Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Politics: Surprised by Brown? No Way

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Am I surprised that Republican Scott Brown has won the special election for the Massachusetts senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy today? No way. It's typical of how the Massachusetts electorate behaves, if one really pays attention instead of making assumptions based on how it normally ends up voting--for the Democratic nominee.

The rest of the world doesn't understand Massachusetts, thinking of it (amongst other misperceptions) as an entire state politically resembling Berkeley, California, and thus a stronghold of the Democratic Party. I'm not sure that assessment even holds up in Massachusetts locales analogous to Berkeley like Cambridge and Amherst. Massachusetts is a very strange place politically; arguably one needs to live there to understand it. Having lived in the Boston area for eight years while trying to become politically active, I think I have a pretty good idea how things really work.

First of all, Massachusetts isn't so much a Democratic Party-loving state or even a liberal state so much as it is a one party state, with that one party being the Democrats. The history of how that came about deserves an explanation longer than this blog post, but the net effect is that there is arguably more diversity in ideology amongst Massachusetts Democrats than is typical around the nation, most particularly in social ideology--there have been a lot more pro-life Democrats holding local and statewide offices in Massachusetts than most outsiders would probably believe. In a one-party system where that one party effectively controls the state legislature and has some diversity in viewpoints, there is little incentive for politicians to run under other political party banners. As a result, people even in what would normally be considered conservative areas tend to elect Democrats. Democrats have generally held 70-90% of the seats in the state Senate and state House in the past quarter-century.

At the statewide level, though, the dynamic is a bit different. Republicans have been able to get elected to the Senate and governorship in Massachusetts. Between William Weld, Paul Cellucci, Jane Swift, and Mitt Romney, a Republican was the governor (or acting governor) of Massachusetts from 1991 to 2007, and Massachusetts sent Republican Edward Brooke to the Senate from 1967 to 1979. How can that be?

At the governorship level, it comes down to the open selfishness inherent in the Massachusetts electorate. Few will come out as say so, but much of Massachusetts politics revolves around not letting other people get a better deal than what the individual voter is getting. Government programs seem to go on forever in Massachusetts because as long as they don't represent a better deal for someone else, voters will allow them to persist. As soon as a voter thinks that someone else is getting a better deal (or "their deal" is taken away), then they get angry and try to get that deal removed. Politics works this way everywhere to some extent, but it is much more crassly and transparently practiced this way in Massachusetts.

A good way to try to accomplish this--protect the government programs that benefit oneself and put an end to programs that benefit others--is to elect a pork-oriented Democrat for local offices (including to the state House and Senate) and elect an anti-tax, small government Republican to the governorship. Hence, this equilibrium, however inefficient, was established and maintained for more than a decade.

As a final major element, it is not a coincidence that the famous "all politics is local" quote is attributed to Massachusetts representative Tip O'Neill. In Massachusetts, this adage rules more than any other. There is a famous painting in the Boston Public Library that shows a view west from Boston showing Worcester, Springfield, and then San Francisco with nothing else in between. Massachusetts voters don't vote for representatives based on national issues, even when they are hot (like health care), but on what that representative can do for the district. Remember the Big Dig? That was all about Massachusetts senators and representatives bringing home pork. Similarly, Thomas Menino has been mayor of Boston since 1993 in large part because he makes sure potholes--both literal and figurative--are fixed in the city's neighborhoods.

In the quotes from the public that voted for Scott Brown today, I heard elements of all of this. Some cited a "lack of checks and balances" at the national level with the Democrats controlling the Presidency and Congress, echoing the balance that Massachusetts had for many years with Republican governors. Some talked about health care reform "moving too quickly" or "being done in secret"--but what I heard there was classic selfish "why should I potentially pay for someone else get what I already have?" since Massachusetts already has essentially universal health care coverage; they're not overwhelmingly concerned about whether others get it. It's the same as the painting that doesn't see the rest of the United States before the Pacific Ocean.

What I didn't hear in any significant amount was criticism of President Obama or the Democratic Party in general. This looks like a classic Massachusetts election, and Martha Coakley (never a charismatic figure in my experience, even long ago) proved a hapless candidate out of touch with the locals, while Scott Brown proved a master campaigner, hitting all the right notes of being local, providing balance, and not promising what he would do for the country in general. He is to be congratulated for understanding Massachusetts politics and capitalizing on it--and he will be rewarded by being the state's new senator.

1 comment:

Wilson L said...

It didn't hurt that Brown looked good naked.

~Wilson