The Boston Democrats

Posted: Jul 26, 2004 12:00 AM

Boston, the site of the Democratic National Convention this week, has never before hosted a major party national convention. That may be because, during most of its history, Boston and Massachusetts have been one-party strongholds. Heavily Democratic today, they were solidly Federalist, Whig, and Republican from the 1790s up through 1924, when Calvin Coolidge won his home state handily. But in 1928, Massachusetts voted for Democrat (and Roman Catholic) Al Smith. Politics in Massachusetts then was a fight between Protestant Republicans and Catholic Democrats, and the state slowly became more Democratic as Catholics, Irish and otherwise, came to outnumber Yankee Protestants. In 1916, Republican Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge beat Democrat John Fitzgerald 52 to 45 percent. A generation later, in 1952, Fitzgerald's grandson John F. Kennedy beat Lodge's grandson and namesake 51 to 48 percent.

Since 1960, when Kennedy was elected president, Massachusetts has been strongly Democratic in national politics--disproportionately important in Democratic Party affairs and a leading force in the party's left wing. In the late 1960s, Massachusetts pivoted from John Kennedy's robustly assertive foreign policy to opposition to the war in Vietnam and skepticism toward the use of American power in the world. In 1972, this was the only state to vote for George McGovern. Since then, Massachusetts has produced four presidential candidates more or less from the left of the Democratic Party--Edward Kennedy in 1980, Michael Dukakis in 1988, Paul Tsongas in 1992, and now John Kerry in 2004. Over that period, only one other state--George W. Bush's Texas--has produced more candidates.

Massachusetts's politics has deep roots. In his classic Albion's Seed , historian David Hackett Fischer depicts four different American "folkways" brought over to four colonial regions by settlers from different parts of the British Isles. He describes "an exodus of English Puritans who came mainly from the eastern counties [of England] and planted in Massachusetts a very special culture with unique patterns of speech and architecture, distinctive ideas about marriage and the family, nucleated settlements, congregational churches, town meetings, and a tradition of ordered liberty."

Divided party. These Yankees were moralistic and intolerant of those who did not share their moral views, eager to impose their version of ordered liberty on other Americans who preferred freer and easier ways. For years Boston and Massachusetts have championed moral reforms from abolition and prohibition to legalized abortion and same-sex marriage. From the 1790s, they had an abhorrence of war, except when a moral issue like slavery was at stake; they opposed "imperialism" in 1900, the Vietnam War in 1968 and 1972, the Iraq war today. These regional folkways, Fischer argues, have persisted and have been transmitted to immigrants. Cultural conflict between Irish Democrats and Yankee Protestants may have been the focal point of Massachusetts politics for years, but since the mid-1960s both groups have embraced a Massachusetts liberalism that is a lineal descendant of colonial Puritan folkways and out of line with most of the nation. So have Michael Dukakis, the son of Greek immigrants, and John Kerry, who is of Jewish and Yankee ancestry.

The Democrats come to Boston as a party split down the middle. On one side is the "Bush lied" crowd, which may not be fazed by the Senate Intelligence Committee and British Butler reports' conclusions that the Bush administration did not manipulate intelligence and by the revelation that former diplomat Joseph Wilson, who flamboyantly accused Bush of lying, lied himself. On the other side are Democrats who are solidly opposed to Bush but who hope for American success in Iraq, as John Kerry has been careful to do. Kerry needs to build enthusiasm among the left Democrats, who take, as Massachusetts since the 1960s has been wont to take, an adversarial stance toward American policy, but also needs to maintain credibility among center-left Democrats and the small core of undecideds across the nation. And at the same time, he has to avoid portraying himself as one who takes stands on both sides of issues--the most effective charge made so far by Republican negative ads. Not an impossible task but not an easy one either. And Boston doesn't make it any easier.