MASSACHUSETTS EXCEPTIONALISM IS the idea that it is “different here” – that the Bay State stands above the other 49 states in ways enviable, enlightened, and worthy of emulation. 

A recent volume I co-edited with Jerold Duquette, The Politics of Massachusetts Exceptionalism: Reputation Meets Reality, provides a systematic examination of whether or not that vision remains descriptively accurate in the politics of the Commonwealth. We offer a yawn-free collection of scholarly assessments that coalesce around a nuanced take: Massachusetts politics remain exceptional in the durability of our institutional arrangements and comparative lack of negative partisanship, but wanting on issues like diversity of officeholders, wealth inequality, and guards against dark money.  

An empirical question our volume could not definitively answer was how today’s residents of the Commonwealth see Massachusetts. In the public mind, do we remain an intellectual beacon, a state whose prioritization of knowledge and community brought the nation’s first newspaper, public library, college, and public high school, or have the bruising effects of electoral contests between new and old Massachusetts made residents feel the Bay State is but average?  Unexceptional?

A new CommonWealth Beacon poll provides welcome answers.

It makes clear that Massachusetts residents understand the Commonwealth as a leader on issues like education, civil rights, and health care. And Bay Staters believe their state government is far more responsive than the federal government. 

But don’t cue the “Dirty Water” sing-along just yet. This is much more of a mixed story than a walk-off win. 

The poll also reveals substantial discontent on economic issues and basic standards of life metrics that, according to findings by the late political scientist Ronald Inglehart, should sound alarm bells for Massachusetts exceptionalism. Inglehart’s theory is fairly intuitive: One’s political values reflect their surroundings and the relative safety of their living conditions.  

So when individuals and communities are materially secure (physically safe, one can provide food, shelter, and other necessities), they have the luxury of prioritizing values like egalitarianism, tolerance, openness to change, as well as passing public policies that secure the public good. These are post-materialist values. Threats to core well-being (think lower on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), conversely, breed discontentment and self-interest in politics – materialist values. Societies thus can shift between these two value commitments. 

The CommonWealth Beacon survey provides credible evidence Massachusetts runs the risk of shifting from post-materialist to materialist values. It certainly finds that most Massachusetts residents currently operate from post-materialist values, those regularly labeled “exceptional,” but the seeds of discontent that can flip Massachusetts residents are palpable.  

On the one hand, when asked to name an area where Massachusetts leads the country, education, health care, and civil rights/diversity/inclusion were prominently named.

And this was not just pie-in-the-sky assessments where residents had no skin in the game. The Commonwealth has seen the arrival of thousands of migrants since the summer – so much so that Gov. Maura Healey declared a state of emergency in August to deal with the strains this was placing on state resources. Yet, 76 percent of respondents strongly support or somewhat support the right-to-shelter law unique to Massachusetts on the state level.  

Respondents believe that the state’s commitment to LGBTQ+ rights is a competitive advantage for the state (65 percent) and support health care providers in Massachusetts providing abortion services to people from out of state (72 percent). Residents, too, believe that undocumented immigrants, people who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, women, and those who are transgender have it better by living in Massachusetts compared to the rest of the country. So post-materialist values of social responsibility, tolerance, and inclusivity are clearly celebrated in the Bay State.   

On the other hand, when asked about specific issues that face all states, respondents also report that the Commonwealth is doing worse compared to the rest of the country on housing costs (76 percent), cost of living (71 percent), and tax levels (57 percent). Along with traffic, these are the only issues where majorities see Massachusetts as lagging behind the rest of the country.

When respondents were given the opportunity in an open-ended question to name any issue where Massachusetts lags behind the country as a whole, housing/homelessness, the economy/cost of living, and taxes took the top spots.

Tellingly, all of these pose a threat to basic material well-being. 

Inglehart’s decades of research indicate that when these threats solidify over time, values shift. Self-interest and insular group-interest motivate political priorities rather than the public good or inclusivity. The latter are literal luxuries for another day when one can’t afford a house, as most cannot in Massachusetts.  

As my chapter on politics and culture in Massachusetts Exceptionalism underscores, our high cost of living far outpaces the state’s relatively high median income. Staggering wealth inequality leaves communities of color at particular risk of economic peril. And when the necessities, the foundational aspects of the polity, are threatened, materialist values come to dominate an individual’s political orientation. Self-interest, material well-being over highfalutin “luxury values” like environmentalism, civil liberties, political interest, and democratic processes. Exceptional no more.

Massachusetts faces this conundrum today, even if it is largely unnamed. Making the Bay State more affordable, lowering the cost of living, and investing in affordable housing are thus far more than just partisan issues – they determine whether or not the political culture of Massachusetts remains invested in high standards of knowledge and the public good. Exceptionalism.

Massachusetts residents do, at this point, remain confident in the Commonwealth, but political science reveals that this need not be a fixed position. Residents believe that the best days are already here or ahead for Massachusetts (52 percent) but behind us for the United States writ large (48 percent). Endorsement of Massachusetts exceptionalism typifies our modern politics but, again, decades of comparative research makes clear that the Commonwealth’s challenges on affordability and housing are a lurking threat.  

Massachusetts exceptionalism currently reigns, but there are no guarantees we keep it. Foundational, materialist concerns of shelter and supporting one’s family threaten its standing — and our vaunted sense of ourselves.

Erin O’Brien is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.