Boston's Incumbent Mayor Problem
I’m a huge fan of HBO’s original series The Newsroom. I think Aaron Sorkin is a genius, and I think Jeff Daniels should continue to win Emmy’s for his role as ‘Will McAvoy’ even now that the show has ended. I’ll stop there before my digression spirals out of control.
There’s a scene of the show that went viral almost immediately: McAvoy’s “America is the not the greatest country in the world” monologue.
While there are a number of absolute truths in that monologue, one stood out especially to me.
“You know why people don’t like liberals? Because they lose. If liberals are so f***in’ smart, then why do they lose so god d*** always?” Will exclaims to one of the panel members sharing the stage with him.
I’ll digress once more, very briefly: brilliant writing. Sorkin, or McAvoy, is absolutely right, though.
Liberals lose all the time. They lost at the presidential level. They lost in the Senate, the House, and now in the Supreme Court.
Where liberals lose, where the Democratic Party loses, at historic rates is in local elections. That’s what Will is yelling about, that’s what liberals should really be concerned about.
Political scientists and Democratic Party leaders are aware of the issue, and recognize it as a unique threat.
Mark Lilla, a professor of political science, calls the phenomenon the “daddy complex”. He finds that since the 1980s, the Democratic establishment left behind the local voters. The mayors of big cities, the police commissioners, city councilors used to be big faces in the Democratic Party. The establishment turned their attention away from city figures to exclusively national, popular, pseudo-celebrity politicians.
It’s not just the Democratic establishment, though. Liberal voters themselves have forgotten the importance of their city’s elections. They too turned their back on city and state elections, and invest all of their time and attention on national politics.
On the state level, this lack of attention to local politics is painfully obvious. Republicans dominate electoral outcomes on the state level. Currently, Republicans control 33 governorships and hold a trifecta – are the ruling party in the governorship and both houses of the state legislature – in 26 states.
City politics doesn’t reflect this Republican domination, but the lack of attention is still apparent. Nationwide, in 15 of the 30 of the largest cities, voter turn out in mayoral elections failed to reach 20 percent. In Boston specifically, turn out in the most recent mayoral elections reached only 27 percent, representing a decrease from the last two mayoral elections.
When people step into a voting booth for local elections, more often than not, they’re uninformed about a candidate’s policy stances. They use shortcuts to make political decisions, because they lack the information to make the decisions independently.
It’s a political phenomenon called “low information rationality”. When uninformed voters go to vote they look for two things: the fist being a political party they like, and second, a name they recognize.
The problem with that is, in Boston especially, incumbents dominate what little attention local politics receives. Incumbents, and incumbents alone, have the resources to advertise effectively, host large rallies, and reach voters.
So when an uninformed voter in Boston steps up to the ballot, it’s likely they only recognize the name of their current mayor. It’s likely they’ve no idea what policy differences exist between the two candidates. They see a ‘D’ next to a person’s name, or see the same name from billboard in their neighborhood, and check the box next to it.
This complacency on the level of the electorate breeds complacency from our elected officials. Over the last 50 years, Boston has only had four mayors. Two of those mayors served at least 4 terms.
These electoral patterns don’t breed a competitive environment in our city’s politics. Incumbent mayors don’t have an incentive to get anything done if they don’t pay the price at the polls.
Boston experiences the effects of that complacency today. Tito Jackson and his campaign showed that the city of Boston lags behind leading cities across the country with respect to income equality, housing, education, and healthcare. His policies were directed at addressing those policy areas specifically. And even still, he lost.
Specific to this mayoral election, many would argue that race, and not voter attention to local politics, is what ultimately lost Tito Jackson the election. On paper, and at first glance, their assumptions seem well founded. Tito Jackson is black, and Mayor Walsh is white. If race is truly an overwhelming predicts voting behavior, then this mayoral election should produce racially polarized results.
But it didn’t. Jackson won in a single Boston neighborhood, Roxbury. The district he represented as a city a councilor, where he set up his campaign’s headquarters, and where most of his campaign events were held. Mattapan, another neighborhood in Boston with predominantly black residents, Walsh won.
Usually race acts as a predictor of voting behavior, but in the case of this mayoral election it doesn’t tell the whole story. Jackson didn’t lose because of race, he lost because his name wasn’t well known. Because Boston voters don’t know enough about the city’s political environment to know who he is or what ideas he espouses. He lost because Boston voters don’t care about local politics.
So, to answer Mr. McAvoy’s question, liberals lose because they’re not invested in local elections. They’ve forgotten the role city governments play in their life, and look only to the President for solutions. And they’ll continue to lose until they realize this.