In My Own Words: Idealistic vs. realistic politics by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The last time I wholeheartedly admired a politician was Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. That’s one reason I’ve never read any books about him: I don’t want to know anything that might tarnish his image in my mind. From that time on, I’ve admired people’s actions, but never expected them not to have said or done things of which I don’t agree or approve. In fact, if there is one thing I’ve learned about politics it’s that nice guys’ agendas often aren’t implemented. Sometimes you have to get down and dirty in order for real change to occur.

I’m not saying that I like this idea. I much prefer idealistic politics to realistic ones, but if I’ve learned anything over the past 12 years, it’s that idealistic politics often get us nowhere. Take for example, a highly educated, kind, charming person like former President Barack Obama. I think he’s a wonderful person, but his politics left something to be desired. He should have attacked the Republicans who refused to vote for policies that would have helped their constituents. He should have called out the racism of those who kept saying he wasn’t born in the U.S., even after he displayed his birth certificate. He should have called out the lies of those who refused to accept him as a Christian even as he regularly attended church. But Obama thought too well of his fellow man and his policies paid for that.

Perhaps Obama was worried about being labeled an angry Black man. Black anger scares people and angry Black men, who are not the president of the United States, often find themselves in prison for the crime of expressing their anger against systemic racism. Contrast Obama’s attitude with the president who took office after him – a man who often presented an in-your-face posture and attitude that people applauded. It’s hard not to believe that white privilege played a role when analyzing the difference between the two men.

Anyone who regularly reads this column knows that I am not a fan of former President Donald Trump, but he was a master of realistic politics because he created his own reality – fake as it was – and convinced people to believe it. The pandemic was not a problem, according to Trump, and even after more than 543,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, many people still believe his claim. Trump also declared the election a fraud and the people who believed that lie attacked the Capitol building, including a few who carried a noose to use on Mike Pence, the Republican vice president. 

Everything that has happened leaves me feeling conflicted about Governor Andrew Cuomo. The latest news is that his office has always been a toxic place for women. I can’t support that and feel horrible for the women who felt everything from uncomfortable to threatened. Yet, I find myself wanting to follow the practical politics of having a Democratic governor for New York state. After all, former President Trump was accused of not only multiple sexual assaults, but rape, yet no one suggested that he resign. The last rape charge, which was revealed during his presidency, barely made it through one news cycle. So, looking at politics from a realistic standpoint means that Cuomo should not resign until he has been found guilty. Plus, the same people who are demanding that Cuomo resign before the investigation concludes should do the same when anyone – Republican or Democrat – is accused of sexual impropriety. 

The last time Cuomo ran for office, members of New York state public unions were wearing T-shirts saying, “ABC.” That meant “Anyone but Cuomo.” Yes, Cuomo took on the unions (one of which I am a member of for my chaplaincy work) and won: pay raises were postponed and other benefits delayed. I seriously debated whether to vote for him, but when I looked into the policies of his Republican opponent Rob Astorino, I just couldn’t support him. So, even though I had problems with Cuomo, I voted for him. 

However, the major reason I don’t want Cuomo to resign is the pandemic. You don’t have to like Cuomo to see that he took us from being the state with one of the highest percentages of COVID cases to one of the lowest. Yes, I know there was some fudging of numbers and that not every policy he implemented worked. Then again, at the beginning of the pandemic, everyone was playing it by ear because no one knew much about COVID. I’ve appreciated Cuomo’s hard-line, hard-hearted approach, even when it meant I wasn’t able to see my mother for months. I want a governor who takes this seriously, especially when we had a president who didn’t – whose COVID response committee refused to implement a national policy during the early part of the pandemic because it seemed that Democratic states were being hit harder than Republican ones. That’s something that I hope people remember during the next election cycle.

I will be horrified if all the charges against Cuomo are true. In an idealistic world, no woman would be made to feel uncomfortable in her place of work, in her community and in her private life. But we don’t live in an idealistic world and, while it pains me to say this, sometimes we have to focus on one thing and ignore the rest. If you think this is terrible, you’re right. I think it is, too, and I regret that the politics of the last 12 years have brought me to this point. But if those years have taught me one thing, it’s that the political reality of our world is basically and fundamentally unjust.