The message seemed clear: At the end of the day, Bachrach—a New York transplant with Jewish roots—was an outsider. Kennedy may have been less qualified, but he was more Boston. In O’Neill’s famous dictum, all politics really was local.
But that maxim is now out of date. Capuano, Kennedy’s successor, was born in Somerville, in the heart of the Eighth (now the Seventh) District. Like generations of Massachusetts pols before him, he attended law school at Boston College. He served as an alderman in Somerville, then mayor. He garnered the endorsements of Boston’s top Democrats. In a recent profile, The New York Times described him as “talking knowingly about local issues with a range of leaders he has cultivated for years” in a “thick Boston accent.”
It didn’t matter. Yesterday, Boston, a city long known for its insularity and its racism, voted to replace Capuano with Pressley, an African American woman born and raised in Chicago.
It did so because American politics isn’t that local anymore. It didn’t matter that Capuano had the stronger Boston accent and Boston lineage. There wasn’t much space between the two candidates on policy grounds, but Pressley was the more eloquent and impassioned liberal. And in 2018, regional identity matters less than it once did and ideological identity matters more.
Pressley’s only the latest example. When I was 15, a politician’s home state often told you more about the politician’s belief system than the party. Republican senators like Mark Hatfield of Oregon and Lowell Weicker of Connecticut were easily more progressive than Democratic senators like John Stennis of Mississippi and Howell Heflin of Alabama. As late as 2004, Zell Miller, who for 30 years had been among the most popular Democrats in Georgia, gave a fiery convention speech for George W. Bush.
But these days, southern Democrats sound like Democrats everywhere else. In their gubernatorial primary earlier this, Georgia Democrats nominated Stacey Abrams, whose pro–abortion rights, pro–gun control, pro-immigrant liberalism would fit in comfortably in California. Florida Democrats nominated Andrew Gillum, a former Hillary Clinton supporter, more recently endorsed by Bernie Sanders, who wants to impeach Donald Trump and abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement.* In Texas, which once sent conservative Democrats like Lloyd Bentsen to the Senate, Beto O’Rourke is praising NFL players who kneel during the national anthem and slamming Ted Cruz for taking money from the National Rifle Association.
There are exceptions to this nationalizing trend. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker is a throwback to the moderate Republicanism once prevalent in the Northeast. So is Maryland Governor Larry Hogan. But overall, as the University of Pennsylvania political scientist Dan Hopkins argues in his book The Increasingly United States: How and Why American Political Behavior Nationalized, “the debates in states and even some localities have taken on a national hue.” Party platforms don’t differ much by region anymore. The outcomes of gubernatorial elections increasingly track presidential ones. And “voters today are faced with very similar choices irrespective of where they live.”