THE POLITICAL PARTY PROBLEM IN MASSACHUSETTS

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(Cambridge, MA – 6/19/17) Gov. Charlie Baker and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren chat during the grand opening of Advanced Functional Fabrics of America headquarters, Monday, June 19, 2017. Staff photo by Angela Rowlings.

Massachusetts enjoys a political culture unique in America, one that poses idiosyncratic challenges to our state’s political parties : 56 percent of all our voters belong to no party, which makes the two major parties a hard role to play.

It is getting harder every year, as a greater percentage of voters opt out of party enrollment.

On November 6th probably one-third — maybe more — of all the 2,700,000 who voted chose both Senator Warren, a Democrat, and Governor Baker, a Republican. Baker won 67 percent of voters, Warren 60.3 percent. Other than Maryland, where Governor Hogan also won re-election with more than 60 percent of voters who at the same election re-elected Senator Cardin, I can’t think of a similar case.

Yet Maryland’s situation is actually not comparable. Maryland has more Republicans and fewer “NPA” voters than we do. Maryland voters made a choice. In Massachusetts this sort of outcome is almost a given.

So, what has been the reaction of Massachusetts partisan loyalists to the November 6th result ? Let’s take a look :

The followers of Scott Lively, who won 36 percent of the Republican Primary vote against Governor Baker, and who represent 28 percent of party activists, judging by Convention delegates, decry Baker’s election. They scourge him as a fake Republican, as a Democrat in “RINO” clothing, a “Tall Deval” Governor who “subverts” the party with patronage appointments, and who has betrayed “conservatism” and “Trump.” That Trump won only 32 percent of our voters in 2016 and is viewed favorably here by barely 29 percent, seems not to impress the Lively bunch. And if you believe that elections are about amassing a majority, and that it is incumbent upon a Governor to govern to the majority, so much for you.

If the Lively bunch numbers at most 36 percent of Massachusetts Republicans, do not think for a minute that their partisan view stops there. A significant portion of Governor Baker’s supporters view the “magop” the same way. They have made their peace with Governor Baker, because he wins, but their basic view is that the party should be more Trump, not less; more “down with the ship.”

But so much for the partisans of a party which in Massachusetts numbers barely ten percent of our voters and twenty percent of electeds. What about our partisan Democrats? After all, about one-third of all our voters and eighty percent of our electeds have a “D” beside their name on the voter list. Here’s one report that I just saw :

A facebook friend posted happenings at the post-election Democratic State Committee meeting. The big discussion was, what to do about elected Democrats who publicly endorsed Governor Baker ? Many want them disciplined : if a state committee member, ousted from the State Committee; if an elected official, censured. The idea being that if you accept a party office you are bound to always support the party. It’s fifty-fifty whether the accused will be ousted or not.

For me, this is an absurdity. The last thing you want to do, if your candidate wins only 33 percent of the vote while his opponent takes 67, is to drive members of the party away — elections are won by addition, not subtraction. Those who would discipline Baker’s Democratic endorsers say that a Democrat’s first loyalty should be to the principles of the party. But is that right ? Isn’t an electeds first loyalty to the voters ? All the voters ?

The Democratic state committee trial is hardly unique to that party. After Governor Bill Weld in 2014 endorsed Michael S. Day, then a first-time candidate for State Representative (he won), resolutions were presented to the Republican State Committee to censure Weld. He shrugged it off, as was proper: but the attempt had been made, and it signals how partisan Republican activists feel. Party first, party always, or else.

This isn’t only a Massachusetts problem, as we all know too well. Still, in Massachusetts it flies against all common sense, given the rejection of party by an increasing majority of our voters.

Party-first does not have to be. One cans till be a party activist and stand apart from the closed shop. When I was a ward committee chairman in one of our parties, my view was that our task was to bring the best candidates we could to the voters by getting them nominated and their names printed on the ballot. And if our candidate was clearly inferior ? In my view it was incumbent on me to support the better candidate and use that as a lesson to the party activists to do better next time, or, in case where the opposing party had advanced a clearly superior candidate, to support the better : because ultimately it’s the public interest that should prevail, not a party’s.

Those who in Massachusetts take the “party principles first” position ensure that more and more voters will opt out of party enrollment. We’re already at the point at which unenrolled candidates are likely in many districts to defeat both party candidates. In the towns, “NPA” voters number upwards of 70 percent, even 80 percent. These numbers increase every year.

It was depressing to listen to newly-nominated Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, on the day after her victory in the primary, talking about Democrats this, Democrats that.  Is she elected to represent just Democrats ? Or all her voters ? one hopes the latter: but there she was, sounding like a candidate for Democratic National Committee-Woman, not for Congress. In Washington, talk about party may matter, for Congress has become almost completely Parliamented (our Constitution notwithstanding). Here in Boston, however,k such talk sounds weirdly unreal.

Governor Baker won his 67 percent — moire than 1,700,000 votes — not only because of a job well done. The most frequent comment I hear about him is that “he works across the aisle.” That — working across partisan aisles — is what almost all of our voters want, and it is why they gave him a bigger vote even than Senator Warren received.

The message could not have been clearer.

Our partisans need to rethink the locked-door approach. Either our parties expand, and welcome those of it who critique, or they risk becoming circled wagons, cameos of a curious Leninism in which loyalty to the party shines an ever dimmer light on ever more faded mirrors.

So far, that prospect doesn’t trouble our partisans. The smaller the party, and the less connected to the outside, the easier it is for controllers to control it. No political battles feel fiercer than battles for state committee and ward committee control. The party eventually cannibalizes itself — and enjoys the meal.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

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