Nationally, the term “Massachusetts liberal” is thrown around pejoratively by conservatives, a synonym for the kind of progressive, soft-hearted northeasterners steering the country away from mainstream values.
They shouldn’t be so quick with that label. A new history of Democratic politics in America argues that Massachusetts Democrats have been part of a trend that has pushed the Democratic Party rightward over the last few decades — away from the concerns of labor, and towards centrist policies that favor high-tech economic growth.
In “Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party” Lily Geismer takes a close look at five Massachusetts towns along the Route 128 corridor — Lexington, Concord, Lincoln, Newton, and Brookline — and finds they were deeply emblematic of the Democratic Party’s reorganization into more of a status quo institution.
The towns along Route 128, she argues, exemplify a change that was taking place in well-to-do suburbs around the country beginning in the 1950s, with the rise of a high-tech “knowledge” class of workers that also had liberal leanings. These suburbanites were Democrats — based partly on the belief that rationally devised government programs could solve big problems — but they had different priorities than Democrats of previous generations.
“There was a strong emphasis on quality of life issues, environmentalism, being pro-choice,” says Geismer, a history professor at Claremont McKenna College who grew up in Cambridge. “But people tended to be the most liberal on issues further away from their property values and where their kids went to school.”
Geismer argues that these changes played out in Massachusetts as clearly as anywhere else, which she says runs contrary to the “idea that Massachusetts liberals are a unique subset of the rest of the country.” Her book highlights the recession of 1973 and efforts to expand METCO in the 1970s as events that made suburban liberals in Massachusetts more conservative on local issues. Today she says we see this in policies that favor the growth of high-tech industries in places like the Seaport – a development agenda, she says, that “helps a particular portion of the population, but doesn’t address bigger issues of poverty and inequality.”
Nationally, she argues that these changes explain why progressives have so often been disappointed with the Obama administration. “There are some fundamental limits to the party,” Geismer says. “A lot of the targeting of Obama from the left is not understanding how the Democratic Party has formed over the last 30 years.” In other words, if you live in the suburbs, vote Democratic, and wonder why the president didn’t even try to push a single-payer health care system, just take a look around your neighborhood.
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.