Aren’t we special? Dissecting Massachusetts exceptionalism
New book examines the state’s outsize role in US politics
WHEN IT COMES to our place in the American political order, Massachusetts exhibits no small amount of self-regard. We regularly tick off our long list of firsts – reaching back to the first public schools, parks, and libraries and, in more recent times, to our sanctioning of same-sex marriage or blazing the trail for the Affordable Care Act. But we have also gained national recognition for racial enmities and a legislative process that is often second to none in its lack of transparency.
It doesn’t always look like a single coherent story, but a new book takes a stab at least bringing together its component parts, whether they seem to have us stand out for good or ill. The Politics of Massachusetts Exceptionalism: Reputation Meets Reality takes on everything from the state’s political culture to the workings of its three branches of government and its place on the national stage, providing one-stop shopping for an understanding of Massachusetts politics.
Seven local academics contribute chapters to the new volume, including the book’s editors, Jerold Duquette and Erin O’Brien, the guests on this week’s Codcast.
A hallmark of that, said Duquette, is our fidelity to the Madisonian ideas of the separation of powers and co-equal branches of government, something that has maintained a strong role for the Legislature in relation to executive power on Beacon Hill.
And whether it was the Republican reign in the 19th century or the Democratic domination of recent decades, much of our history has been marked by one-party rule, a phenomenon that the book says has made battles between insiders and outsiders, rather than ideology, serve as the main fault line in state politics. It’s also allowed for a fairly smooth relationship in recent years between Republican governors and an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature.
All of that has tended to make our politics less rancorous, say Duquette and O’Brien. “Of course that stability has some very significant pros and cons,” said Duquette.
Despite a history of generally progressive policy advances, the insider orientation of our political order has often made us a laggard when it comes to government transparency as well as political participation and representation.
“We made it hard to vote because the people who got elected by those procedures don’t want to change them and there’s no party competition in Massachusetts,” said O’Brien, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She said there has been “real improvement” on that score, however, in recent years.
When it comes to women in elected office, we are “middle of the pack of the 50 states and last in New England,” said O’Brien. Meanwhile, people of color continue to be underrepresented in political office across the state relative to their share of the population.Are we on the cusp of big change in the way politics is played in Massachusetts?
Duquette isn’t sure that breakthroughs by members of groups that have long been outsiders necessarily herald a change in way politics is practiced. “It’s not clear yet whether we are going to have different people, same story, or different people, different story,” he said. “I think we really do have to wait and see a little bit on that.”