The moment actress Cynthia Nixon announced on Monday that she would challenge New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary this fall, she was mocked by establishmentarians. Best known for playing lawyer Miranda Hobbes in the HBO series Sex and the City, Nixon has no experience in elected office, although she’s been a longtime activist on public education and LGBT rights.
“Cynthia Nixon was opposed to having a qualified lesbian become mayor of New York City,” former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn told The New York Post, a reference to Nixon’s endorsement of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio over Quinn in the 2013 mayoral election. “Now she wants an unqualified lesbian to be the governor of New York. You have to be qualified and have experience. She isn’t qualified to be the governor.” Quinn added, “Being an actress and celebrity doesn’t make you qualified for public office. This is a time to move away from celebrity and toward progressive leadership.”
The phrase “unqualified lesbian” drew scrutiny for several reasons, not least because Nixon is a bisexual. Still, the essence of Quinn’s argument has been widely echoed. The New York Daily News editorialized, “At a time when a certain famous person, having promised to bring fresh air to Washington, has polluted the capital with equal parts ignorance, confusion and corruption, New Yorkers ought to be wary of a broad-brush celebrity candidacy.”
Though the abrasive Cuomo isn’t quite adored by his party, he has amassed significant power; the Democratic political establishment is expected to back his reelection bid. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, whose progressive politics and commitment to feminism resemble Nixon’s, endorsed Cuomo on Tuesday. “Governor Cuomo and I are friends,” she said. “But he also has done some amazing things for New York, such as passing paid leave in our state, passing marriage equality and working to end sexual violence on our college campuses.”
The case against Nixon rests on the figure The New York Daily News alluded to: Donald Trump. While the president is Exhibit A in the case against celebrity politicians, his victory in 2016 proves that many Americans reject the notion that politicians must be “qualified.” Candidates for most public offices need only meet certain citizenship, residency, and age requirements, and win the plurality of the vote (or sometimes, in the case of presidential elections like Trump’s, even a minority of the vote will do).
Many elite Democrats think of politics as a profession with a fixed career path. You’re supposed to work your way up the ladder, working on political campaigns and in legislative offices, running for local elections and then statewide elections, gaining experience along the way. In essence, it’s all about resume-building. Thus, Democratic elites tend to reject candidates who are seen as trying to cut the line before having paid their dues to the party.
These views were on full display during 2016 presidential campaign. “There has never been a man or a woman, not me, not Bill, nobody more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America,” President Barack Obama proclaimed during the Democratic National Convention. Meanwhile, one of the most common refrains against Bernie Sanders—as Clinton herself noted in her 2017 memoir—is that “he isn’t even a Democrat.”
Credentialism has deep roots in the Democratic Party, which has a tropism toward technocratic wonks. “This election isn’t about ideology; it’s about competence,” Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis insisted during his party’s 1988 convention. But politics are inevitably ideological, because people want governments that reflect their values rather than just educated administrators. (And if the election really was about competence, then voters apparently thought Dukakis’s opponent, George H. W. Bush, was more qualified.)
The credentialism of the Democratic Party is not widely shared by the public at large. One of the towering political figures of the last half century was Ronald Reagan, a former actor whose political career started with being elected as Governor of California. Whatever political disputes one can have with Reagan, he was undeniably successful in winning elections and implementing his agenda.
Both major political parties in America have had success recruiting actors and other celebrities, particularly athletes. Celebrity politicians who have won high office include Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sonny Bono, Fred Thompson, Al Franken, Jesse Ventura, Fred Grange, Ben Jones, Heath Shuler, Steve Largent, and Bill Bradley.
Perhaps Cynthia Nixon’s biggest liability is that she’s running in the age of Trump, who illustrates better than anyone the danger of electing celebrities. He’s remarkably uninformed about how the American government works, has a severely limited knowledge of public policy, is a terrible manager, and has no respect for the rule of law. But these characteristics don’t apply to all celebrity politicians. There’s nothing wrong with running a celebrity politician if they have sound politics, a stable personality, and a reasonable command of public policy. Nixon qualifies on all counts.
New York is a very blue state, and could easily elect a governor to the left of Cuomo. While Cuomo has a progressive record on the minimum wage, paid leave, and marriage equality, he has worked to keep the left in check and sided with Republican lawmakers to cement his power. As Clio Chang wrote at Splinter, Cuomo “has also worked to prop up the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of eight breakaway state Senate Democrats who caucus with Republicans, effectively giving them the majority. The Republican-led state Senate, with the help of the IDC, has worked to block progressive priorities on reproductive rights, immigration, and electoral reform.”
Nixon is a grounded mother and well-respected professional. Her longtime political activism testifies to a level of policy engagement that Trump has never demonstrated. The problem with some potential celebrity candidates, like Oprah or Mark Zuckerberg, is that they have no clear-cut ideological or policy commitments, so they could resort to selling a vague message of change (as Trump did).
The most important qualification in politics is being able to convince voters that you share their values. Nixon might well be able to do that, since many New Yorkers are disenchanted by Cuomo’s political compromises. It’s hard to defeat a sitting governor in a primary, but Nixon deserves to be taken seriously. If nothing else, perhaps she’ll run a strong enough campaign to make the Democratic Party reconsider its credentialism shibboleth.