Bay State Nation

What if America were more like us?

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When the first President Bush ran for re-election in 1992, he cautioned the electorate against voting for a governor from Arkansas. “We do not want to be the lowest of the low,” Bush said, referring to literacy rates, poverty levels, and other measures that did not reflect well on the Razorback State.

We might hear even worse things said about Massachusetts during this year’s presidential campaign. In February, a Washington Post headline called us the “Stigma State,” and writer Mark Leibovich proclaimed, “no state carries as much political baggage as Massachusetts, the perceived liberal outpost and home to several failed presidential candidates of recent vintage”—including Michael Dukakis, repeatedly mocked by the first Bush as a “Massachusetts liberal” in the 1988 campaign.


But just how liberal is John Kerry’s home state? For people who actually live here, the adjective is oversimplified, to say the least. Outsiders may see the Bay State as overprotected, permissive, and complacent—or “soft,” to borrow a concept from Michael Barone’s new book Hard America, Soft America. But Bay State natives are more likely to view their state as a tough, competitive place that encourages hardball politics and economic innovation. Indeed, a 1998 study by California State University professor Robert Levine concluded that Boston was the fastest-paced city in the US —based on how quickly people walked, how many people wore wristwatches, and the speed of interactions with Post Office staffers. Whatever they might think in Texas, few of us in Massachusetts actually spend hours at a time listening to our iPods and reading the latest issue of The Nation at Starbucks. Most of us don’t even have the time to read the latest pop sociology findings from David Brooks, supposedly every liberal’s favorite conservative.

Massachusetts is misunderstood. That’s not to say that every preconception is a misconception. But the caricature of the Commonwealth is sufficiently off-base as to require serious adjustment. The question is, how to set the record straight?

Perhaps the best way to define the character of the Bay State, in politics and civic life, is to ask: What if America were more like Massachusetts?

That’s not the same as asking, “What if America were more like Cambridge?” If that were the question, a complicated system of proportional voting would replace American winner-take-all elections, and bike paths would be funded on a par with the interstate highway system. Even the wealthiest tenants would enjoy the protection of rent control, and prisoners would be able to cast ballots from their cells. But those two practices were banned by the Massachusetts electorate, over the objections of Cambridge voters—proving that the state does not always follow the lead of the “People’s Republic” on the Charles. Even Boston isn’t much like Cambridge, though it’s no better barometer of the state’s political attitudes: The last three elected governors, all Republicans, lost the capital city by substantial margins. In contrast, the suburbs along I-495, which often act as a brake on the state’s more liberal impulses, have been on the winning side every time.

Massachusetts certainly is different from the rest of the country, but not in ways that neatly fit the liberal stereotype. The most obvious example is same-sex marriage, which is now legal here and nowhere else. Even if voters ban gay marriage in 2006 (which is far from certain, if opinion polls are any indication), they will do so while approving a civil union law that is more comprehensive than Vermont’s. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine community leaders in famously discreet Boston financing an ad campaign to attract gay and lesbian tourists—as the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. is now doing. There aren’t any bathhouses (i.e., sex clubs) operating anywhere in Massachusetts, even though they can be found in Georgia, North Carolina, and other states that have no gay-rights laws at all. (They now deny it, but initial reports had it that New York’s delegates to the National Democratic Convention objected to holding their party at the L Street Bathhouse, because of the sexual connotations. The thought would never have crossed a Bostonian’s mind.)

For all its supposed liberalism, Massachusetts isn’t a haven for hedonism. Explaining his opposition to letting out-of-state gay couples get hitched here, Gov. Mitt Romney said that he didn’t want Massachusetts to become “the Las Vegas” of same-sex weddings. He needn’t have worried. If all of America were like Massachusetts, there wouldn’t be a Las Vegas at all. Not only do we ban casinos, we don’t allow bars to offer happy hours or to stay open after 2 a.m. How indulgent is that?

