Mapquest.dem: What's the Matter with Massachusetts? the Democrats Are Far Too Dependent on It. Go Midwest, Young Man

By Lind, Michael | The American Prospect, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Mapquest.dem: What's the Matter with Massachusetts? the Democrats Are Far Too Dependent on It. Go Midwest, Young Man


Lind, Michael, The American Prospect


IS THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY BECOMING THE NEW England party? In 2004, the candidates who dominated the Democratic presidential primaries, beginning with the one in New Hampshire, were Howard Dean of Vermont and John Kerry of Massachusetts. In 2004, as ill 1988, the Democrats nominated a liberal Massachusetts politician to run against a conservative member of the Bush family from Texas. And each time, the Texan won a majority of the popular vote as well as the electoral vote. This time, the senator from Massachusetts lost in part because the decision by the state's Supreme Judicial Court to legalize gay marriage galvanized socially conservative voters across the nation, who turned out to pass 11 state referenda against gay marriage.

Outside of selected cities, the core region of the Democratic Party is New England. The Democratic Party is also the minority party at all levels of government.

These two facts are not unrelated. Throughout American history, national parties too closely identified with New England have repeatedly been marginalized. This has been the fate of the Federalist Party, the Whig Party, and the old Republican Party at its nadir, between the 1930s and the 1960s. And it is the fate that threatens the Democratic Party today--unless it takes conscious and aggressive steps to constitute itself once again as a regionally diverse coalition of interests that can become a majority party.

IF YOU LOOK AT A LINGUISTIC ATLAS OF THE UNITED States, you'll notice something striking. The "Upper North" dialect zone identified by students of American speech patterns is almost identical to the blue-state zone on the Electoral College map: New England, the Great Lakes states, and the Pacific Northwest. This is "Greater New England"--the regions settled by New Englanders and their descendants from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

The culture of this vast expanse emanated from two areas of early settlement by English Puritans in the 17th century: the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Connecticut River Valley. From here, the "Yankees" spread to all of New England and upstate New York. In the 19th century, settlers from these areas colonized the Great Lakes region and the upper Midwest. In Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio, the Yankee settlers encountered southerners migrating northward; the resulting political diversity of those states has made several of them "swing" states for generations.

From the upper Midwest, some pioneers of Yankee stock migrated to the Pacific Northwest. New Englanders were so important in the fur trade in the Oregon Territory that the local Indians described all whites as "Bostons." In the 1840s, Yankee settlers colonized the Willamette Valley in northwest Oregon. A variant of New England culture left its imprint on the politics, folkways, and dialects of northern California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. On the West Coast, as in parts of the Midwest, the Yankee settlers were joined by Scandinavian and German immigrants with similar values.

Today, the political culture of Greater New England, like that of other U.S. regions, is shared by many Americans who are not descendents of the Puritan settlers. The historian Wilbur Zelinsky has observed that "the activities of a few hundred, or even a few score, initial colonizers can mean much more for the cultural geography of a place than the contributions of tens of thousands of new immigrants a few generations later." This is because newcomers, whether from abroad or other parts of the country, tend to assimilate the local regional culture. Geographic mobility reinforces political regionalism, as people move to communities with values like their own.

THE CONSTELLATION OF VALUES THAT HAS DEFINED Greater New England political culture for centuries includes reformism, intellectual elitism, and anti-militarism. Reformism. New England and its demographic colonies in the Midwest and on the West Coast have been the seedbeds for most of the reform movements of American history. …

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