Brown boom or Brown bubble?

The extraordinary victory of Republican Scott Brown over Democrat Martha Coakley leaves us with an important question for the Massachusetts GOP: Was the Brown phenomenon a sign of a sustainable boom in Republican fortunes here, or was it a bubble that will soon burst?

If the campaign portends a boom in Republican fortunes, there would have to be some fundamentals in place to assist a GOP resurgence. And there are. 

This year in Massachusetts is looking like 1990, the year that ushered in 16 years of Republican governors and featured GOP gains in legislative elections. There is a devastating recession and calamitous state budget, which the Democrats have addressed with a tax increase and service cuts. The establishment Democratic candidate has been challenged by a more conservative Democrat in both years. Legislators know that many Democrats were swept out in 1990.

And then there is corruption. House Democrats have elected three consecutive speakers who have been indicted. This term three state senators have resigned in various criminal scandals.

Deeper fundamentals threaten, too. American politics contains strains of individualistic and communitarian politics. The Massachusetts communitarian strain goes all the way back to the Puritans. Massachusetts Bay Company governor John Winthrop offered a sermon as the Arbella sailed from England toward Massachusetts. His words that “we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us” helped form our culture, and the phrase has been utilized by both President Kennedy and President Reagan.

But Winthrop’s speech, “A Model of Christian Charity,” was more than that phrase: It was a call to community members to care for each other, especially the weak and vulnerable. In Massachusetts, Democrats have more often occupied that communitarian ground; the GOP is the home of individualism.

As political scientist Daniel Elazar argued, individualism trumps community as a core American value, even in Massachusetts. And the state may be trending toward a more individualistic approach. The ideal of the market in which individuals strive for advantage has gained even in the wake of recession. We stress individual rights. So universal health care might not resonate with voters buffeted by an awful economy (besides, we already have near-universal health care in Massachusetts).

As my UMass Boston colleague Ken Lachlan explains to me, technology may also sunder community. Technology makes a vast amount of information available, but information is not participation. Increasing social isolation might enhance our notions of being individuals responsible primarily for our own well-being. This is consistent with the “bowling alone” argument made by Harvard Professor Robert Putnam. 

Finally, the two institutions that undergirded the transformation of the Democrats from minority party to guardian of communitarian values in this state were labor and the Catholic Church. But labor has been in decline for years. The Church has deteriorated as a political force and its message of care for the disadvantaged has been swallowed up in the public arena by abortion and same sex marriage. The relationship between the Catholic Church and the Democratic Party is now deeply estranged. 

So the fundamentals may suggest a Brown boom. Yet it may also be a bubble. 

As we saw with the dotcom and housing experiences, a bubble can occur when emotion outstrips reason and a market (here, a candidate) rises beyond its true value. As the economist Robert J. Shiller explains in “Irrational Exuberance,” there are precipitating factors and amplification mechanisms to a bubble. I want to focus here on amplification mechanisms. 

Until the New Year, the campaign for US Senate was so lifeless it reminded me of one of those off-year media poll questions asked before candidates are known – Who would win a race between a generic Democrat and a generic Republican? In Massachusetts, the answer is that a generic Democrat would win. But then this sleepy little campaign was roused by the release of a Rasmussen Poll, done by automated phone calls in early January, showing Brown behind by a mere nine points.

Mainstream media avoided covering automated phone polls because the establishment questioned whether their reliability was any good. But to paraphrase the actress Mae West, goodness had nothing to do with it. The Rasmussen Poll ignited the race, money began pouring in, both parties untied the purse strings, and independent organizations began shoveling money into television advertisements. 

As Shiller explains it, we were in a feedback loop – but in a political campaign, not a market. The perception – perhaps in error – that the race had tightened brought more interest, money, resources. It also brought more polls, some of which showed the race even tighter. Media attention accelerated and that sped up the loop with more excitement and emotion. We found ourselves in an attention cascade driven by an irresistible story – that a conservative Republican might win the Kennedy seat in the bluest state. 

The important factor here is that all that exuberance might have been triggered by unreliable – or just plain wrong – information.

So boom or bubble?  I think the Brown victory was a bubble. None of the fundamentals that surely angered voters were any different on Election Day than they were at any other time. As many Democrats argue, Brown might well be more conservative than other Republicans we have elected in the state. But if so, by the time his stock shot up it was too late for that Democratic argument to take hold, and it was drowned out in the pro-Brown fervor.

Meet the Author

Maurice Cunningham

Assoc. Prof. of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Boston
This is not to diminish Brown’s victory. He ran a magnificent campaign and has a Reagan-like congeniality. He obviously heard voters’ frustrations and spoke to them, as the Democrats did not. And he has inspired a nearly dormant Massachusetts GOP to believe in a path to victory. The fundamentals that threaten Bay State Democrats – tax increases and spending cuts, arrogance and elitism, corruption, diminution of the state’s communitarian culture – all remain. Democrats need to pay heed, or 2010 could be a boom year for Massachusetts Republicans.

Maurice T. Cunningham is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.