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.