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Michael Gerson: The power to intimidate

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Michael Gerson
January 20, 2014

WASHINGTON --  Gov. Chris Christie is in trouble for appearing, during an election season, in television ads inviting people back to the Jersey Shore following Hurricane Sandy. Next door in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has adopted a different, but also controversial, state marketing strategy.

 Here is Cuomo's pitch on a recent radio program: “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 if they are the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of the New York, because that's not who New Yorkers are.” Only “moderate Republicans have a place in this state.”

 So, Virginia is for Lovers. Maryland is for Crabs. New York is for Liberals, and for moderates Cuomo chooses to tolerate.

 The governor of New York is not only putting a damper on conservative tourism to see “The Book of Mormon” or “Kinky Boots” on Broadway, he is displaying one of the worst tendencies of modern liberalism. Cuomo does not deign to argue with New Yorkers who oppose abortion, support a maximalist interpretation of the Second Amendment or defend the position on gay marriage held by Barack Obama when he was first elected president. These extreme views, according to Cuomo, are fundamentally illiberal and foreign to the values of his state. Such positions are not to be engaged and refuted; they are to be marginalized.

 We are accustomed to this approach within the gates of certain colleges and universities with vague, open-ended speech codes intended to stigmatize certain viewpoints. This is often taken by ideologues as implicit permission to shout down differing opinions. The power to define the boundaries of acceptable discourse is the power to intimidate.

 Academic liberals tend to regard universities as “our place,” in which others may stay as long as they behave. Now Cuomo has applied this attitude to the whole of the Empire State. From a provost, this is a violation of academic freedom. From a government official, it is an attack on genuine pluralism.

 Cuomo is clearly frustrated with opposition to elements of his social agenda (his abortion rights expansion bill was blocked last summer). His life would be easier without a vocal minority of critics. So he is telling various Catholic bishops and priests, Republican politicians and conservative groups that their opinions are outside the norms of state politics. Cuomo has reached an advanced stage of political polarization: regarding one's democratic opponents as unfit for democracy. I imagine the feeling will now (in some quarters) be returned. And so the spiral continues—sometimes leftward, sometimes rightward, ever downward.

 While James Madison would not be surprised, he would not approve. “In all cases where a majority are united by a common interest or passion,” he warned, “the rights of the minority are in danger.” A majority, he argued, can easily become a “faction,” seeking “illicit advantage.” This is dangerous in a democracy, not only because the rights of individuals are important but because diversity of opinion balances factions against each other. Madison hoped that American leaders would help check the passions of factions rather than inciting them for political advantage, so that “reason, justice and truth can regain their authority over the public mind.”

 Cuomo speaks in Albany; Madison spins at Montpelier.

 Given his family background, Cuomo also symbolizes a shift in the nature of Catholic engagement within the Democratic Party. His father, Mario Cuomo, when he was governor of New York felt compelled to offer tortuous theological and philosophic justifications for holding pro-choice views as a Catholic public official. At Notre Dame University in 1984, he devoted 7,500 eloquent words to explaining why he was personally opposed to abortion, but…

 Andrew Cuomo, in contrast, proposed to remove most meaningful restrictions on post-viability abortions in New York—then declared pro-lifers to be aliens in his promised land. What the younger Cuomo lacks in rhetorical skill, he makes up for in chilling clarity. Even a fig leaf of internal conflict no longer seems required on matters of Catholic conscience.

 Cuomo holds one of the most prominent public offices in America. He is regarded by some Democrats as a possible Plan B if Hillary Clinton does not run for president. And he apparently believes that the views of a significant minority of citizens have no place in his state. Does anyone—Republican or Democrat—find this troubling enough to object? It's up to you, New York, New York.

Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email michaelgerson@washpost.com.



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