Entering political apathy
Massachusetts ain’t what it used to be. Senator Ted Kennedy, because of his name and his long service, was probably one of the most influential people in Congress for nearly thirty years.
But he wasn’t the only famous and influential person from Massachusetts. After World War II, three Representatives from Massachusetts: Joseph W. Martin, John W. McCormack and Tip O’Neill, served as the Speakers of the House for a combined total of 23 years.
John F. Kennedy, Michael Dukakis and John Kerry were all Democratic presidential nominees. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. was nominated to be the Republican Vice President in 1960. Former Governor Christian Herter served as Secretary of State under Eisenhower; Robert F. Kennedy was making his home in Massachusetts while he was Attorney General and former Lieutenant Governor; and state Attorney General Elliot Richardson was Defense Secretary, Health, Education and Welfare Secretary, Attorney General and Secretary of Commerce under Nixon and Ford.
So it looks like Massachusetts has had some major pull and influence at a national level. But it hasn’t really. Robert Kennedy, Herter and Richardson held their positions only briefly. Tip O’Neill retired in 1987 and Ted Kennedy died last August. Dukakis is best remembered for riding in a tank, while Kerry’s national persona is that he’s tall, has no personality and lost to one of the most unpopular presidents of all time. Kerry ranks 13th in seniority, but Teddy was second only to Robert Byrd. In the House today, the most influential member from Massachusetts is perhaps Barney Frank.
I am equating influence with “being well known” or being a celebrity. It’s not easy for those not in Congress to know who has “pull,” since the area where influence is most important is behind the scenes. But in a democracy, the politician-celebrity can certainly influence elections – although as several presidents have shown, that can have no effect or outright backfire. It’s certainly worth noting, in that case, that the public’s main exposure to Barney Frank is through Saturday Night Live sketches.
Politically, Massachusetts is entering a dinosaur phase. The Democratic Party has dominated for so long and the state’s main representatives to the public (Ted Kennedy, Dukakis, etc.) are so indentified with liberal politics at a national level that Massachusetts is sometimes derided as the People’s Republic of Taxachusetts.
In some respects, it’s a fair stereotype of politics. I’m from Vermont, which gets much of the same treatment, as it sometimes seems like Bernie Sanders is a reactionary even to Massachusetts standards. But this stereotype also ignores the fact that most people here not attending college tend to poll more towards the center. Somewhere between the blue dogs and Howard Dean, I’d say.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
There are two reasons for this problem. First, on Election Day, voters tend to do anything but vote. Secondly, there is no competition for the Democrats. We’re a one party state. This is interesting, as the second factor is the cause of the first. While Scott Brown was elected Senator last month and sworn in yesterday, there are still only five Republicans in the State Senate and 19 in the House.
Less than a quarter of registered voters nationally identify themselves as Republican, and the same figure goes towards voters in Massachusetts. The reason for this is largely because Massachusetts Republicans cannot escape identification with the national party, which does not share all their views on social or economic issues. Also, they’re conservative in policy, and that carries a fine stigma of its own in Massachusetts.
Personally, I would prefer the Libertarian Party to become the opposition party up here. The Libertarians, unfortunately, are poor in resources at a national level and while their social views have earned them some followers, their economic views don’t resonate with voters at all. However, as the economic troubles continue, this could change, seeing as how candidate Joe Kennedy actually has charisma and Libertarian organizations like the Campaign for Liberty keep spreading their word.
Until then, Massachusetts will continue to slide apathetically to political irrelevance, although it’s not a foregone conclusion. I can imagine Deval Patrick running against Brown in 2012, or Brown himself could stick and have the impact on Republican politics around the country that will make them stop thinking that Dick Cheney has a chance to be elected president. Or Kerry could receive a personality transplant, preferably from a lovably eccentric Charles Dickens character.
Ultimately, though, it doesn’t really matter that much. Massachusetts has other ways of influencing the country. They don’t call Boston the Hub for nothing. Between Red Sox Nation and MIT, Massachusetts has sports and technology covered. On our end, the Five Colleges will remain the literary heartland of the nation. Culturally, I believe Massachusetts is third in the nation, behind California and New York. In 100 years, stories will have been passed down of the Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004. And all of the current political superstars will be Master’s degree thesis subjects.
Matt Robare is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.