Hurricane Sandy and What It Means to ‘Politicize’ a Tragedy?

There are a few ways to distinguish between a legitimate response to a tragedy and just taking advantage of one. Consider four:

1. Responses are selfless; only selfish actors take advantage.

2. Responses are policy-oriented solutions; people take advantage by political posturing without any substance.

3. Those not on the ballot respond; all candidates, incumbents or challengers, up for election, take advantage.

4. Responses learn from the tragedy; those taking advantage are just trying to profit from it.

Note the overlap and subtle differences. All potential definitions of respond focus outward, yet learning from something is more specific than just being selfless or writing policy. All visions of taking advantage have a personal focus, but profit is more specific than general selfishness or politicking. Let's see how.

We could see the difference between responding to and taking advantage of Sandy on a continuum of selfishness: Responses are outward focused, aimed at helping those who were harmed; taking advantage of a tragedy is self-centered, focused on how the event can benefit you. That makes some intuitive sense. The phrase taking advantage implies a personal advantage and the inverse of a selfish reaction is an unselfish one. But there is a problem with leaving the distinction at this level of generality. It's a description of character, not behavior. And, it really can't work in the political arena because any candidate can easily take on the guise of carer-in-chief and express concern for those harmed by a tragedy simply to position himself or herself to win more votes. Therefore, because helping people could be seen as a way to get you, or your party, or your ideology, to victory, this distinction falls apart.

We could also distinguish response from taking advantage by looking to the difference between policy and politics: to respond to a tragedy, you offer policy; to take advantage of it, you run to the press and posture. Again, this seems to make sense. It reflects the difference between witnessing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and then, on the one hand, going to a microphone to claim that we should elect Democrats because Republicans failed in their Katrina response and, on the other hand, going back to one's office in Congress and writing a bill that allocates money and creates a plan for the dramatic improvement of the New Orleans levee system. But, the line between policy and politics is blurry. Policy is always political and even drafting or proposing a bill can be an act of political posturing, as with so many of the wingnut social conservative bills passed by the Republican House that were dead on arrival in the Democratic Senate.

One of the most simple distinctions is between those who are running for office and those who aren't. That is, any person running for any office will inevitably use the tragedy to somehow help his or her election prospects, while those not on the ballot could not. That is a pretty base view of human nature and, in any event, avoids the thought project entirely. I think there is a way candidates for office can respond to tragedies without politicizing them.

Perhaps we could go a little deeper than just a selfishness scale and an artificial policy/politics distinction. Responses are attempts to learn from the tragedy and any attempt to take advantage of it is simply an attempt to personally profit from it. This carries considerable theoretical and moral weight. It corresponds with our intuition about selfishness because learning implies an outward, unselfish focus, while profit implies turning inward toward personal gain. It also allows us to cabin the "getting elected" parameter to the selfish side. It takes the best part of our policy versus politics idea — the idea that policy proposals can actually do something — and includes it under the learning parameter.

What do you think about this distinction? Would you define it any other way?

For now, let's say that taking advantage of a tragedy is using it for personal political gain and that responding to a tragedy is learning from it. Given that definition, who did what in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy?

Image640x480Governor Cuomo provides the paradigm for a response. Not only has he been active at every level in the practical response, including monitoring and evaluating the on-the-ground response of the notoriously backward and unresponsive Long Island Power Authority (LIPA). But he also stated that any plan for the systematic repair of everything from the New York coast to the MTA system has to reflect the changes in our climate that have brought us, as he said, "hundred year storms every two years." Governor Cuomo may aspire to higher office, but he is nowhere on any ballot, and couched his off-hand remark on climate issues in terms of how to protect New York from the unavoidable reality that storms are getting worse. He didn't bloviate on Republican willful ignorance or the Republican platform that denies the reality of environmental science. Instead, he said that New York needs to protect itself from stronger storms because stronger storms are a reality of our changing environment. That is an example of learning from experience in a socially-responsible way. 

