Where to begin to think about the dispiriting news out of Massachusetts Tuesday night?
My first thought, like so many others', was to wonder how Edward Kennedy would have felt if he could have known that his beloved home state would vote, essentially, to try to destroy what he considered to be the most important work of his life. It is a thought which leaves me feeling melancholy on a damply cold, bleak January afternoon. A man (or woman) can spend a lifetime doing meaningful work, but in the end, it comes down to this: as individuals, we can only achieve what we can achieve within the limits of what those around us will allow. One great man fighting for a worthy cause is a rare and wonderful thing, and Teddy's legacy of public service can never be erased. But his personal ability to make a difference ceased on that sad August day when he passed away. His impassioned pleas to our better nature and his indefatigable work toward making this country a better and more decent place for all of its citizens ended with his death, and were all too soon forgotten by most of those people who lined the highways and byways of Massachusetts to watch his funeral hearse pass by. It was left to those who loved or sincerely admired him, or who truly shared his ideals, to carry that work forward.
The depressing truth is that sincere idealists, especially those with the energy and will to fight for social justice like he did, are pretty thin on the ground anywhere, including (oh, bitter irony!) the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Few people will ever put the greater good ahead of their desires, let alone consider it to be something that they, as truly moral human beings, actually need to strive toward. Most people leave that fight to others; others who also could have chosen to put their own desires ahead of the greater good, but don't. The truth is that it was left to Edward Kennedy because, ultimately, it was his cause and his sincere fight, not that of the people of Massachusetts. For they, like most people in any other state or country on the planet, do not particularly care about the greater good nor about the wellbeing of their fellow men; they care about what is in it for them. Their continued voter loyalty to the Senator had nothing to do with any sort of broad statewide support for Kennedy's fight for social justice; rather it was about something far more mundane and common. It was about sending a Senator to Washington who was seen to have the most clout through which Massachusetts voters hoped to increase their own power, wealth and influence in the country. Kennedy was repeatedly returned to the Senate because the people of Massachusetts (like people anywhere would) appreciated and enjoyed having an internationally respected, powerful and influential representative in the Senate. His dream of a fairer, more just society was largely irrelevant to them, and indeed, on a few occasions, nearly cost him their support when his efforts to bring that dream closer to fruition collided with their narrower, regional self-interest.
So let us not continue to express astonishment over the fact that the state of Massachusetts elected a Republican (who has sworn to wage a war on nearly every ideal that Teddy Kennedy believed in) to finish the term and take the seat which the late Senator was entitled to call his own until 2012. They have elected a man who approves of water-boarding torture, who opposes a federal effort to hold Wall Street accountable for its behavior, and who opposes federal attempts to bring about health care reform. Apart from some lingering affection for the memory of the liberal Lion, what exactly is it about Massachusetts that led any of us to think it was the "bluest" of states or the "most liberal of states"? I believe that people all over this country, and more tragically the Democratic party, blindly accepted a "truism" which always was, and will always remain, demonstrably false. Even a hasty perusal of Massachusetts' historical political map is enough to clearly see a landscape pockmarked with at least as many red pushpins as blue.
The people of Massachusetts, like most people everywhere, are neither blue nor red; more precisely, they are neither liberal nor conservative. Like people everywhere else, they wear that singular shade of purple which appears in a certain light to be more of a bluish lilac, while in another light on another day, appears to be most definitely pinkish-violet hued. And, as is the case for people everywhere, the source of the light that shines on the voting public in Massachusetts has always been the same: simple self-interest.
Yesterday morning, I listened gloomily to the postmortem following the death of the illusion that Massachusetts was somehow a special place - a leader among states on freedom, equality and justice - somehow really the place that Edward Kennedy so fondly seemed to envision it becoming. An NPR reporter interviewed a former Democrat who voted for Brown. The man declared that he "still shared the liberal ideals" but that it was now "time for a change". Listening, I could not help but conclude that the man was both dishonest and confused. Dishonest, because if he honestly had shared "liberal ideals" he would have been most urgently aware that real change could be coming at long last, if voters have the courage of the convictions they professed just last year. Confused because he obviously did not "share liberal ideals" at all, but rather he wished to "share" in the benefits brought to society through the efforts of other people who actually do have sincere "liberal ideals". Martha Coakley appears to have shared many of those liberal ideals of Kennedy's, but possessed little of his prodigious energy, influence and political power, leaving the voters unimpressed and unmoved by idealism alone. Scott Brown made no secret of his contempt for liberal idealism, yet he was riding a wave of Republican insurgency and populist power. Simply, the voters chose power over idealism. Frankly, they always have. Possibly, they always will.
For decades, the commonwealth of Massachusetts has enjoyed an undeserved reputation as a shining bastion of liberal enlightenment in the east. This is a reputation which the people themselves neither earned nor, perhaps, particularly cherished, but were assigned by the rest of the world because of their continued political support for Edward Kennedy. Yet, the world was mistaken about the reason for that support; most voters in Massachusetts had never sent Kennedy to Washington to fight for social justice, but to get things done for Massachusetts. As long as Edward Kennedy possessed the power and the influence to benefit Massachusetts on the national and international stage, they loved him, with or without his dreams of social justice. His successor, likewise, needs no impressive resume of sterling character or higher ideals - the people of Massachusetts are not concerned about making the world a better place, they are concerned about making their own little worlds better - and in the hard, cold light of this pragmatic understanding, it is easy to see how the election result came about.
Massachusetts itself is not, and never has been, a unique bright spot for political idealism in a jaded political landscape. It merely basked in the glow of the real beacon, the man who always called the place his home: Edward Kennedy. It is sadly ironic that the late Senator's great hopes for health care reform, for more equitable treatment and opportunities for working Americans - for a world that might be made a little kinder, a little safer and a little better for millions of his fellow human beings and ours - seem to have come to grief at the hands of the voters of his own beloved homestate. That is something I guess every citizen of Massachusetts who voted for Brown and his campaign to destroy the healthcare initiative, along with every other initiative which Kennedy would have supported and had long fought for, will have to rationalize for herself or himself.