Lessons From Boston

Jeff Alworth

Question: which state is more liberal, Oregon or Massachusetts?

In the conventional taxonomy of American red-blue politics, the answer is obvious.  There is no worse creature in the conservative mind than the "Massachusetts liberal."  Oregon, by contrast, with its large rural population, looks like a reliable swing state for any president able to muster more than 52% of the vote.  Well, I just spent a week in the Bay State, and my brief look at New England politics was enlightening.*  The better question, it turns out, isn't which state is more liberal, but which is more polarized, and why that matters.

What I discovered is that the conservative/liberal divide there (and throughout New England) is far narrower.  Example: one afternoon, I listened to a call-in show about Israel on New Hampshire public radio (which, for some reason, tuned in better than the Boston station).  A Dartmouth professor had just returned from there following the Hamas victory, and he was discussing foreign policy.  It was remarkable to listen to callers from the two sides debate the issue. 

Unlike the Oregon or national debate on polarizing issues, in this case, the differences were not vast.  Pro-Israel callers admitted that the grim circumstances in which Israel had placed Palestinians was what begat them a Hamas government; Pro-Palestinian callers made no excuses for Hamas terrorism.  What emerged was an actual dialogue and some fairly radical solutions (none of which will find currency in Washington).  In the absence of violent polarity, real solutions could be discussed.

Oregon politics, sadly, do not benefit from this kind of dialogue.  If you were to create a 10-point scale for the political spectrum, liberals here would cluster at one end around eight, while conservatives would be opposite a wide gulf, bunched around 2.  In statistics, that's what's called a "bi-modal distribution"--two disparate clusters of people.  But in New England, the spectrum looks far more like a regular bell curve, with most people scoring between a 4 and 6. 

And yet, paradoxically, this impulse toward moderate politics produces a far better environment for innovative policy. 

Call it the radical center.  Much as with Oregon in the 1970s, when the gulf between the parties was small, and trust could be found, politicians can move beyond detente.  As agents of change, this is a good thing: it brings solutions.  The solutions are never as delighfully lefty as liberals out on the wings (and I'm one) would wish, but they are generally progressive.  In the great progressive era of American politics, this was also true.  In an age when far-liberal ideas like socialism and communism received national support, Roosevelt was the moderate alternative.  We didn't get communism (thankfully), but we did get the New Deal.  The current political climate is so poisonous that even getting a decent school budget passed is next to impossible, never mind moderately progressive policy like providing adequate health care. We have great lefties in Oregon, but woeful policy.

The question of how to accomplish that healthy middle is one for another post, but let me leave on this final anecdote.  President Bush gave the State of the Union while I was there, and the seemingly consensus reaction was to recoil.   I saw this on the news, read it in the papers, heard it on the radio, and overheard it on the T (the commuter trains and subway).  New England, where most people pride themselves on flinty realism, is no place for the bizarro world of George Bush.  From the moderate middle, New Englanders all--conservative and liberal--seem to have arrived at this radical conclusion: Bush is totally unbelievable, unreliable, and incompetent. 

____________________
*Don't you hate it when someone spends a few days in an unfamiliar location, expands his woeful sample of experiences, and makes some grand, sweeping generalization?  Given that, you are wise to take my observations about Massachusetts with a grain of salt.  On the other hand, I'm sticking, resolutely, to the "radical center" thesis.

Comments

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
    (Show?)

    "And yet, paradoxically, this impulse toward moderate politics produces a far better environment for innovative policy. "

    Does it? Where are the results in Massachussets?

    "Bush is totally unbelievable, unreliable, and incompetent."

    Isn't that the conclusion in Oregon as well? Unless you listen to Lars Larson?

    The polarization in Oregon is largely because conservatives still think they can win on conservative issues. I suspect they don't have a prayer in Massachussets so they don't get into the public discourse. When was the last time there was a public debate of right-to-work laws in Oregon? They don't debate it in Texas either. People generally fight about the things they can change, not things they can't.

    "I'm sticking, resolutely, to the "radical center" thesis."

    There is a radical center in every state, including Oregon.

  • Phen (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Amen, Jeff!

    I was initially excited to learn that we now have some blue blogs and talk stations (KPOJ, KOPT for two) in Oregon, but have been somewhat disappointed in the quality of rhetoric often encountered here, and there. I don't like hearing lefties RANT any more than the neocons. Any argument that's built upon the perfidy of your opponent, rather than your own plan for redressing the problem, automatically lacks credibility in my book.

    The problem, of course, isn't limited to the media. There are plenty of ideologues in public office on both wings who are so convinced of their own infallibility that they can't even reach out as far as the middle. Anyone who tries to negotiate for half a loaf is in danger of being labeled an enemy and thereafter shunned by the True Believers.

