Oct 15, 2023
“Marx’s hypothesis that a person’s voting habits would be determined by their relationship to the means of production was blown out of the water…”
“This is a book about…people who have come to believe that voting is meaningless and useless because politicians or those who influence politicians are corrupt, selfish, and beyond popular control.” – Murray Levin, The Alienated Voter.
No, Professor Levin’s book is not about the current political landscape. It’s an analysis of an election that took place 65 years ago!
Boston is famous for many things, baked beans, cod, and crème pie, for example. Not to mention Larry Bird and the GOAT (Tom Brady). But these icons fade when compared to a certain Massacre (1770), Tea Party (1773), Midnight Ride and Shot heard round the World (1775).
Boston’s Mayoral election of 1959 is not quite so famous – more of a ‘canary in a coal mine’ than a shot. Nevertheless, the strange events of 1959 in the self-proclaimed ‘Hub of the Universe’ heralded the start of a multi-generational political epoch, not just in Boston but throughout the United States. This is what Professor Levin chronicled in his 1960 book.
Let’s set the scene. Boston’s incumbent mayor (John B. Hynes) is not running for reelection. The runner-up in the previous mayoral race, State Senator John E. Powers, has been designated the ‘mayor presumptive’ by the Boston media. Nevertheless, 5 ‘major’ candidates have entered the non-partisan primary. Probably the least well known is the Registrar of Deeds, John Collins.
As expected, Powers won the primary easily with 34% of all votes cast. Surprisingly, Collins finished second, but with only 22% of the total. The Boston media promptly declared the election over and promoted Powers from ‘mayor presumptive’ to ‘mayor-elect’…but someone forgot to tell Collins.
Still, the outcome of the final election was never in doubt…until about 8:45 PM on the evening of November 3.
In those days, the demographic map of Boston was simple: with a couple of exceptions, lower numbered wards = lower income residents, and vice versa. As expected, Boston’s low numbered wards give Powers an early lead – but not the lead he was hoping for. Then returns began coming in from the middle numbered neighborhoods. Something was wrong! Collins was winning where he shouldn’t be. And then…a tidal wave of ballots from the city’s higher numbered wards astonished us all.
The media pundits had been right after all. The election was not close, not even close to close. Only one problem: the ‘wrong’ candidate had won! In the end, Collins won 56% to 44%. What’s that you say? “So an underdog won a race: big deal?” Well, it was a big deal. Powers carried only 4 of Boston’s 22 Wards (he’d been expected to win all 22); Collins carried the other 18 wards, 8 of them with 60% or more of the votes cast.
Both candidates received more votes in the final election than they had in the preliminary. Powers doubled his primary vote total, but Collins quadrupled his (from 28,000 to 114,000). Less significant but even more shocking, 10% of those who voted for Collins in the final voted for Powers in the preliminary.
The verdict of Boston’s voters was delivered loudly…and clearly: “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore; we won’t let the ‘power elite’ take us for granted. Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” A handful of pundits predicted Brexit’s victory and Trump’s win in 2016, but nobody predicted Collins victory in 1959, not even this precocious 12-year-old. Nobody!
Sidebar: My father was away on business. He called me from the road. “Who won?” Collins…in a landslide. “No, seriously, tell me the truth.” Collins. “Boy, you are in big trouble when I get home.” It was true, but the truth was unthinkable.
On the weekend after the election, Professor Levin and his team interviewed 500 Boston voters, drawn from all across the city. Before 1959, demographics had always played the key role in Boston politics. Have you read The Last Hurrah? Do names like Honey Fitz, James Michael Curley, Leverett Saltonstall, and Henry Cabot Lodge ring a bell?
After the Collins era (8 years), Boston politics reverted to type – but with a much harder edge. You may recall that in the early ‘70s Boston lead Northern states resistance to Forced Busing, but you will be shocked to learn that this navy-blue Citadel of Liberalism, the home of the Kennedys, was carried by Alabama Governor George Wallace in the 1976 Democratic Presidential Primary.
But not in 1959! Levin’s study showed that religion, income, and ethnicity played no significant role in the election’s results. Collins won the votes of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, high and low-income residents, Irish, Italian, Yankee and African American voters.
Somehow, a consensus emerged without anyone (not even Collins) calling for it. It happened under the radar, at bus stops and in barrooms, and it cut across the city’s fiercely independent neighborhoods. Today, Boston is Yuppie Paradise and neighborhood identity has by and large vanished; but in 1959 things were very different.
At that time, East Boston High (Italians) played South Boston High (Irish) in an annual Thanksgiving Day football game that always ended in a West Side Story style rumble. People walking through unfamiliar neighborhoods were routinely assaulted, only to be told that it was their own fault for ‘playing away from home’. These were just the facts of life in Boston.
Do I exaggerate? Perhaps. Nonetheless, the idea that voters from low-income Charlestown and high income West Roxbury would support the same candidate for mayor was unthinkable…until it happened. (It didn’t happen again until Ray Flynn was elected mayor in 1984…and it was a big surprise then too.) Marx’s hypothesis that a person’s voting habits would be determined by their relationship to the means of production was blown out of the water in 1959.
It turned out that Boston voters had something in common that was strong enough to overcome their once and future conflicts, rooted in religion, income and ethnicity. According to Murray Levin, that mysterious X factor was ‘political alienation’.
May I ask you a question? The last time you voted in an election, did you think your preferred candidate would do a better job in office than their opponent? Not necessarily a ‘good’ job but at least a ‘better than the alternative’ job. Of course, you did…unless the last time you voted was in 1959.
Professor Levin’s most astonishing finding was that the majority of voters in Boston’s Mayoral election that year did not think their candidate would be a better mayor than his opponent. This tendency was especially prominent among Collins voters. The conclusion is inescapable: people voted for Collins, not because they thought he would do a better job than Powers, but for some ‘unrelated’ other reason.
And so, ‘message voting’ was born…in Boston, the Cradle of Liberty! Folks voted for Collins, not because they believed he’d be a better mayor, but because they refused to be taken for granted. “This is our chance to poke the media-commercial complex in the eye.” And so they did!
Image: Candidates John F. Collins and John E. Powers.
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at email@example.com.