What's the Matter with Massachusetts?

In which a born-and-raised, dyed-in-the-wool Boston liberal (transplanted to New York) tries to make sense of the big old hulking electoral mess that is his home state right now.

Whenever my dad, an American history professor at Boston College, mentions the big ancient bad that was Richard Nixon, he always smiles and says "Did I ever tell you that I had a bumper sticker that said 'Don't Blame Me, I'm from Massachusetts'?"

And, yes, of course he has told me lots of times. But I still like to hear it. He'd worked on the disastrous McGovern campaign that had failed to win any states but one: dear old MA (well, and Washington DC). This was a proud little moment for my father and his compatriots' — all the intellectual, Steven Keaton liberals that thrived and flourished in 1970s Boston. They had tried nobly to hold back the tide. This lone, tiny crook-fingered state had said no to Dick Nixon. They'd failed, but they'd done so on the right side of history.

Growing up, this was always the given of Massachusetts. It was imparted to me that it was the place for smart, pragmatic liberalism. The busing riots of the 1970s were thought of as an ancient aberration (and pretty soon a hard-line racist neighborhood like Southie would become a quaint little novelty, turned into an Epcot land of bahs and row houses, a commercial development project tumored with condos facing the water). We were always the state you could depend on in an election, we'd always go left, we never wavered. This was a given in Massachusetts, especially in Boston, and there just wasn't any other way it could be.

Or at least it seemed that way to me as a kid. I guess I never paid much attention to Republican governors like Bill Weld or Paul Cellucci. Or if I did, their victories were chalked up to the unsettling presence of prominent Mass democrat John Silber, president of BC's local rival Boston University and a certified crazy. His name was a dirty word in my house, for reasons I never really bothered to have explained. Plus, these were all local issues. On the national stage we Bay Staters always presented a solidly unified front. Massachusetts will go blue, thank you.

This thinking continued through college and now to the sloppy years after. When I moved to New York, I never registered to vote here. And, frankly, I never really sent my vote home either. Because I knew how home would go and what was one less vote on top of the pile? It's a comfy kind of complacency, being a passive but supportive part of something, trusting the hive mind to move and think for you. I still ask my dad who to vote for, and then I don't end up voting most of the time. I mean, what's the point!

Well, last night is the point. Sure, Martha Coakley still took Boston, we knew she would, but just look at all that red. How could this happen? This is not supposed to happen, not for the Senate. Not for something national. Sure there was that mortifying catastrophe known as Mitt Romney. But he was our little quiet mistake, mostly, before that stunted, embarrassing run at the presidency. But this... This is Kennedy stuff we're talking about. Kennedy. You don't grow up a stone's throw from Brookline without trusting in Kennedy continuity. Coakley obviously felt the same way I did. She's from the firmly-blue western end of the state, the hilly, artsy companion piece to Boston's stony bookend. Probably her worldview (stateview?) was just as silly and distorted as mine.

We're what's the matter with Massachusetts, aren't we? Not them. Not the frustrated easy-answer seekers who tossed their votes to prettyboy Brown over there. No, it was our fault for assuming that some things are given. If that seems fairly obvious to you (and it probably should), it certainly didn't to some of us. I suppose it's a kind of arrogance, but it's also a strange naivety — a sort of childish wish for things to be as absolute and simple as we'd seen them when we were young. I chose to ignore the pick-up trucks and Dixie flags (yes, actual Dixie flags in New England) that you sometimes run into once Boston's skyline has faded and disappeared. Clearly that was an enormous blunder. Massachusetts is, yes duh, their state too. And all those people there in the middle, it's theirs too! And now they've finally given us a stern rap on the noggin as a reminder.

I'm sure this isn't all to do with us. But it sure feels personal and does shake the core a bit. And yes, I know this was just one weird special election, and that we get to do this all over again in less than two years. But darned if the whole thing doesn't seem a little big today. I'll just say: my home state feels a lot further away today than it has pretty much all the four years I've been away from it. What's even worse is that it's my fault. All my fault!

This morning in my apartment I noticed something awful. There, sitting atop the pile of sweaters and scarves and god knows what else that's forever moored at the foot of my bed, was my half-filled-out absentee ballot application. The proud, xeroxed, tarnished seal of the Commonwealth. My scrawled, lazy handwriting. I thought about my father, who'd been raging in his quiet way about Coakley's non-campaign for weeks. And I thought, "Blame me."