    In my personal experience, I have made some posts here that were immediately attacked as not being "progressive." I hope your article helps to create a more tolerant atmosphere here in Blue World, so that it can be a place where more than 5% of the population could stand to live.

  • Charlie in Gresham (unverified)
    (Show?)

    "The polarization in Oregon is largely because conservatives still think they can win on conservative issues"

    So Ross....what would you expect them to think? Don't we liberals think we can win on progressive issues?

    In Oregon it's a mixed bag. Those silly conservatives that try to win on conservative issues kicked our butt on gay marriage and land use planning the last go around. We win our share too.

    Maybe this state is indeed screaming for a moderate movement that will put us all out of business.

  • (Show?)

    Personally, I don't see "liberal" and "progressive" as one and the same.

    Liberals can be progressive. And progressives can be liberal. But they're not the same.

    I think the problem is that we stopped focusing on being progressive, and instead focused on being liberal or left. We let party affiliation get in the way of things.

    I've always liked the Bus Project's tag line that they use on some of their videos (I may be a bit off, since I can't find a link to it and my copy is on a computer DVD-- my writer/player burnt out last month and I haven't been able to replace it):

    Not bigger government. Not smaller government. But better government. Not Left. Not Right. But Forward. The New Progressives. Voters Wanted.

  • (Show?)

    Ross, I think you're succumbing to the stereotyped version of Massachusetts. It's not radically liberal, and there are conservatives. Massachussets' Mormon Republican Governor is about to run for president. But, they're just not the kind of conservatives you'd recognize if you only knew Oregon or national politics. It's possible for a Republican to win statewide office there because the polarization isn't so profound.

    But there's something else at work that I didn't mention. It creates a big problem in polarization. If one side is committed to dishonest debate to advance covert radical ideology, the environment naturally becomes poisoned. It's difficult in that situation, and I'd argue that many Oregon Republicans do put a hidden radical policy first. My small glimpse of New England politics wasn't sufficient to see how you might address a situation like ours, and I don't have a ready solution. But the problem seems clear.

  • (Show?)

    Jenni, I totally agree. I was loosely involved with the Bus a couple years ago, and I always thought that was impressively far-sighted. I should be more involved now, but I don't seem to have the hours in the day...

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
    (Show?)

    what would you expect them to think?

    Uh - I think you missed the point entirely. Massachusetts conservatives believe their ideas are far enough out of step with the rest of the population that they don't believe they can win on them. So they try to make the majority agenda more acceptable to them. It is a strategy of a minority that invariable involves persuading other people based on those other people's beliefs rather than persuading them to adopt the minorities.

    In Oregon the divide is there because both sides think they can win while holding to their ideology. They are addressing their arguments to the middle who both share some values and reject others on both sides. They are trying to persuade those people to adopt their ideas, not persuade those who disagree with them to incorporate some of their ideas.

    I think the "middle" Jeff perceives in Massachusetts is really just the left in power. But frankly, Portland and even the state in general seems to be a long way ahead of Massachusetts on public policy. So I am trying to figure out what it is that makes Massachusetts better. Oregon has medical marijuana, death with dignity, funds abortions, urban growth boundaries, huge investments in new transit, the Region 2040 plan, ... there are a lot of unusual public policies. What is it that Massachusetts is doing that should be emulated in Oregon? More erudite talk show hosts and callers?

  • (Show?)

    What is it that Massachusetts is doing that should be emulated in Oregon?

    I can think of one thing-- equal rights for all (gay marriage).

  • (Show?)

    Jeff--

    Don't I know that feeling. I've run into that myself. I'm trying to set aside a bit of time each week to get our of the house (and away from the toddler) and head into the office. Since the new site's in Drupal, I can help to troubleshoot, teach people to use it, etc.

    But that saying has always been one of my favorite things. It definitely sums up how I feel.

  • (Show?)

    I was raised in Massachusetts, and I appreciate Jeff's post. Politics in the Bay State aren't always on right/left lines. Divisions are also tribal and regional, and allies and enemies can change, depending on the issue. Politics in Oregon, as well as other states in the West, are far more polarized than in any New England state.

    There are broader ranges within the parties. There are plenty of Democrats in Massachusetts who are socially conservative, and plenty of Republicans who support environmental programs. Abortion and environment are generally not partisan issues in Massachusetts.

    Election results in Massachusetts show that it's very Democratic, almost like a Reverse Idaho, but there are far more registered independents than Democrats, and turnout in Democratic primaries is very low. Independents tend to vote Democratic for Legislature and Congress, and since 1990, have supported Republicans for governor as a check on the Legislature.

    Republican strength is in small pockets, generally 40-50 miles outside Boston, and in towns outside of Springfield, but there really isn't any place where Democrats can't win.

