The ever-changing narrative surrounding the coronavirus appears to have some unforeseen consequences for several major political players who occupied leading roles in this year-long drama. Political fortunes have risen and fallen on the successive waves of epidemic, setting the scene for some unexpected wipeouts.
Last year, COVID-19 may have turned what once seemed like smooth sailing toward a second term into a perfect storm for former President Trump, but before all is said and done, he may end up joined by some unexpected company on the political sidelines.
As precipitously as the infection rate seems to be dropping across the country (and throughout most of the world) over the past few weeks, so, too, do the prospects of former ‘media darlings’ like New York’s Andrew Cuomo and California’s Gavin Newsom, who may go from governors to goners faster than the vaccine slots fill up at your local pharmacy.
It seems like only yesterday that Mr. Cuomo was receiving Emmy Awards and publishing books on leadership in the midst of crises (the audacity!), or Mr. Newsom was basking in the sunlight of a 65% approval rating last May, after keeping LA and other major California metropolises from turning into NYC some weeks earlier.
Now, however, Mr. Cuomo is gearing up for the biggest fight of his political career, as revelations of suppression of data regarding his controversial decision to send seniors ailing from COVID-19 back to nursing homes last spring was revealed to have resulted in significantly greater deaths than he had led the public – and federal authorities – to believe. He is currently facing scrutiny from the justice department and growing challenges from within his party, which could conceivably end up setting the stage for an impeachment trial – or at the very least, sink his ambitions for another term or a cabinet post down the road.
Likewise, first-term governor Gavin Newsom is now in the middle of a political fight for his life, as signatures to trigger a recall vote continue to pour in across the ‘Golden State’. Californians recalled a former governor less than 20 years ago, back when Gray Davis got the hook in 2003, setting the stage for an election victory by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Interestingly enough, both governors are coming under increasingly heavy criticism from fellow Democrat officeholders, as well as their states’ largely Democratic voters, for their political highhandedness. This indicates that their recent troubles cannot be chalked up to partisanship – although intraparty politics and jockeying can often be dirtier and more Machiavellian. Rather, it seems like the underlying root of their problems is linked to something far more tragic – hubris.
When someone overestimated his abilities and strength (physical, but chiefly political, military, or financial) and behaved in a violent, arrogant, or offensive manner toward others, the laws of the state, and especially the unwritten divine laws, he was considered to have committed hubris, according to the ancient Greek worldview. Moreover, this was seen as an attempt to surpass one’s mortal nature and equate oneself with the divine, which represented an offense to the gods and was met with retribution.
Much like Oedipus, whose undoing began when he pledged to cleanse Thebes of a mighty plague that had struck it, in an ironic twist of fate, both these modern-day rulers – with just about as much kingly powers as a democratic polity will permit – may seal their political fate out of the same extreme measures they advocated in handling the current epidemic, the exceptions they made for themselves, and the excessive pride that came along with their unchecked executive privilege.
The tragic Oedipus’ hubris, which occurred when he ignored the warnings of the Delphic oracle and upset the cosmic harmony by solving the Sphynx’s riddle triggered the spiral that led to his downfall. Seeking to uncover the Laius’ killer, to whose murderous actions the Theban plague is attributed, he launches a witch hunt and is ruthlessly prepared to turn against even Tiresias (the representative of the gods) and Creon (his blood relative).
In comparison, the two governors in question also hail from “royal lineage,” but ascended to “their thrones” not so much out of their own ability to stymie the Sphynx, so much as through the power of their family name. Mr. Cuomo’s father Mario was a three-term governor himself, who enjoyed widespread popularity. Mr. Newsom’s family has been intricately involved in California politics for nearly a century, with close political, business – and partially familial – ties to the Browns (the father-son combo of California governors) and the Pelosis.
Like Oedipus at the start of the plague, both were very vocal about proclaiming to the chorus (people) to not refrain from even turning away their family (“no matter how close a relative they are” says Oedipus, which seems like the inspiration for Mr. Cuomo’s Thanksgiving dinner speech), nor to speak or pray with them (Mr. Newsom’s penchant for shuttering places of worship seems to apply here), nor to give them holy water for sacrifices, but instead to shun them, if they are guilty of the crime responsible for the plague.
Any attempts to reason with Oedipus, who has been blinded by his hubris, proves futile, as he goes from mistake to greater mistake, ultimately provoking the gods and receiving punishment for his actions. Mr. Newsom’s infamous French Laundry dinner or Mr. Cuomo’s nursing home debacle indicate similar effects from their hubris. One wonders if these almighty governors have not already missed the chance to atone for their highhandedness and the damage that their executive fiat has caused.
As the next scenes of their political dramas unfold, those in power in Greece should be particularly careful to avoid repeating their fateful errors – inasmuch as they are copying their questionable game plan, with way too much arrogance to justify their lack of success. They, above all, should be particularly mindful of the warnings issued by their ancient ancestors.
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