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Bay State nation

What if America were more like us?

WHEN THE FIRST PRESIDENT Bush ran for re-election in 1992, he cautioned the electorate against voting for a governor from Arkansas. "We do not want to be the lowest of the low," Bush said, referring to literacy rates, poverty levels, and other measures that did not reflect well on the Razorback State.

We might hear worse things said about Massachusetts during this year's presidential campaign, especially with the Democrats nominating John Kerry in his home city of Boston. In February, a Washington Post headline called us the "Stigma State," and writer Mark Leibovich proclaimed, "no state carries as much political baggage as Massachusetts, the perceived liberal outpost and home to several failed presidential candidates of recent vintage" -- including Michael Dukakis, repeatedly mocked by the elder Bush as a "Massachusetts liberal" in the 1988 campaign.

Outsiders may see the Bay State as tradition-bound and complacent -- or "soft," to borrow a concept from Michael Barone's new book "Hard America, Soft America." But Bay State natives are more likely to view their state as a tough, competitive place that encourages hardball politics and economic innovation.

The caricature of Commonwealth residents as woolly-headed liberals -- and about as relevant to the future of the United States as the woolly mammoth -- is sufficiently off base to require serious adjustment. And perhaps the best way to define the character of the Bay State, in politics and civic life, is to ask: What if America were more like Massachusetts?

That's not the same as asking: What if America were more like Cambridge? If that were the question, a complicated system of proportional voting would replace American winner-take-all elections, and bike paths would be funded on a par with the interstate highway system. Even the wealthiest tenants would enjoy rent control, and prisoners would be able to cast ballots from their cells. But those two practices were banned by the Massachusetts electorate, over the objections of Cambridge voters, proving that the state does not always follow the lead of the "People's Republic" on the Charles. Even Boston isn't much like Cambridge, though it's no better a barometer of the state's political attitudes: The last three elected governors, all Republicans, lost the capital city by substantial margins. In contrast, the suburbs along Interstate 495, which often act as a brake on the state's more liberal impulses, have been on the winning side every time.

NO HAVEN FOR HEDONISM

Massachusetts certainly is different from the rest of the country, but not in ways that neatly fit the liberal stereotype. The most obvious example is same-sex marriage, which is now legal here and nowhere else. Even if voters ban gay marriage in 2006 (which is far from certain), they will do so while approving a civil union law that is more comprehensive than Vermont's. At the same time, it's hard to imagine community leaders in famously discreet Boston financing an ad campaign to attract gay and lesbian tourists, as Philadelphia is now doing. And there aren't any bathhouses (i.e., sex clubs) operating anywhere in Massachusetts, even though they can be found in Georgia, North Carolina, and other states that have no gay-rights laws at all.

For all its supposed liberalism, Massachusetts isn't a haven for hedonism. Explaining his opposition to letting out-of-state gay couples get hitched here, Governor Mitt Romney said that he didn't want Massachusetts to become "the Las Vegas" of same-sex weddings. He needn't have worried. If all of America were like Massachusetts, there wouldn't be a Las Vegas at all. Not only do we ban casinos, we don't allow bars to offer happy hours or to stay open after 2 a.m.

As for our "soft on crime" reputation, it's true that we are one of only 12 states that decline to put heinous criminals to death. We're also one of only 16 states to deprive citizens of the right to carry concealed firearms unless given specific permission by local police. But if all of America were like Massachusetts, there would be more cops on the street. According to the US Department of Justice, as of 2001 Massachusetts had 26 local and state police officers per 10,000 people, which is slightly higher than the national rate. Of course, there would also be a uniformed police officer assigned to every hole in the sidewalk dug by a utility company -- a requirement that currently exists nowhere outside of the Bay State.

There would be a lot less crime. According to data from the FBI, if our crime rate were applied to the whole nation, there would be fewer than half as many murders and significantly fewer robberies and burglaries. Despite the image of Massachusetts as a hotbed for car thefts, the incidence of stolen vehicles would decrease slightly.

THE BODY POLITIC

If the US were like more like Massachusetts, would we be a one-party nation? Probably not. Massachusetts now sends an all-Democratic delegation to Congress, but it does not march in lockstep with the left wing of the Democratic Party. Half the voters here are registered as independents, and the 36 percent of the electorate formally enrolled in the Democratic Party has not changed much over the past decade, despite the popularity of Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Furthermore, the two major parties in Massachusetts do not reflect the ideological divisions so evident in Washington. For example, during the recent debate votes on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, dozens of state legislators crossed party lines (in both directions), something that happens less and less frequently on Capitol Hill.

In voting, Massachusetts voters toe the party line far less than the country as a whole. Ticket-splitting has become less common in the United States over the past decade, but it's still strong in Massachusetts, where voters have elected a Republican governor and Democratic legislature every year since 1991.

In part, that's because if you vote straight ticket here you can't be certain of what you'll get. Republicans like US senators John McCain and Olympia Snowe, famous nationally for bucking the Bush White House and the religious right, would barely cause a ripple on Beacon Hill among people like state senators Brian Lees and Richard Tisei. At the same time, a conservative like US Senator Zell Miller of Georgia would have no need to bolt the Democratic Party if he served in the Massachusetts Legislature, where anti-gay marriage Philip Travis and anti-bilingual education Guy Glodis are members of the Democratic caucus.

