Cambridge, Massachusetts—In 1989, at the apogee of his exceedingly rebellious teenage years, my brother’s band released their first full-length record (1,000 copies, available on both black and red vinyl). To be iconoclastic in the suburbs of Boston—especially the progressive pocket where we grew up—was rather difficult. Everyone in high school smoked pot and drank beer, and everyone’s parents had stumped for Mike Dukakis the previous year. So the hardcore punk band in which he played drums was “straight edge”—i.e., no booze or drugs allowed (a commandment he abandoned the following year)—and the record would open with the song “Nuke the Duke,” a full-frontal assault on Dukakis and the tyranny of “Taxachusetts.”
Perhaps, as with so much punk rock, the inevitable has finally happened: dissenting from Massachusetts political orthodoxy has finally been “commodified” by the mainstream. In this bluest of blue states, I have been following Republican Senate hopeful Scott Brown and Democratic gaffemaster Martha Coakley as they weave their way back to Boston. I have spent the past few days talking to union members, former Democrats, current Democrats, Kennedy voters, former Deval Patrick enthusiasts, and gay rights campaigners who are—as almost all of them say—Scott Brown supporters worried about the “explosive growth of government.” All natives of the commonwealth and reflexively Democratic, they kvetch about spending, taxes, and health care. As one member of a pipefitters union told me, “none of the guys in my union trust that Obama won’t hit us with that 40 percent health care tax.”
When I was a student in this state, before one could get any book overnighted from Amazon.com, I had to special order Road to Serfdom from a local bookstore. On Sunday, in front of Northeastern University, I chatted with a Massachusetts native—if I recall, he had an accent as broad as the Shannon, though after a day one tends not to notice the “bubblahs” and “packies”—carrying a hand-lettered sign that made reference to Hayek and his 1944 classic defense of classical liberalism. At a rally in Littleton (Obama 58, McCain 41), almost every car that drove by honked horns in support of Scott Brown and more than a few people explained that they had always voted for Teddy Kennedy.
What on earth is happening here? A local Republican Party Chairman was blunt: It’s health care, big government, and national security that are driving Brown’s spectacular bounce in the polls, but no one in state party politics expected something like this. To lose by 15 points would, this time last month, have been considered a good, if not really good, result.
Everywhere I turn there are r-dropping Bostonians complaining about government, insisting that Americans need to “take their country back.” One woman, who seemed overly familiar with all of my childhood neighbors—the Flynns, the McBreens—compares herself to a passenger on Flight 93 who wants to yell “let’s roll” and regain control of our hijacked country. Or perhaps she was suggesting that President Obama is a Muslim. It was, like many of the arguments I heard, not completely clear.
Those who say that the foot soldiers coming out in the bitter cold, in a wet and soggy snow, to hoot and holler for Scott Brown are hirelings, out-of-staters, both teabaggers and carpetbaggers, are talking nonsense. I came across a man from Michigan selling “second American revolution” flags, an Atlanta native who, veins popping on his neck, told me that the government was run by “thieves,” a woman from Pittsburgh who “blogs on Facebook” (whatever that means), and a handful of people from New Hampshire who would rather die than not live free. Or so their license plates informed me.
But most were like Nick Redmond, a native of Dorchester—the neighborhood famous outside Massachusetts for bequeathing New Kids on the Block and Donna Summer to American culture—who was voting for Scott Brown because, under the current administration, “the middle class is getting screwed.” Or John Camuso, a gay man from Boston who said he was “proud to give [Brown] my vote,” despite thinking that Coakley, whom he knew from his neighborhood, was a “nice lady.”
Perhaps this explains Coakley’s appearance last night at the Eire Bar in Dorchester, a redoubt of working class, union-affiliated Irish Catholics. The crowd was surprisingly small and unsurprisingly sedate. The candidate gave no speech, was surrounded by union heavies and representatives of local media, and quietly sipped a pint of Guinness. Across the bar, a boisterous Belfast native called Larry was holding a Brown sign and telling the Coakley people who surrounded him, hoisting their own signs, to “fuck off.”
When we spoke, Larry identified himself as a conservative, a union member, a supporter of Sinn Fein, and a Scott Brown voter. “Obama has demonized every facet of the private sector [and his policies] have given us huge unemployment,” he says. Outside, a Nigerian man in a red, white, and blue vest and holding a Coakley sign patiently explained to me that Israel was his “favorite country in the world”; that African-Americans need lessons in entrepreneurship from Nigerians; and that because of a Muslim student in the chemistry department at his local university, he received an unfair C+ on a recent exam. “I am the American dream,” he proclaimed.
Nigerian Zionists for Coakley. Irish Republicans for Brown. It is becoming increasingly difficult to make sense of any of this.
This much is, and has always been, clear: The working class Massachusetts Democrat—or the constantly referenced Reagan Democrat—isn’t so hip to, say, gay rights or political correctness and cannot be counted on as a natural Democrat. One registered Democrat I spoke to launched into an incoherent rant about a friend who has a “faggot purple phone.” These guys support labor unions, not civil unions. And if they can ignore the social stuff that makes them uncomfortable and pull the lever for a Democrat, what’s to stop them from rolling the dice on Brown, who the Coakley campaign accuses of being a mustache-twisting free trader who will ship Massachusetts jobs to “India and China”? Here, again, the issue seems to be concerns over health care and rising taxes trumping union-stoked fears of foreign competition.
At the Obama event on Sunday, the union guys were hard to spot (though a small contingent of “SEIU for Brown” supporters were camped in the middle of Huntington Avenue). Perhaps they were all inside the Obama revival tent, but the Brown contingent outside Northeastern was large, loud, and energized, while the Coakley sign carriers not only look drained of energy, they look defeated and depressed. They are also in no mood to be forgiving. As I walk towards the front lines, looking to take the temperature of these morose supporters of a floundering campaign, I am shouted at by a small woman in a North Face jacket and New Balance sneakers—i.e., the middle-aged Cambridge liberal uniform.
“We have been here since this morning. Go stand somewhere else.”
They are waiting to see the Obama motorcade.
“No, no. I don’t want your space, I just wanted to ask you a few questions.”