Perhaps you’ve heard of the 2005 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Thomas Frank’s thesis is that poor and working class Kansans just don’t understand how to vote. Frank claims they vote against their own economic interests by paying too much attention to social and moral issues, opposing abortion, and supporting tax cuts for the wealthy.
I was reminded of the book when a liberal colleague at the Massachusetts high school where I taught for 15 years (2001-16) asked me why Oklahomans usually vote Republican, knowing I attended graduate school in the state. He inquired, “Don’t those people know Democrats have a lot of programs that could help them?” I pounced with, “Bingo. That elitist thinking of yours is exactly what Oklahomans despise most. You know what’s best for them. Many proud, hard-working, religious people abhor big government and more welfare.”
That aside, perhaps it’s time to ask this in 2022: what’s wrong with Massachusetts? I was born and brought up in the western part of the state and earned my B.A. in political science at the liberal University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1993. Three years followed that time in conservative Oklahoma, where I got my M.A. plus additional doctoral credits at the University of Oklahoma. Folks in the Midwest often asked me why “that liberal Teddy Kennedy” kept getting re-elected to the Senate from Massachusetts. I threw my hands up and shrugged my shoulders each time, adding, “Well, I didn’t vote for him.”
Massachusetts is widely regarded as the most liberal of the 50 states. While the state does elect GOP governors at times, it routinely awards the highest vote percentages to Democrat presidential candidates. It was the only state to break for McGovern in Nixon’s 1972 landslide. Massachusetts did go for Reagan in 1980 and 1984, but by the lowest of margins of all states. Its congressional delegation is all Democrat, and often the incumbents run unopposed rather than draw even a token GOP challenger. Two national conservative organizations, the American Conservative Union Foundation and the Conservative Political Action Conference, found that state legislators, too, are the most liberal in the nation in a 2021 analysis.
In 2022, all nine Democrat House incumbents cruised to re-election, despite GOP gains most other places. Why? What are people thinking or drinking? How can the state be so different than the rest of America? Answers defy a single or easy explanation.
First, liberals do continue flocking to Massachusetts to relocate. Newcomers eagerly join proud existing leftists in espousing “government is a force of good for political and social change.” A decent number of women will tell you they are single issue voters. It’s all about the uterus. Abortion on demand with little to no restrictions and climate change are popular topics. Interestingly however, voters enrolled in neither party (called unenrolled) actually make up a majority of the electorate. Democrats have a tiny plurality in just one county that contains the city of Boston.
Second, the Republican party in the state often accepts one party domination of politics as fait accompli, as does tiny neighboring Democrat dominated Rhode Island, where I also lived for 17 years. Recruiting strong candidates from a small overall pool and mounting expensive challenges is difficult and often dismissed as fruitless. Such endeavors are reserved for the Governor’s race and the occasional open seat, as when U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy died unexpectedly in 2009. Political junkies will recall Republican Scott Brown won that seat in 2010. So, lightning can and occasionally does strike when the right telegenic, moderate, ‘regular guy’ candidate runs in the right political climate.
Third, Massachusetts consistently ranks near the top of the wealthiest states. Naturally it’s possible to tax more and create more programs, a favorite enterprise of liberals, when people have more to give. It’s not that people love paying higher taxes, as tax revolts have shown, but there is a “this is the way it is” kind of acceptance.
Fourth, the state spends heavily on schools and has a strong education system from kindergarten through to its many colleges and universities. Many young people stay in the state after graduating college and join the growing professional classes. The term coastal elite, though pejorative, does fit Massachusetts.
Fifth, National Republicans, specifically big names in the GOP from the south and Midwest, draw particular ire of Democrats in Massachusetts. The indignation spills over to independent voters, creating a sort of, “I’d consider voting GOP, but I just can’t quite get there.” National Republicans are viewed as too conservative and focused on the wrong issues. State residents know little of and feel unaffected by the 6,000-8000 illegal aliens streaming across the southern border each day. Of course, Florida’s Governor forced the issue to resonate with Martha’s Vineyard residents when just one small plane of migrants was sent there this past summer. Another conservative issue that fails to resonate is gun rights, mainly due to a paucity of rural areas.
In summary, given this background and explanation, from one born in the state no less, how can one succinctly answer the original question, what’s the matter with Massachusetts? If the poorer, by comparison, Kansans should be voting Democrat, according to Thomas Frank, imagine if the richer Massachusetts residents voted Republican more often, opening their minds to empowerment and entrepreneurship. Taxes could be lower. Housing could be more affordable for the young. Seniors wouldn’t be forced to sell their homes. A business boom with an ensuing job boom could occur.
It’s all wishful thinking. Next door Rhode Island just had a chance to fill a rare open House seat with Republican Allan Fung, a popular and well liked moderate. He came close, but the victor was millionaire Seth Magaziner, son of Ira Magaziner, the big time guru of Bill Clinton’s health care overhaul. Another coastal elite is headed to Congress from New England.
In the meantime, conservatives, especially retirees, continue fleeing for the greener, or shall we say redder, pastures of Florida, the Carolinas, and Arizona.
Jeff Szymanski works in political communications at AMAC, a senior benefits organization with 2.3 million members. He previously taught high school social studies in Massachusetts for 15 years.