Thursday, January 21, 2010
You've got to say one thing about my home state of Massachusetts: we're unpredictable. When we voted for George McGovern, I was still too young to have cast a ballot, but I proudly slapped the bumper sticker on my notebook, "Don't blame me, I'm from Massachusetts." But Mass. was never the bastion of unquestioning liberalism that national pundits claimed. Even as McGovern was achieving his only victory there, at that same time Louise Day Hicks was running for mayor of Boston, demanding de facto segregation of the Boston public school system.
And she was a Democrat!
In 1972, she narrowly lost to a guy named Joe Moakley, which coincidentally rhymes with Coackley. So Massachusetts goes both ways (see: Marriage, gay) and typically will take the road less traveled (more accurately, the road not taken). We've been declaring independence since 1775. Back then (actually, December 1773), they staged the original Boston Tea Party, and the rest, as they say, is history. Robert Frost, who wrote that poetic declaration of independence, spent much of his childhood and early adult years living in Mass. before taking his poems and picket fences north to New Hampshire. Massachusetts is the home of high tech clusters and Kennedys, of funny accents and shoehorned, asymmetrical ballparks (where players occasionally wear bloody socks, Martha).
I have no idea what accounts for this independent streak, but it may have something to do with a healthy distrust of authority. We love being different and hate being told what to do - and we love getting indignant whenever anyone tries to tell us what to do. We throw hissy fits with the best of them, even at the police, and sometimes the police throw hissy fits right back (see Henry Lewis Gates vs. James Crowley). At least we don't boo Santa Claus like they do in Philly (but they did boo Tom Brady recently, which is almost as bad). When you grow up in the shadow of a zillion universities, every kid visits a rock in Plymouth celebrating people who were fleeing religious authority, or that spot where they threw the tea into the harbor, that's going to happen. This is the state, after all, where a group of women in the '60s wrote "Our Bodies Ourselves," and where, at the same time, the first Jewish Havurah was created (Havurat Shalom), and the era of the Independent Minyan began.
There are any number of reasons why Scott Brown won on Tuesday night. My point here isn't to debate the degree of anger Bay Staters felt over Health Care or Wall Street or Schilling-gate. Undoubtedly they all played a part. Nor do I echo the White House's claim that this is not, in some form, a repudiation of the President.
I'm simply saying that has much to do with people's basic distrust of any authority, something we've seen over the past several elections, and something we are seeing in religion as well as politics.
The largest group of voters in Mass. is no longer Democratic or Republican, it is Independents. The largest group of Jews in this country is neither Conservative, not Orthodox nor Reform: they are unaffiliated.
We are seeing the growing phenomenon of de-centralization, as people move away from established groups and splinter off in many directions. In the Jewish world, there is a growing phenomenon of non-denominational, independent minyanim. Recent surveys of religion in America show that "unaffiliated" shows the biggest growth among religious groups. It no longer is advantageous to be the establishment or to run as the incumbent.
The problem with this is that as long as the predominant inclination is to "throw the bums out," no one will ever work to change the system from within. There is no incentive for Congress ever to work together on anything, because any successful collaborations will be seen as counterproductive to the parties main goal of achieving power, and that is best done from the outside, looking in.