If John and Abigail Adams were alive today, their rich correspondence would say plenty about the current state of American politics. They’d discuss everything from the historically long government shutdown (unthinkable, even in their even more viciously partisan era) to the possibility that, for the second time, a woman might be a major party’s nominee for president (Abigail Adams was an early proponent of equal rights for women). But they would likely feel most concerned about the demise of New England’s political influence nationally. Not because they lived in Quincy, but because the nation’s political ethos has long been infused with our region’s emphasis on grass-roots participatory governance and serving the public good.
For most of US history, New England House and Senate members were routinely powerful enough to shape party platforms and federal policy. New Englanders were speakers of the House for more than a quarter of the first 100 sessions of Congress, with notable names including Republican Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine and Cambridge Democrat Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. But no New Englander has been speaker since O’Neill retired in 1987, and our senators and representatives have lost institutional influence in the following decades. We haven’t had another figure like O’Neill in the House. Maine’s George Mitchell, the last Senate majority leader from New England, didn’t run for reelection in 1994, and Ted Kennedy, arguably the most productive US Senator of the 20th century, left a void when he died in 2009. In the newly sworn-in 116th Congress, only two New Englanders, Massachusetts Representatives Richard Neal and Jim McGovern, chair committees in the House, while Maine’s Susan Collins heads a special committee in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Of course, New England politicians can still harbor legitimate presidential aspirations. But presidential campaigns rarely translate into clout in Congress. Candidates spend too much time outside of the capital; most of them see their signature ideas brushed aside, which can hurt their legislative potential; and, if they become president, Congress is supposed to be a natural rival, not a rubber stamp. So as Elizabeth Warren starts her presidential campaign, her profile may rise nationally while her voice in Congress recedes. The same fate may await California Senator Kamala Harris, who just announced she’ll run for president, but Harris should benefit from an umbrella effect because she hails from the same state as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
Democratic officeholders from Massachusetts and California may vote alike, but they have significantly different political styles. California has too many people for the town hall-style retail politics of our region. Its office seekers have to all but abandon street-corner conversations with constituents, instead turning to party, ideology, and messaging — mass media politicking. The need to spend vast quantities of time raising attention via social media and the near-24/7 pressures of fund-raising leave little time for members of Congress to talk with each other long enough to find common ground, contributing to our country’s current political polarization.
The loss of influence is only partially driven by population growth shifting away from the Northeast. New England’s industrial economy once bound it to similar regions nationally. But as the manufacturing base has hollowed out, those ties have frayed. That’s even true within our region, as much of New England endures stagnant economic growth while Boston booms as a center of biotech, health care, and artificial intelligence.
New England’s national representation in Congress has become almost totally Democratic and far more liberal than ever before, with Collins the lone exception. If you are a progressive liberal, these changes may please you. But recognize that we are becoming an ideological island, isolated from large swaths of the rest of the country, including regions such as the Midwest that have traditionally been our allies on issues including trade policy, health care, minimum wage, and education policy.
At stake is the essence of participatory governance and service to the public good, the hallmark of New England’s politicians since the Adamses’ day. The fabric of our democracy still depends upon individuals seeing that they have more in common than they have differences; that is as true in the halls of Congress as it is in our neighborhoods.
John Adams viewed democracy as a great opportunity and a privilege; he wrote, “How few of the human race have ever enjoyed an opportunity of making an election of government . . . for themselves or their children!” Now we seem, as a nation, to take it for granted, or even dismiss our opportunity.
It isn’t too late to get back to our self-governing roots. We New Englanders can demonstrate to the nation exactly how. And we don’t have to wait for politicians to lead us there; we can lead them, by resisting and rejecting simplistic partisanship and renouncing the demonization of opponents. We first must look for common ground with people in other parts of the country, including those we expect to oppose us. For example, the broad challenges of climate change affect a coastal blue state like Rhode Island, where I live and work, and an agricultural red state like Nebraska. Then together with them, we start asking our respective elected officials hard questions about their proposals, like “How much does it cost?” “Who does it help?” “Who will it hurt?” and “How will it work, exactly?”
Getting back to the basics of governing is the road best traveled in a democracy, and New Englanders can once again pave the way while also regaining our lost influence.
Wendy J. Schiller is chair of the department of political science at Brown University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.