It’s been said that democracy was founded in Greece and perfected in New England. Many of the region’s towns and villages are still run by town meetings that form the closest approximation to participatory democracy seen anywhere in the world. In cities, meanwhile, Democratic (with a big “D”) machines founded by Irish and Italian immigrants still hold enormous sway. In fact, in many parts of New England, it can be assumed that residents are Democrats, if not even farther to the left. But there is more political diversity to the region than immediately meets the eye, from the Republican strongholds of southern Connecticut  to the radical populists of Vermont , and the fiercely independent (and maddeningly mercurial) voters of New Hampshire . Even in liberal Massachusetts , the majority of voters are registered Independents, not Democrats, highlighting the individualism that has run through the political fiber of the region since the Revolution.
In national politics, Massachusetts casts a shadow much longer than its small size. Since the constitution was signed, prominent congressmen from the state have helped determine the course of the country, from Daniel Webster’s compromise of 1850 to Tip O’Neill’s long tenure over the House of Representatives in the 1980s to Ted Kennedy’s unabashed liberalism in the Senate, where he loomed large in influence for 43 years. With the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006, New England politicians found themselves chairing several major committees in the House and Senate. Typically, politicians from New England sit to the left on economic issues such as minimum wage and welfare, as well as national wedge issues such as abortion, gun control, and immigration. Even its Republican politicians, such as longtime Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, often serve as voices of moderation within the party and temper the right-wing impulses of more radical conservatives.
New England recently rocked the nation in 2004, when the Massachusetts Superior Court declared that gays could not be prevented from marrying. Since then, the issue has set off a furor nationally, with politicians in many states pushing through preemptive laws and constitutional amendments against gay marriage.
In New England, however, the opposite has happened—since Massachusetts’s court decision, Connecticut courts have also ruled gay marriage legal, and legislators in Vermont and New Hampshire have proactively passed laws allowing same-sex marriage (Maine lawmakers approved same-sex marriage, but the law was overturned by voters). As a result, now four of the five states in which gay marriage is legal are now in the region (the other is Iowa). Since these laws and court decisions, the initial outcry by many opposed to gay marriage has mostly died down. As gay men and lesbian women have become married and adopted children, many of the state’s most prominent politicians and businesspeople have come out in favor of their unions. Even social conservatives mostly shrugged their shoulders when the promised apocalypse didn’t happen, falling back on a typically Yankee sentiment of “live and let live.”
Finally, New England has continued to influence the national dialogue on the most pressing national issue of the day—healthcare. Starting in 2005, Massachusetts began a grand experiment in requiring every citizen to obtain healthcare insurance, at the same time subsidizing care for those who couldn’t afford it. The jury is still out on the system—it has cost significantly more than expected, and universal coverage still hasn’t been achieved. However, the percentage of people without coverage in Massachusetts is down to 5 percent, and the state is now being used as a model for national healthcare legislation.
The region’s stereotype as a bastion of liberalism, of course, means that politicians don’t always fare well on the national stage. In several recent presidential races, New England candidates have gone down in flames; including Michael Dukakis, who lost in 1988 to George Bush; Paul Tsongas, who lost in the 1992 Democratic primary to Bill Clinton; Vermonter Howard Dean, who lost in the 2004 primary to Bay Stater John Kerry; and Kerry himself, who eventually lost in the general election to George W. Bush. The region is still looking for its standard-bearer to regain the Kennedy legacy in the White House.