no one is bothered. What is the deeper psychology here? One can only speculate but I suspect it has something to do with being comfortable with what is familiar and a profound need to believe in a promise no matter how insincere. An abused child loves his or her violent mother because it’s all they know or a cheated upon spouse believes once again this is the last time because, “He promised!”
Increasingly in the US we are seeing the phenomenon of people willing to give up other people’s rights as long as they are not impacted- someone else shouldn’t be allowed to say something I find offensive as long as long as I can say whatever I want. New Yorkers are taking this to the next level- giving up their own rights. Is it a lack of self-esteem that enables them to say, “I’m such a pathetic moron that I can’t decide for myself what size soda I should be allowed to buy?” Maybe New York voters, inclined to feel poorly about themselves, find redemption by voting for the guy, regardless of character or qualification, who “cares about people like me.” Perhaps it’s just apathy or even fun: they do seem to like their melodramas and spectator sports. The only thing for certain is that it will never end.