Still, at a gut level, one would assume voters gravitate toward competency: Politicians who govern badly are punished at the ballot box and politicians who govern well are rewarded. Sure, partisan filter helps define what is “good” and “bad,” but at the extremes one would hope voters recognize the truly great and truly awful politicians. Supporters of democracy had better hope there is some rough correlation between doing one’s job well and voters recognizing that fact. Otherwise, charlatans and crooks can get elected and stay popular even while running a country into the ground.
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has fretted over the years that this rough rule of thumb is dissolving. Partisanship does not explain all of it. Some issues are so complex that even experts have a hard time comprehending what is going on, much less voters. In this world, electoral politics devolves from policy debates to more basic and understandable questions of identity and political symbolism.
Consider New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D). Last year his coronavirus news conferences garnered a lot of media praise. This happened even though he made numerous policy decisions — such as ordering hospitals to discharge infectious nursing-home residents back to their facilities — that exacerbated the pandemic. Still, according to Variety, what mattered was his news conferences: “Cuomo connected with viewers because he instinctively did what a great talk show host must do — make it personal.”
This year has not been as kind to Cuomo, but his two scandals have had a differential impact on his standing. In late January the New York attorney general reported Cuomo had concealed the number of covid-19 nursing home deaths from legislators. This seems pretty bad, but as Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley noted a few weeks ago, Cuomo’s standing among New York Democrats was so high and this issue was so arcane that it did not matter: “His press conference performances notwithstanding, the facts and evidence show that Cuomo is not someone who cares much about facts and evidence. But his liberal supporters don’t care: … At this point, Andrew Cuomo could probably shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it.”
Cuomo’s other scandal, however — a string of sexual harassment accusations from multiple women several decades his junior — might be another story. Veteran Albany reporter Jon Campbell explained to Slate’s Aymann Ismail why this was a bigger problem for Cuomo than his previous policy scandals: “They were, quite frankly, difficult to explain sometimes in a sound bite, or in a way that could keep people interested. This one’s very different. The conduct is easy to describe. It’s post-Me Too, and people have a better understanding of why the conduct that’s alleged is problematic.” Or, as TNR’s Alex Pareene put it, “What is happening now is that fans of Andrew Cuomo the television character are being introduced to Andrew Cuomo the newspaper character.”
So it would seem as though symbolic politics matter more now than policy missteps. Maybe that is not all bad! Symbolic politics are important, too, as recent debates about statues and flags and the names of military bases make clear. Maybe it is curmudgeonly to judge voters for reacting to easily comprehensible political scandals rather than more complex scandals?
Then we look at Texas, and it turns out even symbolic politics matters less than pure partisanship.
Texas Republicans — who have won every statewide race since 1994 — have had a God-awful month of governing. The winter storms revealed just how badly Texas officials prepared the energy grid for extreme weather. During the worst of it, Gov. Greg Abbott erroneously blamed the power outages exclusively on alternative energy. Former governor and energy secretary Rick Perry blogged that Texans would be willing to go without power for more than three days in return for escaping federal energy regulators. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton took his wife and jetted to Utah for a dubious official meeting. And Sen. Ted Cruz was Ted Cruz.
As symbolic politics go, skedaddling to Cancún or Utah while one’s state is literally freezing seems like a textbook case in which voters will retrospectively punish incumbents. And Cruz has seen his polling numbers drop a bit. FiveThirtyEight’s Alex Samuels, however, looks at Texas polling data and pours ice-cold water on this assumption: “at this point, it’s more likely that Cruz and Abbott — or even embattled Attorney General Ken Paxton — will suffer a minor, but recoverable, blip in the polls than Democrats sweep Texas in 2022.” In essence, Texas is still pretty red and the Democrats lack the candidates to run for statewide office.
So, to sum up: in 2021 elected officials in blue states can govern badly but if they cross a symbolic line they might be at risk of downfall (although see Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam). In red states, elected officials can pretty much do what they want without any retribution except for, you know, acknowledging that Joe Biden won the election in November. And in swing states, GOP-controlled legislatures are focused primarily on turning back the clock.
Am I missing anything? Seriously, am I? Because this seems like American politics at its most nihilistic.