One of my guilty pleasures in life is reading the comment sections of online articles. Terrible grammar aside, it’s hilarious how misinformed most people are on whatever is being discussed. This is especially true of the comments on articles having to do with Wellesley that appear on boston.com and other news sites. Many of these comments suggest that most people living in Wellesley are “snobby,” “disgustingly rich,” and “strongly conservative.” I even hear current and past residents of Wellesley describe the town as such.
Here I’d like to debunk at least one of those notions, namely that Wellesley is a “strongly conservative” town or even a “conservative” town at that. Let me start by stating that I am not judging anyone based on his or her political views. I don’t care if you’re liberal or conservative. And being conservative doesn’t mean that you’re snobby or even rich. My only purpose here is to show that such statements about Wellesley’s “conservative” nature are fallacies.
In order to quantify Wellesley’s conservatism, I’ve examined the Republican vote percentages in US Presidential elections. It’s an imperfect proxy and there are certainly other metrics one could use, but this is quick and easy. I’ve also carried the analysis back to 1920 in order to shed some light on the changing political demographics of the town. Below is a graph of my findings. Additionally, I’ve plotted the Republican vote percentages for the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
There are a number of observations that stand out. If you look at the presidential elections since 1992, you’ll see that the Republican vote in Wellesley has been hovering around 40%. Yes, the Republican vote may have been higher in 1992 and 1996 if Ross Perot had not run for office. But since 1996, the Democratic vote in Wellesley has topped 50% (peaking in 2008 with 63.7% for Barack Obama). Furthermore, during the last decade, Wellesley has been as conservative as all of Massachusetts — which isn’t very conservative. Therefore, when you read or hear comments from people about how Wellesley is “strongly conservative” or even “conservative,” just know that the town is actually quite politically liberal.
But as the graph shows, Wellesley wasn’t always this liberal. In fact, there are two separate periods that were very distinct from the present day. The earliest period was from 1920 to 1960, when Wellesley was what I would call “extremely conservative”. Republican candidates routinely received between 70% to 80% of the Wellesley vote, peaking in the 1956 election with 82.1%. And Wellesley’s conservatism stood out from the rest of Massachusetts — the Republican vote was 25-30 points higher than the state average. (But I’d caution people against saying that “liberals weren’t allowed in Wellesley” during this time, which is something I’ve heard many times before. No, there were thousands of liberals in Wellesley. And upwards of a hundred Socialists and even a few Communists. They were all greatly outnumbered and didn’t make a lot of noise, but they were there. Let’s not resort to hyperbole.)
The second period that I’d like to discuss is from 1964 to 1988. During this time, the political demographics of Wellesley underwent a drastic change. With the exception of 1964 (when extremely conservative Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, received a paltry 41.8% of the vote to Lyndon Johnson’s 54.8%), Republicans routinely got between 50-60% of the vote in each election. You’ll also see that the Republican vote gap between Wellesley and all of Massachusetts shrunk markedly during this time, from around 20 points during the first half of this period to around 6 points in the second half. So by the 1980s, although Wellesley was still somewhat conservative, the town didn’t stand out that much from the rest of the state.
So that leaves us with an important question. If the political data show that Wellesley isn’t “strongly conservative” — and hasn’t been for many decades — how come so many people insist otherwise? In other words, why does Wellesley feel conservative? To answer this question, we need to consider just one word: Swellesley.
Swellesley is the sobriquet that we’ve given our town. It represents having the perfect house, the perfect car, and the perfect family. It also reminds us of the good old days when the world was much simpler and everyone appeared happy. And it’s this conservative picture of the town that pops into the heads of residents and non-residents alike. Is it accurate? Of course not! But it serves the needs of all people. If you like the world of Swellesley, then I’m sure this contrived reality is quite comforting. And if you hate it and don’t think that you belong in Swellesley, believing in it allows you to separate yourself more easily from those who aren’t like you. Very few people openly discredit the existence of Swellesley.
I don’t anticipate that everyone will agree with this post. Who am I to say that Wellesley is or isn’t conservative? Or that the town was not as conservative in the past as many people claim it to be? After all, I didn’t live in Wellesley back then and I don’t know how you felt or what you experienced. My only response to that is what you feel and what exists aren’t necessarily the same thing. Growing up in Wellesley during the 1990s and early 2000s (when the town was slightly liberal overall), I felt that the town was solidly conservative. Looking back on it, I realize now that I was wrong. I resorted to stereotypes and judgments. I cherry-picked evidence to support my beliefs and I failed to see the entire town. And now I regret that because I know that I could have better understood myself if I was more honest with what was going on around me. Much of what I thought and did was in response to living in a fictional world.
As for the other adjectives that are used repeatedly to describe Wellesley — snobby, entitled, and ridiculously affluent — I won’t address them here, but I’m guessing that they describe only a minority of the population. And if we continue to allow others (and even ourselves) to describe our town as such, Swellesley will forever overshadow Wellesley.
- Wellesley Townsman: 5 November 1920; 7 November 1924; 9 November 1928; 11 November 1932; 6 November 1936; 8 November 1940; 10 November 1944; 4 November 1948; 6 November 1952; 8 November 1956; 10 November 1960; 5 November 1964; 7 November 1968; 9 November 1972; 4 November 1976; 7 November 1980; 8 November 1984; 10 November 1988
- wickedlocal.com: 12 November 2012
- Massachusetts Election Statistics: 1920; 1924; 1928; 1932; 1936; 1940; 1944; 1948; 1952; 1956; 1960; 1964; 1968; 1972; 1976; 1980; 1984; 1988; 1992; 1996; 2000; 2004; 2008
- wikipedia.org [United States presidential election in Massachusetts, 2012]
(Note: All data were taken from the Massachusetts Election Statistics except for the 2012 election data.)
(Edit: A reader made a good point that I believe warrants some attention. It is often said that soon after the passage of Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Republican and Democratic Parties switched platforms — that is, pre-1964, the Democratic Party was conservative and the Republican Party was liberal. Unfortunately, that is more myth than fact (at least in the 20th Century). Just look at the presidents from pre-1964. No one can argue that FDR, Truman, or JFK, stalwarts of the Democratic Party, were conservative. Nor can they argue that Eisenhower wasn’t a conservative Republican. It gets a little messy in the 1920s, but the Republicans (Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover) were arguably the conservative candidates, especially when it came to fiscal policy.)