Review – Geismer, “Don’t Blame Us”

Lily Geismer, “Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party” (2014) – A book that hits close to home! This is a study of suburban Massachusetts liberals in the period running from the 1960s to the 1980s. Geismer focuses on the Route 128 corridor that runs around Boston, and on the towns of Newton, Brookline, Lincoln, Lexington, and Concord in particular. So, in terms of personal biography, it’s a day early and about a half hour north- I was born under the second Dukakis administration, where Geismer ends, and grew up around where 95 and 495 meet, where the Massachusetts Miracle extruded suburbs over old farm/mill towns, replicating the original 128 boom thirty years before. I wasn’t quite the child of the inner-ring suburb professional/managerial elite Geismer writes about, though it’s certainly close enough if you squint, and I went to school with a lot of them.

Geismer writes of the 128 suburbs as the domain of the knowledge professionals. Spurred by Cold War funding and the presence of Harvard and MIT, early tech companies and their employees flocked to the cheap but accessible real estate in what were streetcar suburbs or historical farm towns. These towns became dedicated sites for the reproduction of the knowledge-based side of the professional/managerial class- from the aesthetics of the housing stock to the structure of local government to, especially, the schools, these people had found a way of life they liked and were going to both stick to it, and pass it on to their children. Part of this particular reproduction strategy involved a denial of itself as a class process, either through efforts to abate class privilege through ameliorating the conditions of poorer people, or justifying it via a notional meritocracy, or some combination.

Unlike many who flocked to the suburbs in the postwar era, the knowledge professionals of the 128 corridor considered themselves liberals, indeed, more liberal than the boss-dominated democratic politics in the city some

of them departed. They believed in a gentler, more rational world, and in values of fair play, compassion for the less fortunate, and most of all education. Geismer depicts the original 128 settlers as well aware of the stereotypes of suburbanites — small minded, reactionary, living in houses made of ticky-tacky that all looked just the same — and strove to be different, particularly the highly educated women among them determined to remain active in the outside world and who got involved in many liberal causes.

Of course, we all know that liberal values and a dollar seventy gets you on the bus- though you might be waiting a good long while for one all the way out in Concord. The fight to bring public transit to the 128 suburbs — including a Red Line extension to Concord — is just one of many that Geismer documents where suburban liberalism either failed to act upon, or actively hindered, egalitarian projects in Massachusetts. The nice towns with the nationally-rated public schools were ok with bussing in a select few black students through METCO, especially if they could (in language that is pretty cringeworthy today) spin it as an opportunity for their little darlings to learn to work with (or manage) a diverse population. But no way were they going to consider a metropolitan pooling of school resources with Boston, especially once the Supreme Court ruled they didn’t have to. Towns like Lexington routinely evaded efforts to build more housing and make them more accessible by public transit using arguments about good, liberal values like historical preservation and open space. And of course, as times got tighter in the 1970s, the mask started to slip a little and plenty of people in the nice liberal towns voted for Prop 2 1/2, avoiding the kind of taxation on their appreciating property that might have made a difference for the less fortunate for whom they sometimes professed caring.

Conservatives (and the occasional radical) have been making hay out of the Massachusetts liberal stereotype for decades- arguably, given its role in clinching the presidency for both Bushes at various points, it is a caricature of world-historic importance. And there’s ample justification for that. But Geismer admirably resists caricature, and the result is to make the critique more potent, not less. While undoubtedly there many hypocrites among the suburban liberals, Geismer depicts many of them as quite sincere… within the bounds of their worldview. They genuinely believed in progress… all the progress that could be made without forcing a substantial change in the way of life in towns like Concord.

Something big like ending the Vietnam War was more feasible, in this worldview, than seemingly smaller things like building public housing in Lincoln or a red line extension to Concord or really desegregated local schools. The effect of Vietnam on their property taxes, the schools their kids went to, their quality of life as measured by hiking trails and the view out of their windows, was not readily apparent, though it did have an impact on that other important motivator of suburban liberalism, their senses of self as good, progressive people. They could oppose many egalitarian measures from plausibly liberal values standpoints — by reference to quality of life issues, meritocracy, freedom of choice, and so on — and often did. The people most loudly suggesting an alternative value arrangement in Massachusetts at that time were violently reactionary white ethnics in Boston, the ones behind the anti-busing and anti-abortion movements. It’s important to avoid romanticizing the working-class urban politics of mid-twentieth century in our desire to stick it to the neoliberalism that arose from the suburbs. Sometimes, there aren’t good choices- left movements in the area at the time were marginalized, where they weren’t sucked into suburban liberalism’s gravitational field.

Once Massachusetts — parts of it, anyway — began thriving again during the “Massachusetts Miracle” in the 1980s, national Democratic Party politicians began taking notice. Like other rapidly growing suburban areas organized around knowledge and service work, the 128 suburbs portended a new kind of politics, a technocratic, issue-oriented neoliberalism promising jobs, growth, and meritocratic social progress. It could present itself as progressive and rational, as opposed to the ward-heelers made to stand in for working class politics and the screaming yahoos on the right. In other words, like other forms of liberalism, it attempted to split the difference between popular power and reactionary rage through various management techniques. Mike Dukakis was an early poster-child for this kind of politics, and if it didn’t work out for him nationally (in large part due to massive race-baiting), it did work out for Bill Clinton, who had all the same policies but with a fake populist drawl. The Democratic Party is still basically that party today, and seemingly cannot adjust.

Geismer isn’t a prose stylist (most academics aren’t) but given the subject matter, the book was still highly evocative to me. I’ve come to see liberalism in general and the sort of suburban liberalism I was raised partially in and around as the tool of a class that needs to be overthrown not just if we’re going to make progress, but if we’re going to survive. But I’ll admit, having been raised around it’s tropes has had an impact, though maybe it’s just local chauvinism- I think our education-based bullshit social structure stacks up well, or is at least less tacky, than the rest of the country’s real estate and god-bothering-based bullshit social structure. It’d be easy for me to hate most of our leadership class in any event, even if I hadn’t gained a political education, because they seem like, are generally, crass dummies. But the sort of academic politicians my state produces — Dukakis, Robert Reich, Elizabeth Warren — raise my hackles precisely because I can feel them tickling some deep spot in my brain that identifies their affect and rhetorical ticks with competence and safety, probably from imbibing WBUR and Channel 5 in the cradle… suburban politics have a uniquely powerful way of wrapping regionally-tailored cultural fantasies around a means of socially reproducing an unsustainable system in a way that reinforces both. It’ll be interesting to see how it develops as that unsustainability becomes more clear. ****’

Review – Geismer, “Don’t Blame Us”

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