    Part of it, I guess, is that the Democratic vote isn't based on ideology, but power. The closest Republicans came to winning a branch of the Legislature was in 1990, when they won 16 of the 40 seats in the state senate. They lost half of those in a couple of years and only have a half dozen now. If you are constantly down 3-1 or 4-1 in the Legislature, it's hard to attract candidates and even harder to explain why someone should vote for you. In Massachusetts, access is everything -- there isn't much protest or "send a message" voting there.

    I don't think that's better -- it's just different.

  • Andy N. (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Wayne, thanks for that insightful post.

    I've often thought that the problem with Oregon is the scarcity of liberal Republicans AND conservative Democrats (Quick - name one anti-abortion Democrat in state government...or one gun-control Republican). The problem with our state is that our two parties have become wholly owned subsidiaries of the narrow-minded interest groups (Dems - abortion, unions; Repubs - business and guns) and have lost sight of what people like Tom McCall used to represent.

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)
    (Show?)

    I would love to see a political realingment in Oregon, and perhaps the nation, that would create a "middle of the road" party--a party made up of moderate Democrats and Republicans and a helluva a lot of independents.

    There still are moderates in Oregon. Guv Ted has governed like a moderate Republican. Peter Courtney is no flaming liberal. It's hard to find moderate Republicans in the legislature, but in recent years there were Lynn Lundquist and Lane Shetterly. You could probably put Jack Roberts and Ben Westlund into this group.

    A middle of the road party could easily become the majority party in Oregon, considering voters are far less polarized than politicians. This is not only because of the influence of heavy hitter special interests, but because ideological activists control both of the major parties now.

    A party based on pragmatism rather than ideology and special interests might become awfully wonky, or even as boring as The Oregonian's editorial page, but if a few well known moderates came together, it could get off the ground. After all, I'd bet people like Shetterly or Len Hannon would prefer to have some clout in a new party of former moderate D's and R's instead of sticking loyally to their old party.

    The boundaries would be really blurry, I suppose. I'm not sure I'd join such a party or stay with the rest of the lefties in a smaller but closer knit Democratic party.

    There also is the problem of what to name this new party.

  • Charlie in Gresham (unverified)
    (Show?)

    ANDY AND GIL....I totally agree!

    I do think we have some moderate Republicans and Democrats in the legislature. They don't make much noise or have much influence because they are gently pushed off to the side by the leaders of their respective parties. Ben Westlund is an unhappy moderate and that's why he has been at least exploring a run for Governor as an independent. Some compare him to Tom McCall. He'd need a hell of a bank roll but I'd like to see him give it a shot. It's a dead certainty the two clowns the Dems and Pubs will put into the race aren't going to be worth electing.

  • Dickey45 (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Talk about middle of the road: http://gazettetimes.com/articles/2006/02/07/news/community/tue02.txt

    The article is about a "left" leaning republican party - they sound like they want to go back to some of the original conservative values.

  • (Show?)

    I think the "middle" Jeff perceives in Massachusetts is really just the left in power. But frankly, Portland and even the state in general seems to be a long way ahead of Massachusetts on public policy.... Oregon has medical marijuana, death with dignity, funds abortions, urban growth boundaries, huge investments in new transit, the Region 2040 plan

    I think you missed my point. I'm not talking about political power, I'm talking about discourse. There are conservatives in Massachusetts, they're just far less conservative--just as the liberals are far less liberal--than their counterparts in Oregon. You're right that Dems control the state, but I resist the idea that policy and party are proxies for one another.

    And more, I think you prove my point with your examples. In the cases you cite, you either have to dig back into the 70s legacy, when the radical center did dominate the political process, or look to initiatives. The government, meanwhile, is in horrible, pathetic gridlock. What innovative public policy has emerged from the state legislature in the past three legislative sessions? None. Why do you think that is?

  • Marvin McConoughey (unverified)
    (Show?)

    The strongest deficiency that I see in the Oregon conversation is the lack of local debating forums where spokespersons for opposing views stand up, present their statements, and are exposed to direct questioning from the audience. The forum itself should be neutral--a stage, if you will, without further guidance. Moderation should be limited to controls over forum length, bad language, etc.

    I have seen sporadic attempts at such a forum. One once existed in Corvallis, but has vanished. Sometimes, colleges will hold a debate, though not often and not always open to public input.

  • Phen (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Marvin, are you familiar with the City Clubs in Portland and Eugene? They seem to offer a diversity of viewpoints (although in Eugene perhaps more left-leaning than right) and occasional debates.

  • (Show?)

    Jeff,

    Having lived in the Boston area previously, I think a lot of why New England doesn't have much patience for George W. Bush has to do with what you termed "flinty realism." More so than other parts of the country, I think New Englanders admire politicians that deal in (or profess to deal in) "hard truths." I think they identify someone willing to speak with candor as someone who will be their own person when in office. For that reason, I think many New Englanders view George Bush as the opposite of someone like Warren Rudman.

    Steve

  • Jon (unverified)
    (Show?)

