Andrew Cuomo and the death of shame
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s resignation is the latest in a long line of political scandals. President Clinton’s abhorrent behavior with Monica Lewinsky led to his impeachment. While impeaching Clinton for sexual improprieties, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) carried on an affair with a congressional staffer whom he later married.
Clinton prosecutor Ken Starr’s mishandling of sexual assaults by the Baylor University football team led to his 2016 resignation as the university’s president. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) resigned from Congress in 2017 after allegations of groping and improper advances toward six women. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Ga.) is currently under investigation for allegedly having sex with a minor. In 2017, Eric Greitens resigned as Missouri’s governor after a beautician alleged that Greitens blindfolded her, taped her hands and engaged in a sex act. Unrepentant, Greitens has announced his 2022 candidacy for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Cuomo’s apology without apparent contrition points to a larger cultural reality: the death of shame. At a 2016 campaign stop in Iowa, Donald Trump famously said: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s like incredible.”
By October of that year, the “Access Hollywood” tape had revealed Trump’s abhorrent behavior with women. Later, while president, another woman accused Trump of rape, to which Trump callously responded, “She’s not my type.” Trump’s extramarital affairs with Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal led to hush money payoffs, a crime for which Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, was convicted and sentenced.
Trump’s assertion that these charges had little or no political consequence reveals a modern-day truism: The death of shame permeates both our politics and culture. American culture often reflects the politics of the moment. What we watch on television, see in movie theaters or view on social media is often reflected in our politics.
During the 1980s, “The Cosby Show” stood atop the television ratings. The optimism and conservative cultural values espoused by the Huxtable family reflected the politics of the Reagan era. As one television critic wrote, “Like Ronald Reagan, another entertainer with a warm, fatherly image who peaked relatively late in life, Cosby purveys a message of optimism and traditional family values.”
Even the artwork on the program conveyed what Cosby described as “a positive feeling, an up feeling. You don’t see downtrodden, negative I-can’t-do-I won’t-do. You see people with heads up. That’s the symbolism. That’s the strength.” Close behind “The Cosby Show” in the ratings was “Family Ties” starring Michael J. Fox as the Reagan-loving son of 1960s-era Democrats who castigated government and taxes, much to the annoyance of his parents. Television magnified a cultural shift that aligned with the Reagan era.
By the 1990s, American culture had changed. Reality television became a talk-show fest as Geraldo Rivera, Jerry Springer and Judge Judy, among others, offered confessionals to guests whose titillating issues ensured high ratings.
A 1995 poll found 62 percent of respondents believed these shows “decrease the amount of shame that surrounds such behavior by making these people seem like celebrities or victims themselves.” A 1998 report issued by the National Commission on Civic Renewal decried the cultural shift: “We complain about the influence of popular culture on our young people, but as parents we do not try very hard to monitor the programs our children watch and the music they hear. . . .We elect, and then reelect, leaders for whom we profess mistrust.”
Around the same time, James Davison Hunter published a book titled “The Death of Character,” which began with this bold claim: “Character is dead. Attempts to revive it will yield little. Its time has passed.” A staple of today’s network programming includes titillating reality-based shows such as “Survivor,” “The Bachelor,” “The Bachelorette,” “Love Island,” “Big Brother” and so on. Embarrassing revelations once reserved for afternoon programming are now featured on prime time. Donald Trump understood the power of reality-based television with the success of “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice.” Trump later transformed the presidency into his own daily confessional, replete with tweets and media appearances.
Social media has accelerated the death of shame. Instead of watching network television, users can create their own reality-based content. YouTube, TikTok and Twitch have their own versions of television network stars who, in some cases, attract even more eyeballs than their reality television network stars ever did. PewDiePie, Shane Dawson and Smosh have racked up millions of subscribers. PornHub attracts 3.5 billion visits per month, more than Netflix, Yahoo or Amazon, by inviting users to upload their own sex tapes. Sexting has become the new selfie used to create and share your own pornography. Shame no longer carries the social stigma it once did.
Back in 1954 Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s (R-Wis.) scurrilous charges about communists infiltrating the government enveloped the U.S. Army. His baseless attacks prompted Army special counsel Joseph Welch to proclaim: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” That question ended McCarthy’s crusade, and he died of alcoholism three years later.
Today, that same query can be answered with a single word: No. And that answer is often accompanied by a lack of either shame or consequence. Andrew Cuomo was right when he said, “[T]he line has been redrawn.” Political, moral and cultural boundaries are fading fast.
John Kenneth White is a politics professor at The Catholic University of America. His latest book is, “What Happened to the Republican Party?”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly named one of the women Donald Trump paid hush money to through attorney Michael Cohen. The two women are Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal.