Why Not Cynthia Nixon?

Cynthia Nixon campaigns at a subway stop in Brooklyn, June 1, 2018. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
In her challenge to Cuomo, the actress might prove the power of celebrity.

Cynthia Nixon’s challenge to New York governor Andrew Cuomo nudges the thinking adult toward that least conservative of all political sentiments: “Couldn’t be any worse.”

Things can always be worse.

But it is not obvious how or why Nixon, a celebrity neophyte, would be worse than Cuomo, a corrupt and incompetent heir to a half-assed political legacy. Nixon at least can boast of being an excellent actress — what exactly is it Andrew Cuomo is good at? Choosing his parents?

Nixon’s platform is, as one might expect, bonkers: a state-based single-payer health-care scheme; universal rent control; abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which she calls a “terrorist organization”; eliminating the use of conventional energy resources in everything from electricity generation to transportation and buildings. Etc.

She’s a fairly typical celebrity dope, the kind who promises to base her policymaking decisions on fictitious Iroquois proverbs, who knowingly points out that it costs $118,000 a year to incarcerate a prisoner in New York City’s jails but only $21,000 to pay tuition for a full-time student at SUNY, as though the next-most-likely life option for the members of New York City’s criminal population were enrolling in pre-med classes at SUNY Plattsburgh or SUNY Farmingdale, both of which accept fewer than half of all applicants today.

Of course she’s a naïf, and a borderline jackass. She’s new to this. But clearing the bar of “preferable to Andrew Cuomo” is not that difficult. No doubt she harbors more or less the same authoritarian tendencies that led the Cuomo administration to use the machinery of the state to unethically bully the NRA’s bankers and critics of certain global-warming policies, but if she’s serious about the No. 2 item on her to-do list — fixing New York’s crumbling subways — she’ll be as busy as Sisyphus for her first couple of terms.

Nixon is not doing very well, which probably is an indication of the fact that while the Democratic party is vulnerable to raiding parties from the world of celebrity, it is not quite as vulnerable to going all star-struck as is the Republican party, where Ted Nugent and Scott Baio are names to conjure with. One suspects that that would change if Oprah Winfrey were to get into politics proper.

In reality, the Republican party and the Democratic party are mirror images of one another. On the Republican side, the tea-party movement, which broadly overlaps with what became the Donald Trump movement, is powered by populist disdain for a party leadership seen as complacent and morally compromised. The Democrats, too, have an angry base that believes the party is being led by sellouts, by Clintonites in bed with big business, by takfiris who have strayed from the One True Faith. In the Obama years, the populist Right became desirous of an existential cultural confrontation with the Left; in the Trump years, the Left desires above all the same kind of Kulturkampf, total war on every front, a pitched battle from sea to shining sea in which even the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Va., purveyor of fine farm-to-table dining, is a hotly contested front.

It’s a strange hill to die on, but these are strange times.

Governors and (generally less relevant to Republicans) big-city mayors are at a decided disadvantage in that kind of environment. Senators can spend their days giving speeches and making the rounds of the cable-news shows, or, if they are more conscientious, bog themselves down in the minutiae of one or two complicated policy questions for years on end. Governors have to do stuff, as do mayors. And the responsibility to do stuff is incompatible with the mandate for ideological purity, which in our current political discourse is indistinguishable from purity of the soul. Former Texas governor Rick Perry was, in office, arguably the most successful conservative elected official in these United States, but he was found to be too compromising by the Republican primary electorate, who did not desire to be led into all-out war by the reformed Democrat who had been Al Gore’s Texas campaign chairman way back when. Nixon denounces Cuomo’s budgets as “inhumane,” and one relishes the thought of her attempting to negotiate one on her own. Maybe her agent can help out.

The relative weakness of governors and mayors in national party affairs, Republican or Democratic, is closely tied up with another relatively new fact of American political life: The parties, as such, are no longer very important. Other than providing ballot access (they have seen to it that they are written into the nation’s election laws), they hardly matter at all. Donald Trump proved that it is possible — not even all that difficult — to go over the pointy heads of the party leadership, and Bernie Sanders showed that it is possible to raise goodly sums of money with very little help from the usual bigwig denizens of the $100,000-a-plate circuit.

Cynthia Nixon is struggling mainly because the Democratic party has a complementary shadow party, the union and public-employee apparatus that operates in New York and, to an even greater degree, in California with the machine-like discipline once associated with the big-city political juntas back in the days of the smoke-filled room.

(Shed a tear for the smoke-filled room.)

But even that parallel party machine is in decline. This is a new day in politics, and nobody is quite sure how it will shake out.

Donald Trump showed Republicans the power of celebrity. Cynthia Nixon may not be the one to show Democrats, but there is no fighting the invulnerable tide.

And New York’s Democrats could do worse. They already have.

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