'The Bluest State,' Part II
Putting aside the minor controversy* over Jon Keller's new book, here's my mini-review of 'The Bluest State.'
As noted earlier
, I didn't like the book nearly as much as Reader No. 1. But I still liked it and recommend it.
Here are some of my "don't like" thoughts (a few of which correspond roughly with Reader No. 1's two "opportunities for improvement"):
-- The book's often bombastic attack on liberalism might play well with Red State types eager to confirm their worst nightmares about Massachusetts being overrun by aging hippies, tweed-clad academics and finger-wagging moralists. But the book's blunderbuss approach is ultimately offputting to anyone who knows that Massachusetts' politics are far more complex and devious than the standard left-right-paradigm analysis.
-- The book doesn't adequately explain how and why Massachusetts became the Bluest State. The 'progressive' side is thoroughly covered in the book. The 'hack' part isn't. As Reader No. 1 noted: "It's the Hack-Progressive Alliance that makes it impossible to untie or even cut the Gordian knots of high taxes/ expensive programs / mediocre performance of Mass public institutions." The hacks, whose old-fashioned ethnic and patronage politics can be traced back to the New Deal, and progressives, whose more elitist suburbanite liberalism can be traced back to the '60s, may fight now and then. But by and large, the two sides play off each other and would never risk a rupture that would weaken their joint hold on power.
-- The book's heavy emphasis on the 'boomer' generation caught me off guard. As Reader No. 1 (once again) put it: "The appellation 'boomer' applied to almost everything bad in Massachusetts politics over the last 25 years feels right but is insufficient to explain why changes for the better alternate between fleeting and impossible." ... It's insufficient because it doesn't explain the existence of non-boomers like Ted Kennedy and Michael Dukakis. It doesn't explain the non-boomer-style roles of Tom McGee, George Keverian, Tom Finneran, Sal DiMasi, William Bulger, Charles Flaherty, Robert Travaglini etc. etc. etc. etc., in maintaining a permanent bureaucracy and gerrymandered legislative and Congressional districts that thwart any and all attempts at genuine reform.
With all that said, I still liked the book. Here are a few reasons why:
-- Some of its chapters contain some of the most powerful statements about how the political establishment has sat back and literally watched blue-collar, middle-class and young residents move out of the state in droves due to high costs, high taxes and other factors that can't be tritely explained away by New England's weather. Massachusetts is slowly becoming a two-tiered state: one for the uber-upper-middleclass and the other for the poor in satellite neighborhoods and cities. Instead of asking "What's wrong with Kansas?", it might behoove liberal politicans to ask, "What's wrong with Massachusetts?" The answer has something to do with untying or cutting the Gordian knots that Reader No. 1 talked about.
-- Though I found Jon's emphasis on the 'boomer generation' surprising and at times annoying (only boomers like Jon could write so passionately about boomers), I still can't get the 'boomer' appellation out of mind. I now view national politics a little more through the boomer prism -- especially Hillary Clinton's Primary Colors candidacy that seems destined to deepen the culture-war divide in America. Barack Obama, though overrated, fascinates me precisely because he drops so many disgusted anti-boomer hints in his speeches. The endorsement of Obama by Deval Patrick, though it obviously had an ethnic-solidarity component to it, struck me as a rejection of politics-as-usual and an attempt to move the generational ball forward. As for Massachusetts' boomers, their preening sense of self-importance is highly annoying -- but they're only part of the problem, for the reasons explained above.
So the verdict on Jon's book: Thumbs up. With caveats.
* As for the recent controversy over Jon's book, I think it's now clear he should have put chapter notes at the end of his book. I'm sure he agrees and wishes he did. But I don't, for a second, question Jon's intent or integrity. I hope he writes more books like this that make people talk about and debate substanative issues facing Massachusetts.P.S.
-- I'd love to see Jon (or someone else) write a book that breaks down Massachusetts' politics via a series of essays. One of the chapters, as Reader No. 1 has suggested, could be about the recent Republican-governors phenomenon, i.e. how they tried to buck the system and/or became part it. Other suggestions: the Ed King-Mike Dukakis rivalry that laid bare the tensions within the Democratic party, aka the Hack-Progressive Alliance, and how those tensions still influence state politics; the Democratic Legislature and how it wields power (Billy, Tommy, Sal, Trav etc.); Deval and his relationship with the Democratic-controlled Legislature (an unfolding drama to be sure); the Republican-party meltdown and the rise of Independents; the permanent bureaucracy; Ted and JFK II: A Contrast in Power; regional breakdowns of state politics; the true outsiders of state politics (blacks, Hispanics and women, with a few notable exceptions), etc. etc.
The bottom line is Massachusetts' political culture is too complex to slap a simple overarching narrative on it. It needs to be deconstructed -- essay by essay, tribe by tribe, scoundrel by scoundrel.