BREAD AND BUTTER: OR, WHY IT’S AN ADVANTAGE THAT WE DON’T UNDERSTAND OUR POLITICAL SYSTEM
Bread and butter success : the new MBTA website
Today a friend of mine posted, on facebook , a kudo to the MBTA’s new website. “It’s so much easier to navigate,” he wrote. Just another little improvement, by a Governor who has become the most popular politician in the state by getting little reforms done.
The day prior, Governor Baker announced a reform not quite so little : he will continue the $ 500 million, priority investment in the life sciences industry first established by Governor Patrick, but where Patrick”s funding focused on structures, Baker’s funds will give priority to jobs : as he noted, it isn’t much good to prioritize our state’s life sciences industry if school graduates aren’t prepared for the jobs the industry needs filled.
Assuring the transition of young people from student to employee certainly counts among our state’s most serious policy challenges. Baker is hardly the only politician talking about it. It’s figured prominently in his campaign agenda since the 2014 election season began, and many politicians, Mayors especially, have taken up the call. The matter is not a slam dunk. Preparing students for actual employment raises all sorts of school issues, from “the achievement gap” to charter school availability to MCAS testing and the length of a school day. It also touches one of education politics’s third rails : how much involvement in education should corporations have ? Talk of corporate involvement in education leads quickly to the “privatization” that public school advocates dislike.
Thus the careful steps that Baker takes even where large sums of money are allocated. It is easier to reform when the reform being pushed is small or cautiously nudged.
All of the above leads me to the actual subject of this column : that what makes Massachusetts government work is that almost everybody misunderstands how it works and why it works, and why what people do think the political system is would be disastrous to reform if it were actually implemented.
Hardly any of the activists who make up Massachusetts’s political community seems to realize that our system works because the two parties aren’t really political parties, and that, that being the case, ideologues have scant way to force their platforms upon us. One hears, these days, “progressives” calling for the Democratic party to adhere to a platform, and for those who don’t adhere to it be challenged, even defeated. Yet when one talks to the voters at large, there is very little urge for the initiatives “progressives” wish to secure. The situation for Massachusetts Republicans is similar, yet opposite as well. Because there are very few Republicans — only eleven percent of our voters — the ideologues command much more power within the party than progressives do within Democratic circles; but the ideologies demanded by Republican ideologues are even more unpopular among the voters at large than Democratic ideologies: so that even when Republican ideologues are able to control their party’s agenda, their agenda has zero chance of ever being enacted.
As a result of these two asymmetrical impasses, Massachusetts is actually governed by low-intensity pragmatists who view systemic change skeptically, thus assuring that when they do enact legislative reforms, they’re bread and butter stuff, not champagne and ice cream. Progressives and so-called “conservatives” see this and express great frustration at it — they want noise and drama and popular uprisings — yet they do not seem to grasp why the system frustrates them rather than embrace them. The voters, too. Our voters seem to think that we have a Democratic party government, and a Republican Governor, where what we actually have is a legislature that moves slowly, usually in consensus, and a Governor who plays his own variation of the legislative tune; a Governor more popular with Democratic voters than with Republican ones, in tandem with a “Democratic” legsialty7ure that activist Democrats do not like. What’s in a name ? With apologies to Shaespeare, in this case, what’s in the names people politically use is not at all what they mean when they name it.
And our state is much the better for it
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