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.

“When it comes to being arrogant about politics, Massachusetts has seniority,” said Duquette, an associate professor of political science at Central Connecticut State University, only partially tongue in cheek. “Massachusetts has developed institutionally the way we sort of assume the framers of the US Constitution wanted the United States to develop. So that makes it sort of an interesting case study, not just in terms of state politics, but in terms of American politics in general.” 

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.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Are we on the cusp of big change in the way politics is played in Massachusetts?  

Pointing to things like the election of Ayanna Pressley to Congress and Michelle Wu as Boston’s mayor, O’Brien says, yes. “That old order is breaking down. I do think it’s changing,” she said. 

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.”