The Bay State’s liberal reputation is often tied to the absence of capital punishment here, and it’s true that only 11 other states decline to put heinous criminals to death. (These include Alaska and West Virginia, “red” states that aren’t commonly characterized as “soft on crime.”) It’s also true that Massachusetts is in the minority in depriving citizens of the right to carry concealed firearms unless given specific permission by local police; only 15 other states have bucked the National Rifle Association on this issue.

There would be a lot less crime and more cops on the street.

But if all of America were like Massachusetts, there would be more cops on the street. According to the federal Department of Justice, Massachusetts had 26 local and state police officers per 10,000 people, as of 2001. If that were the national rate, the number of police officers in the U.S. would increase slightly, from 660,000 to 690,000. Of course, there would also be a uniformed police officer assigned to every hole in the sidewalk dug by a utility company—a requirement that currently exists nowhere outside of the Bay State.

And, for the most part, there would be a lot less crime. According to data from the FBI, if our crime rate were applied to the whole nation, there would be less than half as many murders and significantly fewer robberies and burglaries. Despite the image of Massachusetts as a hotbed for car thefts, the incidence of stolen vehicles would decrease slightly, and it would plummet in such states as Arizona and Nevada. “Aggravated assaults,” however, would rise by about 10 percent, and would more than quadruple in rural states like Maine and North Dakota.

The body politics

If the US were more like Massachusetts, would the Democratic Party garner enough power to make all other parties irrelevant? Probably not. Massachusetts is famous for repeatedly electing Edward Kennedy, a liberal icon, to the US Senate, and it now sends an all-Democratic delegation to Congress, but it does not march in lockstep with the left wing of the Democratic Party. Half the voters here are registered as independents, and the 36 percent of the electorate formally enrolled in the Democratic Party has not changed much over the past decade, despite the popularity of Bill Clinton and Al Gore in this state.

Furthermore, the two major parties in Massachusetts do not reflect the ideological divisions so evident in Washington. For example, during the recent debate votes on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, dozens of state legislators crossed party lines (in both directions), something that happens less and less frequently on Capitol Hill. After weeks of wrangling, an amendment passed with the support of moderate and conservative Democrats in large numbers; by contrast, a federal amendment banning gay marriage seems to be dead in the US Senate because so few Democrats are willing to support it.

In voting, as well, Massachusetts voters toe the party line far less than the country as a whole. Ticket-splitting has become less common in the United States over the past decade, but it’s still strong in Massachusetts. In part, that’s because if you vote straight ticket here you can’t be certain of what you’ll get. US senators John McCain and Olympia Snowe, famous nationally for bucking the Bush White House and the religious right, would barely cause a ripple on Beacon Hill among Republicans like state senators Brian Lees and Richard Tisei. At the same time, a conservative like US Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia would have no need to bolt the Democratic Party if he served in the Massachusetts Legislature, where anti-gay marriage Philip Travis and anti-bilingual education Guy Glodis are members of the Democratic caucus.

While the Republican Party now controls the White House and both houses of Congress (and the Democratic Party controlled all three arms of government from 1993 through 1995), Massachusetts has had a Republican governor and Democratic Legislature since 1991. Furthermore, the longtime Speaker of the House in Massachusetts, Tom Finneran, was elected in 1996 by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans, with a majority of his own party voting against him. If the same dynamics worked at the national level, a McCain or Miller could very well end up in the leadership of Congress.

But who would be in the White House? For the most part, to be sure, the Republicans would be out of luck—Massachusetts displays a strong and consistent antipathy toward conservative politics—but so too would all sorts of candidates. Massachusetts doesn’t always support the most liberal candidate, but it does seem to vote against the national grain. Since John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960, the Bay State has voted against the national winner in four general elections, five Democratic nomination contests, and four Republican nomination contests. No other state comes close to having a worse record as a bellwether. If the rest of the nation voted the same as Massachusetts, George McGovern and Gary Hart probably would have become president.

