When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo debated progressive challenger Cynthia Nixon on Wednesday night, the prevailing vibe was tense. Nixon, who is running against Cuomo for the Democratic nomination ahead of the Sept. 13 primary, called the governor a “corrupt, corporate Democrat” ill-equipped to battle the “corrupt, corporate Republican in the White House,” as Cuomo has promised to do. Later, he accused the actress of living “in the world of fiction,” while he lives “in the world of fact.”
The two also clashed over whether New York City or the state bears responsibility for the screw-ups of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Cuomo said the city owns the Subway, Nixon jumped in to remind him that the state has controlled the MTA since the ’60s, and both engaged in a back-and-forth that resembled a fight between two teenage siblings.
“Excuse me, can you stop interrupting? Can you stop interrupting?” Cuomo said.
“Can you stop lying?” Nixon responded, audibly frustrated.
“Yeah, uh, as soon as you do,” said Cuomo.
After the debate, a Cuomo campaign spokeswoman, Lis Smith, characterized Nixon’s performance as “angry, rude, and disrespectful,” tweeting that the candidate’s disposition explained “why the more voters get to know her, the less they like her.” Nixon “showed that she didn’t have the experience or the temperament to be governor,” Smith told the Wall Street Journal.
The Cuomo campaign’s focus on Nixon’s “angry” tone, rather than on her policy proposals and criticisms of the governor’s record, will induce a case of déjà vu in anyone paying attention to the coverage of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential race. Journalists and analysts called her “shrill,” with a “decidedly grating pitch and punishing tone”; Clinton said opponent Bernie Sanders had accused her of shouting because “when women talk, some people think we’re shouting.” Donald Trump’s “nasty woman” insult, first lobbed at Clinton during a debate before being adopted as a rallying cry for anti-Trump activists, was a way of smearing Clinton as insolent and unladylike for making a jab at his use of tax loopholes.
Calling Nixon’s temperament into question emits a similarly sexist dog whistle. Smith was reminding voters that Nixon is a woman governed by emotion, not reason. The tactic echoes Cuomo ally Christine Quinn’s decision to call Nixon an “unqualified lesbian,” rather than an unqualified person or candidate. The remarks may not be blatantly sexist or homophobic, but they’re intended to shake loose sexist and homophobic stereotypes in voters’ minds.
Watch clips from Wednesday’s debate, and you’ll find that Nixon was no more disrespectful, rude, or angry than Cuomo was. Though Nixon has a far greater incentive to criticize her opponent, since she has no record in office and is running against an incumbent, both brought their toughest fighting words to the match.
But audiences are primed to accept male expressions of anger as normal, and female expressions of anger as irritating and crude. Stephanie Cutter, who served as Obama’s deputy campaign manager in 2012, recently observed to Washingtonian magazine that male politicians “can get up there and scream their hearts out” and be accepted, while their female counterparts get a much different response for doing the same exact thing. In the same piece, D.C. vocal coach Chris Jahnke said women’s naturally higher vocal pitches can be perceived as annoying, but when they lower their voices and speak loudly, they’re seen as “aggressive.” Men who scowl and wag their fingers “look authoritative,” but “a woman does that, and she is shrill, angry.”
Cuomo supporters who took umbrage at Nixon’s heated tone should look to reports of their own candidate’s behavior for examples of political anger they might find more palatable. In December, the governor sassed a female journalist who asked whether Cuomo would do anything to stop sexual harassment in state government, given that he had hired a top aide who’d previously had an affair with his intern. He accused her of missing the point and asked her what she was doing to stop harassment in journalism. The New York Daily News reports that Cuomo is “known for a hair-trigger temper and a penchant for both snarky and nuclear responses.” CBS has called him “famously sharp-elbowed” with “a famously quick temper.” One veteran lobbyist testified in court that Cuomo had a reputation as a bully. If Cuomo’s behavior typifies a temperament befitting the governorship, the “angry, rude” woman Smith describes might be perfect for the job.