It is astonishing and cannot go unremarked that Mississippi’s Gov. Frank “Boo” Burnham, the conservative who won a 2011 landslide, gave an interview Friday in which he demonstrated all that is wrong in American politics—all its division, its intolerance, its ignorance and sickness. Burnham damned and removed from the rolls of the respectable everyone in his state who is pro-choice, who is for some form of gun control, and who supports gay marriage. In a radio interview marked by a tone of smug indignation and self-righteousness, Burnham said “extreme liberals” who are “for abortion, who hate guns, who want homosexuals to marry—if that’s who they are they’re the extreme liberals, they have no place in the state of Mississippi because that’s not who Mississippians are.”
The problem with this kind of statement, obviously, and whatever your politics and wherever you’re from, is that a great and varied nation cannot function like this, with its own leaders declaring huge swatches of voters anathema and suggesting they should go someplace else. It is an example of the kind of government-encouraged polarization that can do us in. Democracy involves that old-fashioned thing called working it out. You don’t tell people who disagree with you they’d be better off somewhere else. And you don’t reduce them to stereotypes; you address them as fully formed people worthy of respect. You try to persuade them.
In the days since the interview, left-wing groups have been up in arms, understandably. The mainstream media has descended on the state capital, Jackson, where the governor cancelled appearances and is reportedly huddling with staff.
Cable TV has been in hyperdrive: “The governor’s own daughter has in the past declared herself to be pro-choice, so I guess he’s locking her out of the mansion” said MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. “If this is the way they want to win, by dividing Americans—that’s how they like to do it, that’s the old playbook. I think they’ll find this time it won’t work,” said Lawrence O’Donnell. A Democratic strategist on CNN said: “Burnham sounds like he wants it to be like India in 1948, with partition. He’s saying you guys with these beliefs stay here, and you with other beliefs get out.” Another guest, a historian of sociology and demographics at Rice University, noted that a “subtle partition” has been at work in America for decades now. “The ‘big sort,’ as it is known, already has conservatives increasingly living near conservatives and liberals moving to where liberals are.” He said it is damaging and narrowing the Congress, “with liberal Democrats never even knowing conservative Democrats anymore, because they don’t exist. And conservative Republicans barely know any liberal Republicans, because they don’t exist as they once did either. This makes for a more extreme political atmosphere, one that kills the possibility of knowing and caring about those who disagree with you, and therefore negotiating successfully with them.”
The Burnham story, if you read the papers this holiday weekend, was on the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. Pundits came down hard. The roll of notable columns on RealClearPolitics: “The Tea Party’s Banishment Fantasies,” “The Rise of the Even More Intolerant Right,” and “Out, Damned Liberals.” More to the point, and more dangerously for Burnham, conservative radio stars distanced themselves from his pronouncement and invited on Washington-based establishment voices they knew would trash him as exactly what the Republican Party doesn’t need. “Politics is a game of addition, not subtraction” drawled Haley Barbour, himself a former Mississippi governor, to Laura Ingraham. “Win more with honey than vinegar. This guy is doing something between vinegar and arsenic, and I think Republicans have to say it. America doesn’t need to be more divided, especially by its leaders, whose job is to try to unite it. So I say Boo, boy, put down that jug of bourbon or whatever and apologize.”
On Sunday Burham suggested his words were taken out of context, “distorted,” and didn’t reflect his real meaning. But the tape of the interview shows a pretty clear context of sneering rejectionism.
* * *
I suppose I should note here, especially for those who haven’t yet Googled Frank “Boo” Burnham and Mississippi, that there is no such person. I made him up to make a point. The governor who made the harshly divisive and dismissive comments about those who disagree with him politically is Andrew Cuomo of New York, who of course is a liberal, not a conservative, and who has not faced anything near the criticism ol’ fictitious Frank “Boo” Burnham would have received if he’d said the equivalent of what Cuomo said.
Which, in a radio interview with Susan Arbetter of WCNY’s “The Capitol Pressroom,” was this.
He was speaking about the state Republican Party, and of those of its members who do not support legislation they regard as liberal. “Who are they? Are they these extreme conservatives who are right-to-life, pro-assault-weapon, anti-gay? Is that who they are? Because if that’s who they are and they’re the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of New York, because that’s not who New Yorkers are.”
What Andrew Cuomo said is, truly, a scandal. It’s a scandal if he actually thinks it—that those who hold conservative views on abortion, gun rights and marriage are extreme, anathema and have no place in the state. It is a bigger scandal if he feels he has to talk like this because his party’s going left, its intractable (and extreme) base picks presidents, DeBlasio-ism is the future, and if he wants to appeal he’ll have to be in his comments what he says he decries: extremist.
Conservatives have been up in arms, but the mainstream press has not. Conservatives: “Wow, he really sees us this way?” Mainstream press: “Sure he does. That’s how we see you, too. Where’s the story?”
Mr. Cuomo will likely pay no price for this opening of the deepest resources of his mind, or of his political calculations.
The local story, still, is all about Chris Christie.
Interestingly, of the two close states one governor, Mr. Christie, talks a lot in public. His leadership is very verbal. Mr. Cuomo in contrast normally keeps quiet. Maybe now we know why.