The Liberal State | The Nation


The Liberal State

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Charles P. Pierce
Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for the Boston Globe magazine, a contributing writer to Esquire and the author of...

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The music on Townes, Steve Earle's tribute to Townes Van Zandt, is simple and literally homespun. There is sinew to this music, and blood in the words.

Well, it's nice to be back, I must say, we liberals of the Commonwealth (God save it!). Nice of you all to have us back, too, since your last experience with one of us as a Democratic presidential candidate didn't work out that well. You'll be happy to know that Mike Dukakis is still doing fine, and staying out of armored vehicles whenever possible, and that Susan Estrich, the mastermind behind the 1988 Dukakis juggernaut, is comfortably ensconced in her new career as a wind-up Liberal in the Fox News Channel playroom--although, to those of us who are liberals here, watching Susan Estrich on television giving advice on how to run a national political campaign is rather akin to taking a course in navigation from Exxon Valdez Capt. Joe Hazelwood. Anyway, it's nice to be back, as I've said, and I'm glad that nobody holds a grudge too long.

I should explain, now that Senator John Kerry is the presumptive nominee, that the phrase "Massachusetts liberal" doesn't mean what it's said to mean in the feverish fundraising letters of the lunatic right. I should explain this particularly now, as gay people are marrying each other here in the Commonwealth (God save it!), a development that likely will cause Massachusetts to be portrayed as Gehenna's vestibule over the next several months. In mid-June, in fact, our Republican governor, Mitt Romney, went before a Senate committee and made pretty much that case against the state over which he at least nominally presides. Save us from ourselves, Mitt wailed plaintively, while back home, more than a few people wondered whether Governor Mitt was auditioning for the day when Dick Cheney decides it's time to spend more time with his family.

In any case, we're nothing of which to be all that afraid. Dukakis didn't lose primarily because he was a liberal. He lost because he was the 1962 Marv Throneberry of presidential candidates running the 1962 New York Mets of presidential campaigns. He lost because he wasn't politician enough to keep that liberalism from being hopelessly caricatured even by as hopelessly maladroit a public presence as George H.W. Bush. He lost because he couldn't even define his own public career. He lost because he couldn't even define the political culture in which that career was formed. Give John Kerry this. He's maddeningly allusive, and he constructs his positions the way that Great Auntie Cabot built her beach house on Nantucket--rambling, with a porch just where you think a bay window should go--but he's sure about who he is and where he came from (even if, occasionally, he seems like the only one who is).

Massachusetts politics never has been about conservatives and liberals. The same people who listened religiously (you should pardon the pun) to the radio ravings of Father Charles Coughlin, and the same people who cheered on Joseph McCarthy, still voted in stunning ensemble for the local Democratic Party. Even though the state's last four governors have been Republicans, the GOP hasn't been able to elect anyone to much of anything else, and the Democratic Party still holds a three-to-one advantage in registered voters. And all four of those governors--William Weld, Paul Cellucci, Jane Swift and Romney--were notably silent on the hot-button social issues, until the state's Supreme Judicial Court forced Romney's hand on gay marriage last fall. The tide of "Movement conservatism" elsewhere in America rolled back at the Massachusetts border.

Massachusetts politics always has been about established power and the reform impulse, and, since the beginning of the last century, that struggle has taken place within a liberal Democratic context. That is the tradition that produced John Kerry, and it's not a bad tradition to come from when you're running against an Administration that seems to stand for power, and for its exercise, and for very little else.

Many years ago, almost everybody in Massachusetts was a liberal, even the Republicans, although the Republicans didn't know they were liberals at the time. The successive waves of immigration--most particularly, the nineteenth-century flood tide from Ireland--set up a dynamic that locked Massachusetts Republicans forever into the position of established power based on inherited privilege and high-end Protestantism. Considering that these people were the historical heirs of the radical abolitionists of the mid-1800s, when the movement against slavery began in Episcopalian, Congregationalist and (especially) Unitarian pulpits, it was quite odd for the children and grandchildren of the firebrands to find themselves cast as the defenders of an entrenched elite. However, the immigrant Massachusetts Democrats managed the not-inconsiderable feat of casting themselves as "reformers" while simultaneously perfecting virtually the entire gamut of modern American political corruption. Specifically, the very real discrimination that these immigrants felt from the Massachusetts establishment, and from the nativist mobs working at its tacit behest, created a political culture in which ethnic nepotism was transformed into self-defense and, thus, into a durable language of revolutionary reform.

The basic appeal of the legendary Boston political bosses--from James Michael Curley, to John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, to Martin "The Mahatma" Lomasney, who once explained, "Never write when you can speak. Never speak when you can nod"--was deeper than simply "Where's Mine?" There was more than a little bit of sticking-it-to-The-Man about it as well. This was echoed by the lesser satellites throughout the Commonwealth. In Worcester, my birthplace, a city with proud progressive Republican roots in both abolitionism and in the various movements for women's rights, the citizens once elected a mayor named John C. Mahoney, who campaigned on the slogan "Me hands are tied. Me back is to the wall. And the Protestants are after me." The constituent-service liberalism born when the immigrants came to power was, at its heart, extraordinarily reactionary.

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