If Massachusetts decided presidential elections, who would be in the White House? We don't always support the most liberal candidate, but we do go against the national grain. Since John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960, the Bay State has voted against the national winner in four general elections, five Democratic nomination contests, and four Republican nomination contests. No other state comes close to having a worse record as a bellwether. If the rest of the nation voted the same way, George McGovern and Gary Hart, among others, probably would have become president.

The Bay State hasn't voted Republican since it went for Ronald Reagan in 1984, but in that obstinacy it is not alone; 16 states haven't voted Democratic in at least 28 years and Minnesota hasn't voted Republican since 1956, so we're hardly the most extreme in fidelity to one party.

DON'T CALL US TAXACHUSETTS

The nickname "Taxachusetts" will never disappear completely, but it hasn't really fit the Bay State since 1980, when voters approved one of the country's toughest restrictions on increases in local property taxes (Proposition 2). If all of America paid taxes the way we do, it might not be such a shock to the bank account after all.

Massachusetts residents do have high tax bills, but that's mostly because we have high paychecks. The Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan but hardly tax-friendly research group, calculates our combined state and local tax burden at 9.4 percent of annual income, giving us a rank of 36th among all states -- down from our second-place showing in 1980, when our taxes amounted to 11.5 percent of annual income. The Tax Foundation also notes that average annual income in Massachusetts grew by 3.4 percent from 1992 through 2002, while average annual tax growth grew by only 2.2 percent; only three states had a bigger gap in favor of the taxpayers.

So, if all Americans paid taxes Massachusetts-style, most would pay higher taxes, but less of their income, and the latter would be growing faster than the former. Not such a bad deal.

And despite our Puritan heritage, "sin" taxes in Massachusetts aren't much harsher than the national norm. Our 21-cent gasoline tax would be a hardship to 29 states. While our $1.51 a pack cigarette tax surpasses all but two states, beer would flow more freely in 40 states if they adopted our tax of 11 cents per gallon.

WE THE PEOPLE

To some political analysts, demographics are destiny. If the US were more like Massachusetts, it would be a lot more urbanized and densely populated, but it wouldn't be getting much more so, thanks to a relatively low birth rate.

If the Bay State's immigration patterns prevailed at the national level, the number of foreign-born residents would be almost the same as it is now (31 million, or 11 percent of the population), but where they come from would change dramatically. There would be steep declines in the number of immigrants from Mexico (9.2 million to 340,000) the Philippines (1.4 million to just under 340,000), and Cuba (870,000 to 170,000). But there would be soaring immigration from Portugal (200,000 to 3 million), China (1.5 million to 2.4 million), Brazil (210,000 to 1.6 million), Ireland (160,000 to 780,000), and Haiti (420,000 to 1.5 million). We would have dramatically fewer Spanish speakers but many more who speak Portuguese. And events in Port-au-Prince would be a much bigger issue in presidential elections than relations with Fidel Castro.

If the entire country mirrored the Bay State's religious beliefs (measured by a national survey conducted by the City University of New York in 2001), Catholics would rise from 25 percent to 44 percent of the population, while the number of Baptists would fall from 16 percent to 4 percent.

But despite the Bay State's reputation for secularism, only a few more people would eschew religion altogether. In Massachusetts, 16 percent of poll respondents said that they belong to "no religion," only slightly above the national average of 14 percent (and below Utah's 17 per cent).

LIBERAL IS AS LIBERAL DOES

So just how liberal a state is Massachusetts? As liberal as any, probably. After all, in no state do voters hope for tax increases and complain that not enough criminals are going free. If you're measuring mainstream liberalism, not "loony left" ideas, it's tough to come up with any state that outflanks Massachusetts.

Perhaps another classification is more apt. American composer Ned Rorem postulates that everything in the world is divided into two categories: German or French. "German means extravagance and beating your breast and repetition and thickness and heaviness," he told ASCAP Playback magazine in 1998. "French means continuity and transparency and `say what you have to say.' " One can argue that the US is German (big-thinking and boisterous and ready to charge ahead) and Massachusetts is French (mannered, respectful of history, and ready to consider all opinions).

The truth is that our "liberal" label doesn't come from reflexive support of any left-wing notion but from a willingness to consider new ways of doing things as the world around us changes. Viewed this way, gay marriage -- as well as biotechnology, nanotechnology, and, perhaps, the mercy killing of elevated highways -- are best understood as the latest innovations. Massachusetts may be liberal. Or maybe we're just ahead of the curve.

Is Massachusetts an overtaxed liberal paradise, or an increasingly hard-hearted place with a thin progressive veneer? If America were more like the Bay State, would Michael Moore head the NEA? And just what was that revolution for anyway? Join Alan Wolfe, Christopher Lydon, Kevin Pederson, and others in an online forum on Robert David Sullivan's article at www.massinc.org.

Robert David Sullivan is an associate editor at CommonWealth magazine, which originally published a longer version of this article in its summer issue. An online forum on "Bay State Nation" can be found at www.massinc.org. 

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