But Massachusetts isn’t always contrarian. It did vote for Ronald Reagan twice—the second time with an absolute majority. The Bay State may not have voted Republican in the past two decades, but in that obstinacy it is not alone: 16 states haven’t voted Democratic in at least 28 years and Minnesota hasn’t voted Republican since 1956, so we’re hardly the most extreme in fidelity to one party.

The Bay State electorate is certainly not predictable when it comes to the Commonwealth’s highest office. After 16 years of Democratic governors, Massachusetts voters installed a Republican in 1990, and the GOP is now on its way toward 16 years in power. Our current governor, Mitt Romney, is a no-new-taxes fiscal conservative and social moderate with a strong business background and experience managing the Olympics. Given that, if America resembled Massachusetts, Los Angeles Olympics manager Peter Ueberroth might have been more successful against fellow Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in California’s gubernatorial election—and would have his eye on the White House.

As for congressional races, more people would vote (48 percent of the voting-eligible population participated in the Bay State’s 2002 elections, versus the national figure of 39 percent), but even fewer of them would find real choices on the ballot than they do now. In 2002, one or the other of the two major parties failed to nominate a candidate in 82 congressional districts, or almost one-fifth of the total numbers of seats at stake nationwide. That number was a source of distress to many political commentators, but that same year in Massachusetts, more than two-thirds of the seats in the state Legislature went uncontested by one of the major parties—a higher percentage than in any state outside of South Carolina.

With so little action in legislative races, Bay State voters often express their political sentiments through referenda. Sometimes the liberal side wins, as when voters approved a hike in the cigarette tax in 1992 to fund anti-smoking programs, or when the environmentally minded electorate upheld the law mandating returnable bottles and cans in 1982. But the left wing has lost most of the recent contests, failing to save rent control in 1994 or prisoners’ voting rights in 2000. It’s not really fair to measure the state’s liberalism based on referenda results, since some of the failed initiatives probably wouldn’t even make the ballot in most states—such as a 1988 proposal mandating the humane treatment of farm animals and a 2000 proposal to take the proceeds from drug-crime fines and forfeitures away from police departments and give them to drug dependency treatment programs. (In that same year, California voters passed an initiative mandating probation and drug-treatment programs, as opposed to jail time, for individuals convicted of “personal use” of drugs, but that initiative didn’t specify that treatment programs would be financed by drug-crime fines and forfeitures.) But it’s telling that a real right-wing initiative in 2002—seeking to abolish the state income tax—got 45 percent in Massachusetts, which was a better showing than most of the liberal proposals made.

Don’t call us Taxachusetts

The nickname “Taxachusetts” will never disappear completely, but it hasn’t been a perfect tag for the Bay State since 1980, when voters approved one of the country’s toughest restrictions on hikes in local property taxes (Proposition 2 1/2). If all of America paid taxes the way we do in Massachusetts, it might not be such a shock to the bank account after all.

We do have high taxes, but that’s because of high incomes.

Massachusetts residents do have high tax bills, but that’s mostly because we have big paychecks. The Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan but hardly tax-friendly research group, calculates that state government took in $2,310 in taxes per capita in 2002, the sixth-highest rate in the country. But the same group noted that tax revenues equaled only $58.19 per $1,000 of income earned in the state, and by that measure we rank 31st in tax burden (which is lower than such high-income states as California, Connecticut, and New York). The Tax Foundation also notes that average annual income in Massachusetts grew by 3.4 percent from 1992 through 2002, while average annual tax growth grew by only 2.2 percent; only three states had a bigger gap in favor of the taxpayers. And though property tax bills are higher in Massachusetts than in most states, they’re also commensurate with our incomes. This spring the Tax Foundation calculated our combined state and local tax burden at 9.4 percent of annual income, giving us a rank of 36th—down from our second-place showing in 1980, when our taxes amounted to 11.5 percent of annual income.

So, if all Americans paid taxes Massachusetts-style, most would pay higher taxes, but less of their income, and the latter would be growing faster than the former. Not such a bad deal.

