New York state Senator Alessandra Biaggi recently said something that so completely encapsulated American patriarchy at this moment, it should be tattooed on every woman’s exhausted face: “We’ve got to move on past talking about the bad behavior of below-average men.”
Doing so is made eminently more difficult when they refuse to get out of the way, lining up instead like testosterone-addled lemmings to compete in the pathetic pissing match that now passes for our elections. In this case, I’m talking about the current field of candidates for governor of New York. That includes the incumbent, Andrew Cuomo, who’s resisted calls to resign while arming himself with no fewer than four taxpayer-funded law firms to defend against an equal number of investigations. Every week seems to bring some fresh outburst. Whether he’s undermining the integrity of the New York attorney general’s investigation of a sitting governor despite the fact that he did the same when he held that role (“I’m not telling anyone to have faith in [the results of the investigation]”); contradicting part of the state’s definition of sexual harassment that he himself signed into law (“harassment is not making someone feel uncomfortable”); or slapping down a reporter’s question about the ethics of profiting off a pandemic to the tune of a $5 million book advance (“that’s stupid”), the whole thing is one yawning display of entitlement. Former governor Eliot Spitzer at least knew when to get off the stage, perhaps because he had some sense of shame and a family business that wasn’t politics to fall back on. Cuomo, it seems, can’t do anything else, so why not stick around even if it’s a raging embarrassment for you and everyone else?
On the Republican side, there’s recent entrant and ex–Golf Channel reality contestant Andrew Giuliani. At 35, he’s reasoned that he’s got 32 years of experience (“I’m a politician out of the womb”). In a press conference, he claimed to have spent “parts of five different decades of my life in politics or public service”—a reference to his father’s career, much of which he wasn’t even alive for. We’re watching Chris Farley’s epic Saturday Night Live parody of the 7-year-old Andrew at Rudy’s swearing-in ceremony shouting, “My dad’s mayor!” come to life. Biaggi happens to be the same age as Giuliani, the difference being that she’s about a thousand times smarter, more educated, and more qualified, which still doesn’t amount to the implicit plausibility for the role that comes with being someone’s son. Daddy issues abound in the field, as Cuomo junior hangs on for dear life trying to best Mario’s three terms in office, and the Republicans suck up relentlessly to Donald Trump, their political and spiritual patriarch now banished to Mar-a-Lago like some sort of Florida Prospero: the rightful Duke of America.
A smart, qualified woman who doesn’t owe her success to a famous father would be a welcome entry against any of these interchangeably absurd men. Are things bad enough that we’ve finally arrived at the point where voters might actually support a female candidate? That’s the “glass cliff” theory of gender equity, first proffered by psychology professors Michelle K. Ryan and Alexander Haslam in a now-famous 2005 paper: that women leaders are disproportionately represented during periods of downturn or crisis. Put more bluntly: For women to secure power, men need to fail spectacularly. The theory explains why women are often favored to lead companies during moments of turbulence—when the chance of failure is higher—and overlooked for safe or successful endeavors. The concept has been extended to explain female political leadership in moments of political crisis, as well as other non-corporate contexts. When an enterprise appoints a woman to its helm, it can indicate an intention to change, writes Keziah Hunt-Earle: “The more decided preference for a female in a failing company may result from a perception that men have maneuvered the organization into trouble and that appointing a female leader may be a method of achieving a desired transformation.”
Cuomo had the same thought when Eric Schneiderman resigned as attorney general in response to allegations of intimate partner violence: He immediately set about virtue-signaling that it was time for women to lead the historically male office. Voters are primed to support women in these moments in part because of a belief that they’re inherently less corrupt, if not more capable—the long tail of the temperance movement and “fairer sex” stereotypes. The actual evidence for this is scant, and research has found that women are functionally less corrupt only because they’re external to the relevant networks of power. Regardless, they benefit from a purity bias in their favor when it comes to following a man who’s flamed out.
Which brings us to the current attorney general, Letitia James. Although she was Cuomo’s preferred replacement for Schneiderman, he’s recently started attacking her as too politically motivated to properly investigate him. After the comptroller made a referral allowing James to investigate whether the governor had misused public resources to write his book, a spokesman bellowed back: “This is Albany politics at its worst—both the comptroller and the attorney general have spoken to people about running for governor and it is unethical to wield criminal referral authority to further political self-interest.”
There’s no indication that James is doing anything other than her actual job. Indeed, Cuomo himself was an attorney general with designs on running for governor when he investigated then Governor Spitzer. And it’s very hard to imagine a Black woman getting away with soliciting underlings for sex, lying about Covid nursing home deaths, cashing in on her crimes, and refusing to resign after nearly the entire New York congressional delegation, both of the state’s US senators, and the majority leader of the state Senate called for her to do so. Should James decide to run, she’d be a serious political threat, considering that Cuomo needs her base—the disproportionately Black and female voters in New York City—to win another term.
Below-average men can achieve great heights. But the right woman under the right circumstances just might bring this one down.