Governor Romney, the man who has been running for president since he was governor of Massachusetts, is trying to take advantage of the tragedy. He canceled events and expressed his solidarity and sorrow, but he went to help bring aid to Ohio and Pennsylvania. He used what seemed like a selfless act to simply improve his standing among the electorate in swing states (though only in Governor Romney's deluded national picture is Pennsylvania a swing state). Governor Romney showed no interest in spending time in New Jersey or New York. He is now down in Florida ignoring Sandy. And, while President Obama is also resuming a campaign schedule, his press conference yesterday gave credit to local leaders, including Governors Cuomo and Christie, and emphasized that the Administration will do what needs to be done to help victims recover. The President came to New Jersey even though he has no chance of losing the Garden State. He will campaign in Ohio, but not on how his response to Sandy benefited Ohioans.

We see here two very different ways of responding to a tragedy. Governor Cuomo worked the problem, showed empathetic concern, and connected that concern to real change. Governor Romney tailored every single part of his post-Sandy response to his quest for power. It is clear that Governor Romney would say and do anything to beat President Obama, including manipulating the victims of Hurricane Sandy.


Ari Ezra Waldman teaches at Brooklyn Law School and is concurrently getting his PhD at Columbia University in New York City. He is a 2002 graduate of Harvard College and a 2005 graduate of Harvard Law School. His research focuses on technology, privacy, speech, and gay rights. Ari will be writing weekly posts on law and various LGBT issues. 

Follow Ari on Twitter at @ariezrawaldman.



  1. jw says

    CC & BO look like some weird modern day interracial laurel and hardy –
    cc is rather large- that tush?!
    what the hell is the waist height ratio there-
    looks like you could get three of Bo into one of CC’s pant suit

  2. Jack says

    Ari, this is unreadable. You do this sometimes. Please work harder to make your arguments plain. Most of the time, you’re great.

  3. Sean in Dallas says

    Vapid comments from no doubt vapid people, ZZZZ and MY2CENTS, who should learn to enjoy reading something that take more than a sentence or two to explain.

    It’s called critical writing and it’s one of the ways you can tell whether someone has enough chromosomes or not.

  4. bandanajack says

    whoa up sean and ilk,

    i’m a damn good critical reader and able to discern political rhetorical niceties and sound expositions. i was taught in order to deliver an effective speech or paper to break it down into 3 parts: tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then sum it up by telling them what you told them.

    not elegant perhaps, but a darn good way to get a message across. i’m going to go low here (first stating that i always read ari’s posts, agree with 75% of them, disagree with 15% of them, and say whaaa, on the other 10%)and say this sounds(reads) like so much verbal masturbation, that is to say, excited, enthralled, by the sound of one’s own words.

    i am sure there are valid points to be made here, and even allowing for a fuzzy grey area, some things are mostly one thing (while perhaps having ramifications in the other) and some things are the other (while cloaked in the mantle of the other).

    there has got to be a way to make a readable exposition of these points to shine a lot on these approaches rather than make them less approachable, and by that i mean readable. i could not for the life of me parse that post.

    sh*t happens, good ideas go off the rails and into the bushes, this was one such, and i am by no means making an ad hominem attack. one of the delightful skills of rachel maddow is that she could render this topic not only understandable, but entertaining. back to the drawing board, ari, or should i say keyboard. jack

  5. dbaudit says

    There are always those who get their facts from sound bites and can only relate to words of two syllables or less. Unfortunately, they are also the fastest to respond to any post, usually in a condescending manner. “I can’t write with much intellect or authority, so I’ll trash anyone who tries.” Ari, as usual, a well thought out and presented thesis. A little dense, but well worth the time and effort. Keep up the good work!

  6. Alexx says

    I like this. So many times an entry is explained based on superficial of visceral analysis, but this is logic, laid out and explained.

    I wish reporters all do this. There are only 2 reporters that come to mind who do this, Rachel Maddow and Soledad O’Brien

  7. lewlew says

    If we can “put politics aside” for a disaster, then we can put them aside for the ongoing disaster (created by W). Der GOP acts in bad faith.

