What I Learned Running for Governor of Massachusetts


We often hear that America is a deeply polarized society, divided by party, region and lifestyle. We the people, the experts tell us, are hopeless, too busy tearing down the other side to clean up the wreckage. What if we the people weren’t really the problem? What if most ordinary Americans shared a moral compass, even though they sometimes approach problems from different directions? What if the real problem is that our political institutions prevent us from coming together?

In December 2020, I set out to test this possibility by traveling to the heart of American politics. I launched a 15-month campaign for governor of Massachusetts. I was a political underdog and a first-time candidate. I hadn’t applied for anything since communications secretary in high school, unless you count faculty council at the universities where I’ve been a professor. When Woodrow Wilson ran for office, people asked him why he left college. His response: “I was tired of politics.” There’s a profound truth to that, but at the end of the day, I can’t pretend running for faculty council is like running for governor. I was really new.

Which means I brought a new perspective. The assumption of my candidacy was that we Americans are not who our national politics and politicians tell us we are. The national election results lead us to believe that we are at each other’s throats, bitterly divided, full of hatred and enmity for each other. My research and civic leadership – including practical engagement on Covid policy through a Harvard Rapid Response Impact Initiative – taught me something different.

I had noticed a mode of political participation in which Americans often show clear agreement on issues: state ballot measures. They are used in a variety of states, and they reveal an American people with a shared moral orientation. In 2018, a 65% majority of Floridians passed a ballot proposal to restore voting rights to people who had served their felony sentence. In 2020, more than 75% of Massachusetts voters supported the Right to Repair Initiative, which gives small auto shops a legal right to access car data, allowing them to stay competitive with automakers. That same year, 73% of Mississippians voted for a new state flag to replace the old Confederate emblems with new forward-facing symbols.

These three examples provide a glimpse of a people with a stable and attractive moral compass geared towards inclusion and equity. This is our America.

The goal of my campaign was to synchronize our politics with this super-majority. We wanted to give voice to the commitments that more than two-thirds of voters can subscribe to. These include a commitment to inclusion and equity, carried out in a spirit of unity – the same spirit that underlies these diverse successful ballot measures. They include respect for entrepreneurship and business, and the need to build partnerships that link civil society, the public sector and the market to resist the power of monopolies.

I ran pledging to unite the state into one commonwealth, and the campaign kicked off with a video called “Reinvent.” He called on Massachusetts for transformation in the language of the Declaration of Independence. We wanted to forge partnerships between communities and between the public sector, non-profit organizations and businesses. In the more than 200 communities we visited, we saw an appetite and a willingness to build these partnerships. Across our Commonwealth, people were ready to come together and face pressing challenges – the opioid epidemic, the housing crisis, the threat of rising sea levels. to assemble. My hokey metaphor of “knitting the state together” has traveled well.

At the same time, we have seen how voters have struggled to integrate this energy into existing political institutions. Too many people no longer saw their place in political parties. Active volunteers for my campaign—those who were willing to host house parties, call voters, and tell their neighbors about us—were unwilling to sign up to my party on behalf of our campaign. The majority of Massachusetts voters are no longer registered with a political party.

Still, the parties control which candidates make it to the ballot for the state primary. Party primaries are open to unaffiliated voters, but the majority of voters cannot participate in determining which candidates will be available for their consideration through the primary. Our campaign sank into the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s ballot access process, where candidates compete to get their name on the ballot in about 600 winner-takes-all local caucuses.

Unlike the presidential caucuses in Iowa, these are not proportional. During the caucuses, the ballot path disappeared. Could we have organized ourselves better? Of course, although I invite everyone to give it a shot under pandemic conditions. Could I have been a better candidate? Absolutely. But I was good enough to pass two of the three longtime politicians in the race. I would have liked to have had the chance to take my message directly to the primary voters, but the law of politics was that our campaign must, under such conditions, fail.

What does this experience tell us? We the people are healthy, but our vehicles for political participation need attention. We need refurbished or new participation vehicles to have a healthy democracy. Parties continue to own and direct our representational mechanisms; they are the only means currently available to submit a representation dossier. Yet the majority have turned their backs on these vehicles. Our representation system is in crisis.

The good news is that we the people want to participate. The people of Massachusetts — and, I’d bet, America — are hungry for representation of common sense and common purpose. But we need healthy parties, or alternatives, if we are to have the voice, choice and representation we deserve. In 2021, I decided to throw my hat in the ring to give people that choice. In 2022, I hope we can reinvigorate Americans’ political participation by giving them institutions that enhance participation.

Ms. Allen is on leave from Harvard, where she is a university professor and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.

Bottom line and outlook: The administration’s new Disinformation Governance Council is likely to foster greater public distrust. Images: AFP/Express/Getty Images/AP Composite: Mark Kelly

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