Massachusetts, my home commonwealth, is generally considered the most liberal state in the union. The bluest of the blue. Republicans nationwide regularly use Massachusetts as a punch line—and, of course, a fundraising mechanism—just as Democrats do for corresponding regions of the United States known for their marked conservatism.
How irretrievably left-wing is Massachusetts, you ask? Well, prior to our current governor, Deval Patrick, the last man elected to the commonwealth’s highest office was some guy called Mitt Romney.
The governor elected before that? Paul Cellucci—like Romney, a proud member of the GOP. And before him? Why, the honorable William Weld, a Republican as well.
Oh, and we’ve also got a Republican senator, Scott Brown, who won his seat in a special election to succeed the late Edward Kennedy on the premise (and the promise) that his would be the deciding vote against the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.
In a way, this is all build-up with no punch line. In point of fact, Massachusetts really is a very left-wing state, relatively speaking. It has not elected a Republican to the House of Representatives since 1994. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the State House, 127-33, and in the State Senate, 36-4. It was also the first state to legalize same-sex marriage and to mandate universal health coverage. A bastion of so-called traditional conservatism, it is not.
So how do we square my most recent paragraph with those that came before it?
The short answer, as any resident of the commonwealth would tell you, is that a Massachusetts Republican is not quite the same thing as a Republican as defined in, say, Georgia or Mississippi. The sort of Republicans who win elections here must assume certain policy positions that would have the rest of the country mistake them for Democrats.
Here is what I wonder: Would America be better off if more states behaved like Massachusetts? Should its voters’ party-crossing tendencies, like its healthcare system, be seen as a worthy prototype for the country at large?
At this point, we should introduce a possibly crucial statistic. From the voter registration rolls, we find that registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in the state by a ratio of 3:1. However, those two groups combine to form only half of the electorate. The other half—52 percent, to be exact—are not enrolled in any party at all.
In other words, Massachusetts is much better defined politically as an independent state that tends to elect Democrats, rather than as simply liberal. This is both a distinction and a difference: The former suggests a real willingness to elect people from the “other” party who are willing to negotiate and compromise, while the latter would stress ideological purity above all else.
Interestingly enough, Senator Brown’s pitch for re-election rests on precisely this assumption. His case against challenger Elizabeth Warren can roughly be made as follows: I am a Republican, but I do not always vote along party lines and am capable of “working across the aisle.” My opponent is a Democrat who will always vote along party lines and will never compromise with those on the other team.
Whether such a framing of the voters’ choice is accurate in this particular case, it is worth pondering generally.
Americans, whenever asked, have made it clear they prefer a Congress composed of compromisers rather than ideological purists. We should take it as coincidence, then, that the Congress we actually have is the most uncooperative and polarized in modern times.
In state governorships, on the other hand, Massachusetts and its tendency for partisan cross-dressing is closer to being the rule than the exemption. Republicans currently occupy the executive mansions in such “blue” states as New Jersey, Maine, Michigan and New Mexico, while Democratic executives rule comfortably “red” regions such as Kentucky, Montana and Arkansas.
If there is a blanket explanation to this riddle, it is balance. A good government is one that is always in tension with itself, just as our entire system is founded on the wisdom of three independent branches: the executive, the legislature and the courts. Tension between parties often leads to gridlock, but the alternative—one-party rule—often leads to tyranny, however muted its form.
The nation at large might do well, then, to more actively follow Massachusetts’ lead in taking the occasional partisan leap of faith for the sake of such balance. It is an idea that might be crazy enough to work, but, more importantly, is also noble enough to fail.