    Having moved from the Boston area to Portland, I believe the political differences between the two states are vast. This is not just a function of the very different economic and demographic profiles of Oregon and Massachusetts, but important changes in the Commonwealth that belie the old labels.

    Some key points:

    1. The Massachusetts Democratic party, like the union power that traditionally supported it, has become ossified. By 2002, the largest voting block was independent voters, who outnumbered registered Democrats (36%) and Republicans (13%).

    2. While Democrats reliably dominate the legislature, they haven't won the state house since 1990.

    3. Elaine Kamarck did an interesting study of this ("Glass Ceiling: Why the Dominant Democrats Can't Elect a Governor") in 2003. Despite their dominant lead among registered voters, Democrats have been failing among the people who actually vote. Her key findings had to do with the education and income of actual voters, not with party registration:

    a) Between 1990 and 2002, the single largest group of voters changed from those with a high school diploma to those with a college or professional degrees. By 2002, that was half the state.

    b) In 1990, the largest block of voters by income was those earning less than $15,000 a year. By 2002, it was those earning more than $75,000.

    c) Democratic gubernatorial candidates had been hurt by running in non-Presidential years, when Massachusetts more liberal voters mobilized over issues like the balance of the Supreme Court.

    Kamarck's guidance to Democrats: the Governor's mansion in Massachusetts is no longer won by appealing to union members or university audiences in Cambridge, but by carrying socially liberal but fiscally more conservative suburban voters along Route 128.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
    (Show?)

    What innovative public policy has emerged from the state legislature in the past three legislative sessions? None. Why do you think that is?

    And you missed my point. What innovative public policy has emerged from the Massachussets legislature or anywhere else in Massachussets government in the past 3 decades, muchless the last three legislative sessions?

    In the cases you cite, you either have to dig back into the 70s legacy, when the radical center did dominate the political process, or look to initiatives

    Not really. Look at the Oregon Health Plan.

    There are conservatives in Massachusetts, they're just far less conservative--just as the liberals are far less liberal--than their counterparts in Oregon.

    And I think you are wrong on both scores. The difference is that both are clear about who is governing the state.

    I also think that we are caught in the media's red/blue orthodoxy when evaluating the political differences in each state. There is a very strong libertarian streak in Oregon. The anti-tax and government crowd mostly moved to New Hampshire in New England.

    Ignore the rest of the state and just talk about Portland politics. Is it hopelessly divided between conservatives and liberals? Not hardly. The real political battles of Portland are mostly around the middle with ideologues on both sides complaining. The City Club is a great example of how that civil discussion takes place in Oregon. Of course that is another one of those institutions created in Oregon's past. Doesn't it surprise you or give any credit to Oregon that it continues to thrive?

  • (Show?)

    Well, we'll have to disagree, Ross. But OHP was passed 12 years ago, and was an anamoly even then. That it has been pretty much destroyed by a thousand cuts since pretty much proves my point that innovation is dead. You got anything in, say, the past decade?

    Again, I'm not trying to compare the states, and identify Mass as a model. I'm merely pointing out that the poisonous detente between the far right and far left in the state have created crushing gridlock. And I think this even effects Portland politics, though I won't follow you down that road. The arrogance and stridancy of some politicians here has badly alienated others in the city--to the detriment of all. (The Commish coup on gay marriage being the gold standard example. Could Portland have found a political coalition to support gay marriage? Yes. What did we do instead? Insure that it became constitutionally impossible. Brilliant move.)

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
    (Show?)

    "Again, I'm not trying to compare the states"

    Jeff - you did compare states.

    "I'm merely pointing out that the poisonous detente between the far right and far left in the state have created crushing gridlock."

    And that ideological detente is what defines gridlock. You don't get innovative public policy when no one can take a stand without trying to appeal to the "radical middle".

    "The Commish coup on gay marriage being the gold standard example."

    Interesting example. The Multnomah County Commission isn't ideologically divided at all, muchless by extremes, yet it is at least as disfunctional as the legislature.

    "Could Portland have found a political coalition to support gay marriage? Yes."

    I think the people closest to the issue in the gay community disagreed. The testimony I heard after the decision was clear that they didn't think the commission would have stood up to the public pressure if they had opened it up for debate before making the decision. And frankly with what has gone on since, if the four hadn't come out together on it to begin with, I can't imagine it not turning into a political fight. They are looking for reasons to disagree and make one another look bad. That was clearly the BRO take on things, which is why they worked to get a consensus behind closed doors. They didn't expect to have to contend with Ted Kulongoski and Hardy Myer stabbing them in the back once the decision was announced.

    You can argue it was a lousy way to make public policy. And I would agree 100%. But I think it is wishful thinking to believe the ultimate outcome on the issue of gay marriage would have been different with a different approach.

    <hr/>

connect with blueoregon