The Not-So-Conservative “Conservative” Town

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.  

RepublicanVote_Wellesley_graph

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.

Sources:

(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.) 

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12 thoughts on “The Not-So-Conservative “Conservative” Town

  1. I will pass this along especially the chart. Who’d have thought…
    Sent from my Verizon Wireless 4G LTE DROID

    Wellesley History wrote:

    jdorin posted: “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 “

  2. Hey Josh! I really like your blog! Using the republican vote as a liberal proxy sorta falls apart if extended back past 1964. Prior to 1964, the Republican party was the liberal party (think party of Lincoln) and the Democrats were the conservative folks. In 1964, Johnson, a Democrat, passed the Civil Rights Act. This pissed off the rest of the Democrat party and the good ol racists like Strom Thurmond jumped to the Republican party. If you apply this to your graph, it shows that Wellesley was quite liberal before the 1960’s too!

    • Leah — I agree that is something that is important to consider, but look at FDR (liberal and Democrat) and Eisenhower (conservative and Republican). I’d argue that what you’re talking about was a much bigger deal pre-1920 (which is why I didn’t consider it).

      Wellesley was *NOT* liberal pre-1964. Non-election evidence corroborates that point. So the election data is actually quite consistent with the conservative picture.

    • Leah, actually I agree with portions of your comment. I also agree with jdorin since the fall of the republican party cannot be pinned on just one defining moment in history. Lincoln was the first republican president and the republicans did support freeing the slaves, etc.. The democratic party supported slavery and did not agree with Lincoln at the time. What happened in the 1960’s was not just a simple switch of party beliefs (a flip flop from dem to rep alone) but was strongly influenced by civil right bills that were introduced at that time. Many notable republicans did not vote to approve these bills because of the content (not that they all opposed equal rights but they did not agree with the bills as written and wanted them re-written before approving them). The democratic party, seeing an opportunity, painted the republican party as the party that did not support civil rights. Successfully, the republican party was made to look like they did not support civil rights. Their efforts worked so well, most blacks (who had been republican for decades or since birth – because most blacks had been republican since Lincoln’s term), jumped to the democratic side because it appeared the dem’s supported their beliefs and not the republicans. During the this time many people perceived the democratic party to be the only party to support civil rights and made the switch, too. Forever more, the dem’s then became known as the party that supports minorities and the poor and the republicans known as the party that supports business and out of touch rich. Of course this is all perception not necessarily fact or truth. (although perception is considered reality for most). The republicans did and do care for the minorities and poor and the dem’s do care about fiscal issues and business. The other perception is that Wellesley is mainly republican because of it’s wealth (again, people falsely associating money with republicans because they are told this is the party that only supports the wealthy). The truth is that most ultra wealthy in the US support the democratic party and not the republican party. Today the republican party is mainly made of of working class middle America and the democratic party is made up of the lower class, minorities and ultra rich. Nothing is what it seems when it comes to politics. Lots of smoke and mirrors. Final note – Until the perception changes, the parties will continue to erroneously seen as the caring party vs the rich party and people will continue to falsely assume that the ultra rich are conservative.

  3. Assessing any town in Massachusetts for its general politics based off presidential elections alone is not nearly enough evidence to determine where it falls on the political spectrum. Viewing governor’s races and congressional elections would serve as better evidence. My recollection of Wellesley voting data is that Wellesley is often a town willing to vote fiscally conservative in state elections and for many congressional elections, but rarely did I ever feel as though Wellesley was a very socially conservative town and that I believe is what the data you used reflects. The Swellesley moniker to me has meant that people are rich, happy, and believe the world is an inherently good place where wealthy people can use their money to help others who do not have the great fortune to live in their own Swellesley. People protect their bucks with their votes, but want to use that wealth to help at the same time.

    • Jim — great points all around. I can’t really disagree with anything that you wrote. Though I think it’s interesting that you didn’t find Wellesley a very socially conservative town — my inspiration for this post actually came from people who made it seem like they felt Wellesley *was* socially conservative in the 1960s and 1970s. And, of course, my analysis could have been far more in-depth. Maybe that’s my next step.

  4. Agree that Wellesley today is liberal like most of Massachusetts but as the graph and my empirical evidence show 1955 – 1974 was not that was at all. The Wellesley I lived in reeked of conservatism and there is much history to prove it. And “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” implies you have the sacred, all knowing, ever pervading truth about Wellesley in an extremely arrogant way.

    After all, at the end of the day Josh it is all just personal opinion. But I will match my empirical evidence of those days with any “facts” you care to muster. I saw the reaction to “The Slave” first hand, I saw a boy get his backpack burned in HS because he was considered Socialist and anti-Vietnam war. He was pummeled on a daily basis because he was different. I saw kids in Junior High School throw pennies towards a WJHS teacher who was Jewish. I was in that classroom. When I was growing up in Wellesley there were two black families, and a handful of Jewish ones. ..it was a stratified society.

    • I appreciate your comments, John. I too can rattle off as many cherry-picked examples to try to show that Wellesley was far more conservative in my time that it actually was. The point of the article wasn’t that Wellesley has always been liberal (which is obviously not true). It was that people remember it being far more conservative than it actually was. The second-to-last paragraph addresses that point precisely.

  5. Pingback: The argument against calling Wellesley “Swellesley” | The Swellesley Report

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