July 28, 2015

The demise of the Boston2024 bid to bring the Olympics to Massachusetts is being dissected for its larger meaning. One message I take away is that in an age when the privileged in government and business dominate our political environment, the public enjoys opportunities to overturn elite pretensions.

As government grows increasingly specialized and bureaucratic, it also grows more remote from the citizen. As to corporations, our post-Citizens United world has provided abundant evidence that corporations are people who rule over flesh and blood people, with little regard for the well-being of those non-corporate persons.

Massachusetts residents, reeling from news of the government’s inability to provide public transportation that runs in the winter, a functioning Health Care Connector, a fair and transparent process to open medical marijuana dispensaries, failure to provide food stamps to deserving residents, DCF, etc. – questioned the capacity of government to deliver an event the magnitude of the Olympics without impoverishing the state. As for the suspicions the public might harbor toward our town’s condescending corporate elites, the definitive and hilarious account remains Scot Lehigh’s Olympic decision in the kingdom of Boston

I don’t really know if the defeat of Boston2024’s Olympic effort reflects a trend in the public’s disposition to assert itself against elites. There are signs: the astounding Market Basket case of just last summer, for instance. Opponents of gas tax indexing prevailed at the ballot box last year despite being outspent. Nationally, in 2014 four deep red states passed an increase in the minimum wage via referndum. But perhaps these examples are merely plucking notable cases in support of a thesis, that on occasion people will still defy elite promises in search of a better set of policies for themselves.

As for the successful effort to halt the bid, which involved both NoBostonOlympics and NoBoston2024, it benefited from sophisticated leadership and good luck. This was not Shays rebellion featuring pitchfork wielding enraged citizens but an effort commanded by savvy young professionals who ran circles around the stodgy old Boston types.  The opponents gave the media a compelling story of conflict, of the rising generation taking on the masters of the universe. It was box office. The symbol of old Boston’s ineptitude became John Fish, who once questioned the patriotism of opponents of the Boston Olympics. We root for Harry Potter, Ron Weasely, and Hermione Granger, not Voldemort.

The failure of the MBTA and commuter rail during last winter’s snow storms provided a fortunate example for naysayers – how can we run an Olympics if we can’t run the daily trains?

Another bit of good luck was the decision of WBUR to engage MassInc Polling Group for regular polls throughout 2015. That guaranteed a monthly delivery of bad news for Boston2024, as MassInc Polling chronicled the citizenry’s unease with a Boston Olympics.  As the WBUR/MassInc poll drove coverage of the bid, it also fueled apprehensions at the USOC.

A review of Boston Globe stories from 2014 shows that the Olympics was barely an issue in the election (as compared to Charlie Baker’s fisherman, for example) and thus Boston2024 was no part of the incoming governor’s agenda. He allowed the process to play out in deference to a Brattle Group review of the Olympics which, as the governor repeatedly reminded us yesterday, is not due until August. (What if the report concludes, ‘What an opportunity! Grab it!’ But I digress). The story the Democrats like to attach to Governor Baker is that he is a former corporate boss whose sympathies lie with his natural compadres, other CEOs. That didn’t happen here.

Mayor Marty Walsh is in a different position, having edged nearer to the Olympic flame. In his press conference yesterday he ungenerously referred to the Olympics opponents as merely “ten people on twitter” (inspiring the hashtag “10peopleontwitter” of course). Perhaps the mayor was testy because one of the triumphant leaders of NoBostonOlympics is Liam Kerr, who also represents Democrats for Education Reform in the city. In the 2013 Boston mayoral election DFER spent $1.3 million in dark money against Walsh.

Are Americans becoming united against Big? Conservatives are against big government. Progressives are against big corporations. The Boston2024 bid connected the opponents of Big.

Boston2024, NoBoston2024, Charlie Baker, Marty Walsh

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