Republicans, Massachusetts, and “Authenticity”

An oft-repeated truism of the current Republican primary campaign is that Mitt Romney struggles with demonstrating “authenticity.” It is easy to pin this on his past ‘flip-flops’ played up during the 2008 campaign. Some of it surely has to do with his Mormonism, making him easy to characterize as ‘different.’ But I think there’s an additional political cultural reason related to how Republicans talk about place.

Republicans have spent a lot of time over the last decades trumpeting “middle America” and railing against the East and West Coasts as the origin of values they find distinctly ‘un-American.’ In Republican rhetoric, authentic America is found in the region between the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges in the west to the Appalachians in the East (plus everything south of the ol’ Mason-Dixon line). In particular, two states now serve as shorthand for the contrast between authentic and faux America: Massachusetts and Texas.

At this point, assuming you don’t live there, can you even hear those words in a political context without inserting the unvoiced words “liberal” and “conservative” before Massachusetts and Texas, respectively?

These states have become powerful political symbols, and not by accident. In presidential politics, this stretches back at least to the 1988 presidential election, in which the son of immigrants challenged the son of a U.S. senator. Detractors of the immigrants’ son depicted him as elitist, effete, and out-of-touch with the common American in part by emphasizing his Massachusetts home, where he served as governor. The son of a senator, himself a long-time Washington operator and millionaire, was bolstered by his political home in Texas: a state representing masculine, ‘authentic’ America. There was more to the campaign, of course, but these contrasting regional identities helped shape the terms of the debate.

Fast forward to twelve year, when another Texan ran for president. This son of a president relied heavily on his ‘authentic’ Texas background to win the contest for ‘candidate with whom voters would most like to have beer.’ Four years later that man, now a reasonably unpopular president, won in part by playing up the contrast between his Texas background and that of … another liberal from Massachusetts.

In this context, is it any wonder that Romney struggles to connect with Republican voters in Iowa and South Carolina? These and other Republicans have been trained to think “liberal” every time they hear “Massachusetts.” That’s a lot of baggage to overcome if you are trying to convince them that you are a dependable conservative.


(I wrote in July about the absence of a ‘cowboy’  in the Republican primary. I argued, correctly, that Perry was poised to pick up a big chunk of quick Republican support if he entered the race against Romney. Unfortunately for him, the subsequent debates largely sapped this support. He looked unprepared rather than ‘authentic.’ If he manages to place in the top three in Iowa, I think he could still use his Texas image and cash to mount a strong campaign against Romney. Otherwise, I think that role will pass to the other Rick (Santorum), who boasts a different kind of Republican authenticity best described in a surprising recent column from David Brooks.)

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