And despite our Puritan heritage, “sin” taxes in Massachusetts aren’t much harsher than the national norm. Our 21-cent gasoline tax would be a hardship to 29 states (nearly tripling Georgia’s current rate), but it would be greeted with relief in 20 others (especially New York, now at 32.7 cents). It’s true that cigarettes would become more expensive in every state but New Jersey and Rhode Island: At $1.51 a pack, our tax dwarfs the 2.5 cents levied on every pack in Virginia. On the other hand, in 40 states beer would flow more freely if they adopted our tax of 11 cents per gallon.

Whether we’ve gotten less greedy or less effective, Massachusetts is off the national pace in tapping the national treasury. The Washington, DC-based watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste recently ranked the Bay State 39th in “pork per capita.” Massachusetts won only $18.77 per person in federal pork for fiscal year 2004, far below the $31.17 per person in the nation as a whole. (Supposedly frugal New Hampshire ranked 3rd on the CAGW list, getting a staggering $216.34 worth of pork per person—including $1 million for the Mount Washington Observatory and $500,000 for the New England Weather Technology Initiative.) But it’s debatable how much of our pork is real fat, anyway. The CAGW didn’t include anything from Massachusetts in its list of the most dubious expenditures, which included $2 million for the First Tee Program in Florida (which provides “golf and character education” to youngsters); $500,000 for Anaheim Resort Transit (i.e., buses to Disneyland) in California; and $200,000 for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Our projects, such as $1.2 million for the Holyoke Canalwalk, seem more run-of-the-mill.

We the people

To some political analysts, demographics are destiny. If the US were more like Massachusetts, it would be a lot more urbanized and densely populated, but it wouldn’t be getting more so. Our annual birth rate (12.7 births per 1,000 people) is lower than the national rate (14.1 births per 1,000 people). That would mean a drop from 4.03 million to 3.63 million births nationwide in 2001.

If the Bay State’s immigration patterns prevailed at the national level, the number of foreign-born residents would be almost the same as it is now (31 million, or 11 percent of the population), but where they come from would change dramatically. The number of immigrants from Mexico would drop from 9.2 million to 340,000; the number from the Philippines would drop from 1.4 million to just under 340,000; and the number from Cuba would drop from 870,000 to 170,000. But immigrants from Portugal would soar from 200,000 to 3 million; the number from China would rise from 1.5 million to 2.4 million; and the number from Haiti would jump from 420,000 to 1.5 million. There would also be almost eight times as many immigrants from Brazil (to 1.6 million), five times as many from Ireland (to 780,000), three times as many from the Dominican Republic (to 2.1 million), and more than twice as many from Canada (to 1.8 million).

Thus, we would have dramatically fewer Spanish speakers but many more who speak Portuguese and French. In that area where foreign policy intersects with electoral politics, Haiti would loom much larger than Cuba. Presidential candidates would likely ignore Fidel Castro and pay more attention to the goings-on in Port-au-Prince.

If the entire country mirrored the Bay State’s religious beliefs (measured by a national survey conducted by the City University of New York in 2001), there would be almost twice as many Catholics—44 percent of the population as opposed to 25 percent. Only Rhode Island would become slightly less Catholic, while Mississippi would end up with nine times as many followers of the faith. At the same time, the number of Baptists would be cut by 75 percent (4 percent vs.16 percent), and Mississippi would lose 93 percent of its current Baptist population.

But despite the Bay State’s reputation for secularism, only a few more people would eschew religion altogether. In Massachusetts, 16 percent of poll respondents said that they belong to “no religion”—only slightly above the national average of 14 percent and below Utah’s 17 percent. Washington state actually ranked first in the number of people with no professed faith, followed by Vermont. North Dakota ranked last; if the Massachusetts figure were applied to that state, it would end up with more than five times as many nonbelievers as it has now.

