Invasion of the Policy Snatchers

By Joe Keohane | Boston Magazine |

The conventional wisdom is that what we do in Massachusetts is for the most part politically meaningless. That we’re so detached from mainstream (read: fat, incurious) America that anything that happens here must be viewed as an un-American aberration, or, in some cases, an outbreak that needs to be contained via months of hysterical, sanctimonious posturing, lest it spread to godforsaken small towns in the Great Ordinary Belt.

Never is this more evident than during a presidential race, when states like Ohio and Pennsylvania find themselves buckling under continual bombardment from the candidates. (In the closing weeks of his winning campaign, Barack Obama had nearly a quarter of a million people working to capture Florida. And save for a few miles along the Barrier Islands, Florida is horrible.) So you can see why Massachusetts residents might feel a little neglected as autumn rolls in: no nasty, late-night robocalls, no reporters nagging you as you try to eat breakfast at a rootsy-looking diner, no pockmarks on your front door from the knuckles of all those earnest canvassers. Sure, some attack ads aimed at swinging southern New Hampshire land on our TVs. But otherwise, it’s downright tranquil. And this is seen as a sign of our obsolescence as a people.

Yet even as Obama and McCain spent predictably minimal time here, Massachusetts showed itself to be something of a battleground this year. The months that led up to November 4 saw out-of-state donors unleashing millions to try to tip the outcome of two initiatives on our ballots: Question 1, which sought to abolish the state income tax, and Question 2, which called for decriminalizing the possession of marijuana. The Committee for Small Government, which pushed Question 1, was bankrolled more than 50 percent by non–Massachusetts residents. Meanwhile, the much-better-funded Coalition for Our Communities, which helped squash that initiative, received more than $2 million from people definitely not living in our communities. More than 85 percent of the funding for the primary group behind the successful Question 2, the Committee for a Sensible Marijuana Policy, came from beyond our state’s borders. (Evidently, meddlers care not for our greyhounds: Question 3, which secured a ban on dog racing, got most of its funding from in-state donors.)

Add it up, and 2008 saw an influx of more out-of-state money than any year this decade (save for 2006, when supermarket corporations spent big on the fight over whether their local outlets should be allowed to sell wine). It leaves you torn. For one, you can’t help but feel a sort of gratitude, after years of attention starvation, that we matter enough for people in Middle America to send in $10 checks to try to influence our affairs. Your elitism falls away. You turn Buddhist, or maybe Federalist, pondering how all our interests are interconnected, how we are all one.

But then you talk to the guy from Maine who tells you he donated $850 to support Question 1 because he wants the anti-tax movement to spread, kudzu-like, to his state, and also because "people in Massachusetts know it’s one of the most bloated and corrupt governments in the entire nation." And a native defensiveness, rooted in the belief that only Massholes are allowed to denounce their government as bloated and corrupt, sends you swinging in the other direction. You go provincial, you cocoon, you morph into George Wallace and start shaking your fist at these agitators sowing chaos in your state to satisfy their own ideological agendas. You get a window, in fact, into how it feels when we do the exact same thing to everyone else.