Identity politics

In the race for governor, candidates draw on

long-established traditions in Bay State politics

to understand the forces shaping the 2010 election for governor, head back to 1965, specifically, to Edgar Litt’s book The Political Cultures of Massa­chusetts.

What Litt put forth is an enduring typology of political groups that inhabit our electoral system: patricians, workers, managers, and yeomen. These species are still potent in 21st century Massa­chu­setts politics.

Litt’s patricians are descendants of the Puritans. John Winthrop famously called for Massachusetts to be a “city upon a hill;” the context of the speech, though, was an entreaty to extend Christian care to all community members. That willingness to see Massachusetts as a “commonwealth” lives on. Patricians are liberal on civil rights and civil liberties, though conservative on spending. They are the historical backbone of the state’s Republican Party. At the time Litt wrote, the patricians’ power had been declining for some time.

The group that dislodged patrician supremacy was the workers, including immigrant groups and especially the Irish. The workers lived in (but many have now fled) the cities, are Democratic and Cath­olic, and lower-to-middle class. Workers orient toward New Deal-style programs, though they are increasingly suspicious of social welfare spending, and are conservative on civil rights and civil liberties. Political patronage might not quite rise to a sacrament, but is considered the way the system works. Even in 1965 the workers’ political power was contracting.

Real power, rising then and foremost now, is with the managers. Managers prize rationality, merit, and efficiency.  They are middle-to-upper-middle class suburban professionals. Managers lean Democratic but have weak party ties, and are liberal on civil rights and civil liberties. They are egalitarian and willing to see government assist the less well off, but they want to know their tax dollars are being well spent.

Litt’s yeomen were small town Yankee Prot­es­tants of the lower and working classes, and small businessmen. They were parochial and opposed to government action across the board, suspicious of bigness whether in government, corporations, unions, or media.  Yeomen were thought to be dying out—but not so fast. In the 21st century their isolation is not in small towns but is a trait of a disconnected culture Robert Putnam wrote about in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. They tune into conservative talk radio. You find a yeomen at a Tea Party rally clutching a sign that says, “Keep your govern­ment hands off my Medi­care.”

What does this all mean for 2010? Let’s see how the cultural types battle it out in the race for governor.

As hard as it may be to fathom today, for most of Massachusetts history the Democrats were the out party. But as Irish (and other immigrant group) numbers grew, the newcomers upended genteel patrician procedures in favor of a style occasionally less attuned to ethical niceties. Democratic Party politics became a system of relationships, rewards, and revenge; it sometimes veered into corruption.

Along came a young suburban reformer named Michael Dukakis, who captured the party and the governor’s office in 1974. Dukakis entranced managers seeking rational administration but turned the hearts of the Irish regulars to stone. As Richard Gaines and Michael Segal reported in Dukakis and the Reform Impulse, party bosses schemed to depose Dukakis in the next Democratic primary: “Everything else will be subplot,” they quoted a legislative leader as saying, “but that’s the plot.” The conspirators succeeded, but Dukakis came roaring back in 1982 to recapture the Corner Office. Since then, reformers and regulars have battled for the upper hand in the Democratic Party.
Like Dukakis, Patrick has adjusted his style.
Deval Patrick has consolidated power in the party, giving the more conservative Tim Cahill little running room and snuffing out Grace Ross on the left. The governor resides in the communitarian tradition, using government to help the vulnerable. Workers are not always happy with him, though union leadership is strongly Democratic. Like the second-term Mike Dukakis, Patrick has accommodated his rational, managerial style to the realities of Bay State politics—sometimes painfully so. His clumsy efforts to reward state Sen. Marian Walsh with a high-paid sinecure grated at his managerial base. In 2006, when attacked as a “tax-and-spend” Democrat, he adroitly married the managers’ social welfare liberalism with their concern for their own wallets. “It is [the people’s] money,” he declared, “but it’s also their broken road. And it’s their over-crowded school. It’s their broken neighborhood and broken neighbor.”

While Democratic gubernatorial nominees have become managerial, there remains lots of room for the “go-along-to-get-along” style in the Legislature. The recent scandal over pay-for-play patronage in the Probation Department is one example. Three criminally charged members in one term of the Senate and three consecutive indicted House speakers have provided ample ammunition to critics of Beacon Hill.

Republican gubernatorial aspirants prospered for 16 years by providing a managerial alternative to Demo­cratic shenanigans. Bill Weld offered a patrician tolerance on social issues, and managerial probity on fiscal matters. As the descendant of Yankee aristocracy, he even provided a link to the Puritans. Mitt Romney won office by railing against the “gang of three”—the House speaker, Senate president, and governor—who would lord over an overtaxed citizenry if Democrat Shannon O’Brien should prevail. Romney’s resume as a successful businessman and savior of the Salt Lake City Olympic Games was catnip to managers who saw him as just the man to purge patronage and uphold bureaucratic efficiency.

One advantage Republicans have is the widespread appeal of lower taxes. “I trust you to spend your money more wisely than the government” is a popular appeal, and Charlie Baker takes full advantage. Like Romney, Baker can claim a strong managerial background with his success in turning around Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. Baker’s censures of Patrick are not so much opposed to social welfare programs as to bad management. For example, when Patrick recently announced up to $800 million in potential budget cuts, the Boston Globe’s characterization of Baker’s critique was that what is needed is “a prudent budget that would better protect the most vulnerable.”

The third major candidate, Tim Cahill, is trying to hit a worker/yeoman parlay. In times past, he might have been an insurgent against Democratic reformers, in the mode of Ed King in 1978 or John Silber in 1990. But Patrick has commandeered the Democratic machine, and with no room there Cahill is running as an independent. He brings some baggage to the race. Cahill has suspended Probation Commissioner John O’Brien’s wife and daughter on his payroll, and he responded to the Probation Department scandal by remarking that patronage is “part of the political process.” That remark could only have infuriated managers, and his comment that he couldn’t offer suggestions for cutting the state budget because he lacks insight into the financial process was positively malware to the managers’ Excel programs.

Yet Cahill has strengths with workers and yeomen. His heritage and tack to the right give him a leg up with white, ethnic Catholics estranged from the Democratic Party. There are still a lot of voters in this state who like the idea of a pol that can get their kid a summer job, and Cahill might be their answer. Tea Party yeomen wearing T-shirts that say “Let me keep my wealth—redistribute my work ethic” are a likely target. According to a Rasmussen poll released in late June, 15 percent of Massachusetts voters consider themselves to be part of the Tea Party movement.

Scott Brown found a ready fandom on conservative talk radio and even sports talk radio. Years ago, when Celtics coach Rick Pitino was undergoing bitter disparagement from callers to sports radio shows, he lashed back, dubbing them “the fellowship of the miserable.” Unhappy they may be, but also politically potent. Brown won rebellious working class voters—another positive for Cahill.

Meet the Author

Maurice Cunningham

Assoc. Prof. of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Boston
So here’s what voters have to choose from: a communitarian alert to managers’ concerns (Patrick); a manager who concedes a role for government action (Baker); and an independent who criticizes government for doing too much, with workers and yeomen in his sights (Cahill).  The winner of this year’s race for governor will be the candidate who builds a winning coalition from Litt’s political cultures.  

Maurice Cunningham is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.