  8. Mikey says

    I agree with Andrew. Imagine the two parties coming together and actually accomplishing something!

    (I’m guilty of being stubbornly partisan; I wouldn’t make a good politician)

  9. fear of flying? No, crashing says

    Not to make light of the matter but I think President Obama deserves some credit just for getting in the same helicopter with Governor Christie.

  10. Rich says

    I’m afraid it really comes down to Our side responds to tragedy; theirs takes advantage of it. Both candidates have spent so much time in the swing states that a little less won’t hurt; one hopes that the voters of Ohio et al. will be more impressed by a President that’s doing his job than a candidate bloviating about it.

  11. andrew says

    I think that President Obama and Governor Christie have gained some political advantage as a result of their cooperative and effective leadership in dealing with Sandy and its aftermath.

  12. Icebloo says

    Is that top picture of Obama with Governor Christie ? YIKES ! Christie is the size of a house. When the Republicans push him again to run for President they are going to be putting him on a strict diet and maybe even some fake tan like Romney. The US will not vote for such a fatty. He is HUGE ! Now I know why they only ever show him from the neck upwards on TV.

  13. Bill Perdue says

    As with almost all of the big questions Obama and Romney both have rotten politics when it comes to the environmental causes of global warming.

    Obama and Romney support the polluters who policies create global warming and the megastorms that have caused havoc from hurricanes like Andrew, Katrina, Sandy (they should be named for BP, Obama, Romney, Chevron etc.) and the two outbreaks of killer tornadoes last April 14-16 that killed 38 people in 16 states and the April 27-28 outbreak that destroyed Joplin, Mo., produced 305 tornadoes in half a dozen states and killed over 300 people.

    “WASHINGTON — In a dramatic reversal, President Barack Obama on Friday scrubbed a clean-air regulation that aimed to reduce health-threatening smog, yielding to bitterly protesting businesses and congressional Republicans who complained the rule would kill jobs in America’s ailing economy.
    Withdrawal of the proposed regulation marked the latest in a string of retreats by the president in the face of GOP opposition, and it drew quick criticism from liberals. Environmentalists, a key Obama constituency, accused him of caving to corporate polluters…” Huffington Post 09 12 11

    “In a broad appeal to U.S. voters, President Obama said Tuesday that he will open more than 75% of potential offshore oil and gas resources to exploration and, at the same time, produce enough clean energy on public land to power 3 million homes.” Greenhouse 01 24 2012 “Clean” energy is politicspeak for “I’m taking bribes from Big Oil and Big Coal.”

    Romney is just as bad. “After raising nearly $10 million in Texas oil money in two days, Mitt Romney announces an energy plan on the Texas-New Mexico border later today that includes billions of dollars in giveaways to industry contributors. Romney will call for extensive expansion of oil and gas drilling – including along the coasts of Virginia and the Carolinas – and eliminating most federal safety and environmental standards that govern the development of energy resources on our public lands. This corporate polluter agenda should come as no surprise, as the Washington Post noted: “Romney’s plan caters heavily to oil and coal interests, and oil executives are some of his biggest benefactors.” Think Progress 08 23 2012

    Vote socialist, write in Brad Manning or sit it out. We don’t have a horse in this race.

  14. ratbastard says

    Both the president and governor IMO come out looking better for their cooperation and praise.

    But Jesus H. Christ Christie is one fat phuk.

  15. Lucas H says

    Actually, I think this is one of my favorite posts I’ve read from Ari, and I’m inclined to agree with most of the points he makes.
    I started thinking about the “politicization” (wow, that’s a mouthful) of tragedies after the recent Colorado shooting. Seeing the way people (and news orgs) USED that horrible occurrence to make their various and conflicting political points really ticked me off.
    This was a well done, thoughtful, and honest reflection on how tragedies are politicized.

  16. anon says

    “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Rahm Emanuel