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The Massachusetts primaries will tell a tale of two Democratic parties

The difference, as is invariably the case in American politics, is a matter of tone — not just skin colour, but also sex and generation, and generally in that order

September 3, 2018

1:04 PM

3 September 2018

1:04 PM

Massachusetts, contrary to popular imagination, is not a one-party state. And not just because our governor, cheery Charlie Baker, is a Republican, albeit a very moderate one. Two parties will be competing tomorrow in the Commonwealth’s primaries. Both of them are Democratic. Therein lies the interest, and the possible auguries that these races contain for November.

One of these Democratic parties is established, institutional, pale and old. As only Alaska has more unaffiliated voters than Massachusetts (55.25 per cent and 54.05 per cent), this party remembers to lean towards the center at election time. Its historical essence is represented by Joseph P. Kennedy III of our 4th District. Joseph III does a bang-up job of walking and talking about his last name at the same time. Though he is young, Kennedy is wizened in thought and deed. So are many of his keener supporters in the well-heeled and graying western suburbs of metro Boston. The Kennedy coalition of the Irish, Italian and Jewish votes — minus, of course, the black vote, which does not exist in that district of Balkanised Boston — is sure to return Joseph III as its candidate for the House in 1968.

The other Democratic Party is newer, younger, browner and institutionally weaker. Like a ship in an ideological storm, it lists heavily to port. Recent elections have established that, at least among the Democratic membership, too far left is never far enough. The question is, will the SS Insurgent go down signaling its virtue along with its distress at the election of Donald Trump, or will it find a safe and taxpayer-funded harbour after Tuesday’s vote?

The race is especially tight in the 7th District. That’s why Mike Capuano, a 10-term Congressman, spent the morning of Labor Day massaging the union vote at a breakfast with members of the nursing union, instead of sitting in his front yard in his pyjamas, or preparing the grill for its last hurrah of the season. Capuano straddles the ethnic and economic splits of the party. He represents much of the City of Boston, but he also represents the liberal dreamland across the River Charles, Cambridge. He represents a majority-minority district, but the majority of his donors are from the white minority: the unions, the old-time white ethnics, and the limousine liberals of Cambridge.

Capuano has balanced his constituents’ needs by being both an accomplished bringer-home of the bacon for those who need it, and an accomplished emitter of left-wing signals who those who can afford to worry about that sort of thing. He voted against the Patriot Act, and he also opposed the 2003 Iraq War. This either makes him a strategic expert on the errors of preemptive warfare, or an expert at preemptively shutting up the academics and activists in Cambridge. But he is no longer left enough.

Capuano’s challenger, Boston city councillor Ayanna Pressley, is a black woman, and the first to win a seat on the city council. If she wins on Tuesday, she will be Massachusetts first black woman in Congress. That this hasn’t already happened says something about the ethnic machine politics of ‘liberal Massachusetts’.

The truth is that Capuano and Pressley agree on the most important questions, such as whether government spending should rise sharply or very sharply indeed. The difference, as is invariably the case in American politics, is a matter of tone — not just skin colour, but also sex and generation, and generally in that order. This is why Capuano voted for the Republicans’ ‘Blue Lives Matter’ bill, which proposed harsher penalties for crimes against the police. This is also why Pressley has pursued Capuano over his support for the ‘Blue Lives Matter’ bill, and why she has secured the endorsement of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The Boston Globe, which never endorsed any of Capuano’s campaigns, has endorsed Pressley. The Globe praised her ‘deep commitment to justice and equality’ and her ‘talent for perceiving concrete opportunities to make things better’. Turning to policy details, the Globe noted that Pressley had worked to loosen liquor-licensing in Boston. The old system, a hangover from the Puritans, was expensive and quite possibly corrupt. She almost had my vote there.

The Globe didn’t endorse Brianna Wu, the video game developer best known for being the victim of online harassment during the Gamergate episode, and now running as the outside candidate in the 8th District. Wu has criticised incumbent Patrick Lynch’s positions on LGBT rights and abortion, and said she wants to make Boston a second San Francisco. The New York Times furiously euphemised the 8th District as ‘socially conservative’, which is code for ‘white Catholic’ and ‘people who don’t want to grow their city’s worsening problems with homelessness, rising property prices and obnoxiously entitled techies’.

The Gamergate harassment of Wu included death threats and the allegation that she is trans. That proved Wu’s point, that computer gaming is the province of sweaty-palmed males. So, it seems, is the 8th District, where the Globe has endorsed the incumbent, Stephen Lynch. In 2013, the Globe endorsed him as the insurgent for the Senate nomination. Now, Lynch represents the old status quo. Though he will almost certainly continue to represent it in the 8th District for a while yet, the demographic and generational plates are clearly shifting.

For fifty years, the Democratic leadership has indulged the membership’s identity politics. The squawking at state and DNC level confirms that those chickens are coming home to roost. But the party is not the nation; it’s not even the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Capuano and Walsh’s pitch is that they are experienced men who know how to Get Things Done in Washington; Capuano has certainly got out the machine against Pressley. The younger women’s pitch is that the way things have been done in Washington is at the root of our current problems. That may well be true. Will the institutional bar be too high for Pressley? She just might carry the day with a post-Obama coalition: blacks, women, upper-class white liberals and, crucially, alcoholics.

Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.

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