Sense and sensibility

As politics increasingly intersects with pop culture (think Gov. Schwarzenegger), one can’t help but wonder how much of a state’s political character can be seen in its entertainment preferences. For the record, a comparison of national New York Times best-seller lists with the local lists that appear in The Boston Globe suggests that Massachusetts readers love liberal gadflies Al Franken and Michael Moore, books about baseball (especially the Red Sox, e.g, Leigh Montville’s Ted Williams biography), and literate-sounding novels (Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club). What they don’t like are evangelical-themed novels (e.g., the “Left Behind” series) and the most extreme right-wing commentators. (Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity have good sales here, but the state is a weak spot for Ann Coulter and Michael Savage.)

Looking at the electronic media, if everyone emulated Massachusetts, a lot more people would be watching cable TV. Eighty-seven percent of homes in the Bay State with television sets subscribe to cable, the third highest rate in the nation (behind Connecticut and Hawaii) and well above the 67 percent nationally. And according to, violence-and-sex-laden HBO programs (Six Feet Under, Sex and the City, Oz) are especially popular in DVD form here, while more nostalgic series such as M*A*S*H sell better nationally. The Bay State’s taste in movies on DVD runs to art-house dramas like Lost in Translation and foreign films like the French classic The Rules of the Game, but college-oriented comedies like School of Rock also rule here. The Lord of the Rings films were blockbusters here as in the rest of the country, but sales of the ultra-violent Kill Bill were not up to par.

On the radio dial, America would have a lot fewer country-music and religious stations and considerably more “adult contemporary” stations, but talk radio would still be big, accounting for about 15 percent of all stations either way. And indicates that, while Norah Jones CDs are top sellers both nationally and in the Bay State, local favorites include Sarah McLachlan, the Indigo Girls, and Harry Connick Jr., while we’re not quite as enamored with Loretta Lynn, Los Lonely Boys, and Prince.

Speaking of music, the Bay State has 38 member orchestras in the American Symphony Orchestra League. If all of America had as many orchestras per capita as the Bay State (more than any state except Alaska and Wyoming), there would be 1,684 members nationwide, instead of the current 888. The number in Texas alone would jump from 46 to 125, and even culture-rich New York would get 49 more.

But a more down-home type of diversion, the square dance, wouldn’t necessarily be more scarce. A look at the Western Square Dancing Web site ( shows that square dances are as plentiful here as anywhere.

Liberal is as liberal does

So just how liberal a state is Massachusetts? As liberal as any, probably. After all, in no state do voters hope for tax increases and complain that not enough criminals are going free. If you’re measuring mainstream liberalism, not “loony left” ideas, it’s tough to come up with any state that outflanks Massachusetts.

But perhaps another classification is more apt. American composer Ned Rorem (1923­) postulates that everyplace and everything in the world is divided into two categories: German or French. “German means extravagance and beating your breast and repetition and thickness and heaviness,” he told ASCAP Playback magazine in 1998. “French means continuity and transparency and say what you have to say, then shut up.” One can argue that the US is German (big-thinking and boisterous and ready to charge ahead) and Massachusetts is French (obsessed with history and manners and giving everyone a say).

Meet the Author

Rorem’s theory is actually a refinement of another dichotomy, popularized by philosopher Isaiah Berlin, that divided the world into hedgehogs and foxes. According to this theory, hedgehogs are single-minded and persistent—somewhat like our two major parties at the national level, with their hardened ideologies. Foxes have more catholic (small “c”) interests, displaying the kind of curiosity that hedgehogs would consider a hindrance.

The Massachusetts economy has certainly been fox-like, finding a new focus every couple of decades (from textiles to computers to biotechnology). Our politics have also been anything but single-minded. New Hampshire may be famous for its extreme aversion to taxes, and Alabama may be known for defending the Ten Commandments, but Massachusetts really isn’t guided by one Big Idea. Our “liberal” label doesn’t come from a reflexive support of any left-wing notion but from a willingness to consider new ways of doing things as the world around us changes. Viewed this way, gay marriage and biotechnology are both best understood as the latest innovations. Massachusetts may be liberal. Or maybe it’s just ahead of the curve.