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The Key Lesson of Ayanna Pressley’s Victory

September 5, 2018 | post a comment | Philip Johnson

Last night, in one of the most remarkable upsets of this remarkable political season, Boston City Councilwoman Ayanna Pressley clobbered longtime incumbent Representative Michael Capuano in the Seventh District of Massachusetts. It made me feel old.

It made me feel old because I remember a time, before redistricting, when most of the Seventh District of Massachusetts lay in the Eighth District. And it was in the Eighth District, as a 15-year-old in 1986, that I learned lessons about American politics that turn out to no longer be true.

That year, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who had represented the Eighth since before I was born, announced his retirement. And I began volunteering for an ardently liberal state senator named George Bachrach, who hoped to succeed him. Unfortunately for Bachrach, Joseph Kennedy II—Robert Kennedy’s son—soon entered the race, as well. Kennedy was among the least-qualified, least-impressive candidates in a crowded field. Yet in the campaign’s closing weeks, Boston’s power brokers closed ranks behind him. Kennedy won endorsements from O’Neill, Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, the Boston Herald, and The Boston Globe, and went on to win. (Gerald Sullivan and Michael Kenney tell the story in their book, The Race for the Eighth.)

The message seemed clear: At the end of the day, Bachrach—a New York transplant with Jewish roots—was an outsider. Kennedy may have been less qualified, but he was more Boston. In O’Neill’s famous dictum, all politics really was local.

But that maxim is now out of date. Capuano, Kennedy’s successor, was born in Somerville, in the heart of the Eighth (now the Seventh) District. Like generations of Massachusetts pols before him, he attended law school at Boston College. He served as an alderman in Somerville, then mayor. He garnered the endorsements of Boston’s top Democrats. In a recent profile, The New York Times described him as “talking knowingly about local issues with a range of leaders he has cultivated for years” in a “thick Boston accent.”

It didn’t matter. Yesterday, Boston, a city long known for its insularity and its racism, voted to replace Capuano with Pressley, an African American woman born and raised in Chicago.

It did so because American politics isn’t that local anymore. It didn’t matter that Capuano had the stronger Boston accent and Boston lineage. There wasn’t much space between the two candidates on policy grounds, but Pressley was the more eloquent and impassioned liberal. And in 2018, regional identity matters less than it once did and ideological identity matters more.

Pressley’s only the latest example. When I was 15, a politician’s home state often told you more about the politician’s belief system than the party. Republican senators like Mark Hatfield of Oregon and Lowell Weicker of Connecticut were easily more progressive than Democratic senators like John Stennis of Mississippi and Howell Heflin of Alabama. As late as 2004, Zell Miller, who for 30 years had been among the most popular Democrats in Georgia, gave a fiery convention speech for George W. Bush.

But these days, southern Democrats sound like Democrats everywhere else. In their gubernatorial primary earlier this, Georgia Democrats nominated Stacey Abrams, whose pro–abortion rights, pro–gun control, pro-immigrant liberalism would fit in comfortably in California. Florida Democrats nominated Andrew Gillum, a former Hillary Clinton supporter, more recently endorsed by Bernie Sanders, who wants to impeach Donald Trump and abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement.* In Texas, which once sent conservative Democrats like Lloyd Bentsen to the Senate, Beto O’Rourke is praising NFL players who kneel during the national anthem and slamming Ted Cruz for taking moneyfrom the National Rifle Association.

There are exceptions to this nationalizing trend. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker is a throwback to the moderate Republicanism once prevalent in the Northeast. So is Maryland Governor Larry Hogan. But overall, as the University of Pennsylvania political scientist Dan Hopkins argues in his book The Increasingly United States: How and Why American Political Behavior Nationalized, “the debates in states and even some localities have taken on a national hue.” Party platforms don’t differ much by region anymore. The outcomes of gubernatorial elections increasingly track presidential ones. And “voters today are faced with very similar choices irrespective of where they live.”

One reason, Hopkins suggests, is media. When many voters got their information from local television and newspapers, they saw news—and even commercials—tailored to their local concerns and identities. Now they mostly watch cable TV and read national publications on the internet. News consumption, which was once segmented geographically, is now more segmented ideologically. Which helps explain why Democrats in Texas increasingly resemble Democrats in Massachusetts. They’re both watching MSNBC.

Politically, the part of America you’re from matters less than it once did, and the kind of America you believe in matters more. Ayanna Pressley may not have as strong a Boston accent as Michael Capuano. But to Bostonians desperate to resist Donald Trump, she offered the stronger voice.

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