Can Conn. ever have a clear identity?
We know too well that our state has had an identity crisis for generations. Is Connecticut truly part of the tri-state area? Are we really part of New England? I easily respond yes to both questions, and I challenge my students, especially in my Connecticut Politics class, to consider their state identity. We are a unique place because of our nimble size but also because of our geographical location. What better place to be than in historic New England and near the greatest city in the world, New York City? No offense to Bostonians, my father included.
When my class spent the beginning of the semester reading and discussing Connecticut’s political history, they were struck by our divided political landscape centuries ago. In fact, we were a series of colonies that were highly individualistic. I presented New Haven Colony as an early example, since it initially operated as a theocracy. Although it was eventually absorbed into Connecticut, New Haven served as a coastal co-capital with Hartford every other year. I present pictures of New Haven’s Town Green and areas surrounding downtown Hartford that would become the General Assembly’s modern capitol complex. Students are amazed to see the differences in downtown development and eventual suburban growth into the 20th century. Both cities demonstrate the uniqueness but also divisiveness of our state, since a vast part of it was agrarian and industrial while the other served more maritime and cultural purposes.
Meanwhile, Fairfield County students argue that one municipality is hardly similar to nearby municipalities. Students from Litchfield County and eastern Connecticut tend to stress the rural and historic nature of their municipalities. Interestingly, eastern shoreline students tend to refrain from engaging in class discussion. They may pipe in that their Guilford-to-Old Lyme towns or the municipalities surrounding New London have a unique Connecticut flavor and history altogether. But they’re hardly brash about it.
By semester’s end, we spend so much time discussing various towns and cities that students are more confused about why Connecticut is a state in the first place. How does one town have a council, another have selectmen and a city have alders? What about those burgesses in Naugatuck? (All titles are elected legislative branch officials but vary from municipality to municipality.) Students are especially stumped about municipalities having “weak” mayors or a strong legislative council. I had to relearn this last month when I attended North Branford’s election victory party. It’s not every day that a political scientist witnesses the simple diplomatic process of a council deciding who among its members will be mayor.
Ultimately, I remind students that Connecticut is a historically and politically divided place — and not just in our political landscape but also in our state identity. Few of us identify ourselves as Nutmeggers or Connecticutians, but we easily identify by municipality. When students introduce themselves on the first day of class, for example, they center their identity around their locale. I rarely hear someone say they are a Connecticut resident. Instead, it’s more about being from a specific town or neighborhood or hamlet. Connecticut, after all, did away with formal county government generations ago, and many of us revere home rule or local authority, which can often get in the way of unifying us as a state and unifying our public policies.
It would be ideal if public officials and residents could lead an effort to be a proud and unified state. Not so much moxie as New Jersey (I’m still recovering from living there for 15 years), but Connecticut could instill more pride and unity like other New England states. A state and local political scientist can dream — or at least teach such an idealistic notion.