Republican win in Massachusetts – The tipping point for abandoning health care reform?

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8 Responses

  1. Rolton says:


    Since I’m a fan of Merton, and a pedant besides, I cannot help this opportunity to point out an instance of the Matthew Effect (see And this stuff is commonly-known enough to just drop Wikipedia links, so that’s handy.

    “Broken windows” is not Gladwell’s theory. It’s best attributed to James Q. Wilson, George L. Kelling, and Catherine Coles (see I’m actually kind of doing Gladwell a favor here, as broken windows has fared pretty poorly in criminological research. So he shouldn’t take too much blame for it.

    Gladwell is a social science journalist… or, if he would prefer, a pop social scientist, but that label seems more pejorative to me (maybe not to others). And there are upsides and downsides to his role; he can do an excellent job popularizing social science to a wider audience, but on the other hand, he can obscure thorny details of social science as well as genuine intellectual history (as in the case of, say, broken windows theory…). So someone can end up with a caricature of sociology, or criminology…

    I think Steven Pinker, as a genuine social scientist who also writes for a mainstream audience, has a useful take on Gladwell: (But don’t get me wrong; ANYONE is better than Dubner and Levitt.)


    Back to the topic at hand. I don’t think the tipping point is a real social event. It is a frame. It’s an analogy (I mean, literally, the use of the phrase “tipping point” is always an analogy). To Republicans/conservatives, this is definitely a tipping point, the date at which the American people struck back against the tyranny socialist fascist communist etc. etc. etc… but that’s a talking point. It’s spin. It’s not based on consideration of the facts, it’s based on political gamesmanship.

    You write about the “feeling” of this election and that it “seems to” be a broken window. You suggest that “it” has pushed Americans on the brink…

    But that’s not the case! The election has not pushed anyone anywhere; it is an inarticulate social event. The politicians push their framing, as do the media and pundits (so often one and the same, these days). This is all about the interpretation of an event, and you’re missing that.

    To draw an analogy back to the broken window hypothesis, this election is as if vocal residents of a community started marching up and down the street screaming “THE WINDOWS IN THAT WAREHOUSE ARE BROKEN! THAT MEANS THE POLICE WILL NOT NOTICE AND NO ONE WILL CARE IF WE STEAL EVERYTHING AND START SELLING DRUGS AND SHOOTING PEOPLE!” They might believe it, and you might believe it, but is that the window’s fault?

  2. First of all, the name of my state is misspelled in the post’s title. Second, there are a plethora of other possible explanations that have and could be advanced for the fact this seat fell to a Republican. Chief among them are social movement analyses focusing on the influx of resources from outside the state and media framing of issues in the campaign. A cursory examination of the turnout by city suggests an analysis might be in order to determine whether it is true that turnout was higher in the wealthy suburbs, and lower in more traditionally Democratic strongholds.

    The Coakley campaign did make significant mistakes in underestimating the organization of the Brown campaign. It failed to put boots on the ground, to make appropriate use of its air time, to counter the factual distortions of the Brown campaign, and to make an effective emotional appeal. All of these questions fall squarely within the realm of a movement analysis, and more importantly are local issues. They are not as reflective of the national mood as some would claim. Exit polls have shown that a significant number of Brown voters who were Obama voters support the public option. It’s not the “ills of revamping the health care system” so much as the ills of not going far enough with reform that are at issue here.

    The analysis suggested above does not seem to balance structure with agency. It has turned out that the filibuster-proof majority was not necessary to bring health care to fruition after all, because Democratic support for it cannot be counted on precisely because a bill without a public option makes them vulnerable in upcoming contests. Therefore, the loss of the seat here is largely symbolic, and there is agency in framing the loss in ways that overstate its impact. National Republicans were just as stunned as Democrats by this win, and maintained radio silence for a few days, presumably to determine how this could be spun. To see Brown on the evening news, one would think he were still campaigning. Why is that?

    Lastly, it’s hard to see how health care could have been the issue for Massachusetts voters except through ignorance of the national proposal or an informed insistence on the public option. This is because Massachusetts already has a plan which resembles the national one, particularly in its adoption of the individual mandate.

    Massachusetts citizens may be the voice of the nation, but are we hearing clearly their views on health care and other issues of the day?

  3. Philip Smith says:

    I have corrected the error in the post’s title – ed

  4. Dena T. Smith says:

    I appreciate the comments and just want to respond briefly. In this short piece, I’m not claiming that this is the ONLY force at work here – it’s just a suggestion as to one of the possible reasons that the national discussion shifted so rapidly in a short period of time. It’s about this event as an iconic moment.

    Rolton, to your second comment – I agree, I do use the language of this tipping point as a real event and I agree again that it’s more about the construction of the event and, as I say, about the spinning of it. Of course, there are real phenomena, but my point here is more about the symbolic. However, the reason I originally thought of Gladwell was precisely because of the relationship between the physical space and action – which are actually both symbolic and real.

    To Richard Hudak – You point out some interesting issues, but we’re talking about different elements of the election in many ways. One thing that you seem to misunderstand about my argument is that I’m not claiming that there was a tipping point that led to the election in MA, but rather that the election itself became something that will potentially (and has already) affected the “fate” of health care. In other words, that MA has health care that resembles the proposed national plan, if anything, made it possible for the pundits to say – “see, look, EVEN Massachusetts went to a Republican.” My very brief argument is not so much about what happened before the election, but after. Whether the Coakley campaign didn’t do the best job they could, for instance, is, again, interesting, but a slightly divergent issue. I’m talking about what the election did – not what led up to it, though it is a very important issue in itself.

  5. Dena T. Smith says:

    An interesting poll and story from NPR this morning:

  6. Keri says:

    I think you are right that what happened in MA was not precipitated by a tipping point. Residents of this state already have a universal health care policy in place, which includes mandatory purchase of health insurance. Thus, residents of MA might be the least impacted by the outcomes of health care legislation (although it might impact the state’s budget if federal funding foots the bill).

    I would add that Malcolm Gladwell did win a public sociology award from the ASA–I think 2 or 3 years ago. So, it is safe to say that sociologists find his work to be worthy of attention.

    Thanks for an interesting post–writing from a Coakley stronghold.


  1. 27th January 2010

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