June 21, 2016

Mike Deehan photo; Brendan Lynch photo illustration.

Today we welcome a guest post from our friend Professor Jeffrey Berry, the John Richard Skuse Professor at Tufts University. Professor Berry has authored many books in his distinguished career, including most recently, with Tufts colleague Professor Sarah Sobieraj, The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility. He draws on The Outrage Industry to help explain why our Massachusetts politics is just so darn nice.

Massachusetts is swimming, impressively so, against a national tide of polarization. Nationwide the antagonism of partisans toward each other has grown such that a third of Republicans believe that the Democrats “threaten the nation’s well-being.”  Slightly fewer Democrats believe the same about Republicans. Thirty percent of conservatives say they would be upset if a family member married a liberal. About a quarter of liberals say the same thing about marriage with a conservative. This calls to mind an earlier era in Massachusetts when a mixed marriage was Irish on one side and Italian on the other, causing consternation all  the way around.

It’s not that Massachusetts is without its partisan moments and we’ve certainly had our share of ideological firebrands over the years. The busing crisis of the 1970s reminds us of just how fragile the bonds of civility can be. Still, Massachusetts today stands out among the 50 states for its temperate tone.

At first glance the lack of politics-is-war rhetoric here may seem to indicate nothing more that there aren’t many Republicans on Beacon Hill. Massachusetts is largely a one-party state with Democratic delegations of 100 percent in the Congress, 79 percent in the state house, and 87 percent in the state senate. Perhaps the Democrats don’t feel the need to vilify their Republican colleagues because there are so few of them.

Yet there are plenty of one-party states that are deeply polarized. New York, for example, is a blue state with a nasty streak in its politics. Most of the South is firmly in the hands of conservative Republicans but they have zealously gone after the Democrats and demonstrated little interest in bipartisanship. Democrats in Kansas are an endangered species but you wouldn’t know that from watching Governor Brownback and his mad-dog colleagues in the state legislature. On a scale of political civility, even Minnesota Nice would come up short in comparison to Niceachusetts.

Alternatively, Massachusetts today may simply reflect the moderate tone of its current Governor, Charlie Baker. His wonkish, pragmatic approach to governing has clearly disarmed the Democrats. But this, too, seems unconvincing. Deval Patrick did a wonderful Mr. Rogers imitation during his 8 years in office.

A more convincing explanation is that Governor Baker has the freedom to work cooperatively across the aisle with Democrats not only because he has so few Republicans in the legislature, but also because he does not have to fear a challenge on his right. By way of comparison, think of Republicans in Congress, fearful of casting a single bipartisan vote that could alienate Tea Party chapters back home and make them the next Eric Cantor. In Massachusetts there is no significant Tea Party presence. Similarly, the Christian right, a strong foundation of so many state Republican parties, is largely absent here. In the broadest terms, grassroots conservatives in Massachusetts lack the organizational presence that has helped to empower them in so many other places.

Another striking difference with other states is the weakness of talk radio. What my Tufts colleague, Sarah Sobieraj, and I describe as “the outrage industry” has but a modest presence in Massachusetts. Although polarization can come from the left and right, the appeal of ideological cable and radio is largely the domain of conservatives. Fox Cable draws well across most of America but depends on a mostly conservative audience, a small base to draw on in Massachusetts. The viewership for its liberal counterpart, MSNBC, is tiny. As for talk radio, nationally there are no major syndicated programs that are hosted by liberals. Based on published ratings Sobieraj and I estimate that there’s an audience of 35 million a day for shows hosted by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage and others.

Outrage talk radio is a massive force that stirs resentment and Donald Trump used the talk radio playbook to leverage that anger into a presidential nomination. Even so, it barely registers in Massachusetts. Rush Limbaugh, the nation’s most popular talk radio host, is heard across 600 stations in the United States; in Massachusetts he can be found on only four stations. He was recently dropped by his Boston station (WRKO) and in the metropolitan area one must search the dial for a small, obscure suburban station to hear Limbaugh. His new outpost, WKOX, scored only a miniscule 0.2 percent share of the total metro Boston radio audience in the latest Arbitron ratings. 

This weakness on the right gives the state’s Republican business elite wide berth to exert its influence in GOP nominations for governor. And their formula is a winning one; since 1990 the only Democrat to win the office is Deval Patrick.

This may all seem too generous to the Republicans, giving them the credit for the state’s tolerant political temperament. To be sure the state’s business leadership extends to all sides of the political spectrum.  Democratic leaders in Massachusetts, who tend to fall into two camps, liberal and more liberal, nevertheless display a pragmatic streak when it comes to business development initiatives. This generates considerable collaboration between Republican governors and Democratic legislators.

The state’s booming economy is not the direct outgrowth of bipartisanship. Still, this collaboration is an important ingredient in any recipe for prosperity. Contrary to national Republican dogma, modern market economies depend on a vigorous supporting role by government. Business leaders in Kansas or North Carolina are surely envious of a state political system where cooperation between the parties is common.

There are no guarantees for the future. If the state’s dynamic economy stumbles, contention is sure to follow. New leaders may not be so unmoored by ideology as is Baker. Irish and Italians may stop intermarrying. The low volume of partisan and outrage rhetoric, though, is a reason for optimism that a norm of collaboration will endure a while longer.  

Charlie Baker, The Outrage Industry

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