Channeling the Boss: Phil Murphy the Progressive Patriot


Almost exactly four years ago, I wrote a column based on Phil Murphy’s first inaugural address.  In it, I compared Murphy’s inaugural speech to Chris Christie’s.  I pointed out how Christie used “I” and Murphy used “we”.  I showed how Murphy spent a lot more time saying thank you than Christie did. I showed how Murphy hinted an expansive government, while Christie argued for a retraction in government. I also wondered whether a Governor who spoke so much about collaboration and collective action could succeed in a state where the Governor has a tremendous amount of individual power.

The fact that Murphy was given the opportunity to make a second inaugural address shows that the answer to that last question is a yes.  But I thought it would be interesting to compare the Governor’s first inaugural address to his second.  This might show how Murphy has grown as Governor or perhaps at least how key allies have grown as speechwriters.  It also might give some clues as to what is ahead in Murphy’s second term.

Setting the Stage

Before diving into my quasi-literary parsing of both speeches, it is important to note that in 2018 the speech was given in front of thousands of people. In 2022, it might as well have been done on Zoom.  That makes a difference.  My guess is a face-to-face speech might go for more obvious applause lines because you actually have a real audience to applause.

But the events of the day also make a difference.  The 2022 speech starts with a subdued reference and a moment of silence to the New Jerseyans who have died of Covid.  In 2018, Murphy’s began his speech with, “Today, full of optimism and hope for a better future, we begin that journey together” before going on to recognize the passing of Brendan Byrne.  But that recognition was not with subdued silence but with an optimistic request to “look up, to that flag and to the sky beyond, in remembrance of Governor Brendan Byrne.”

More Deeply Felt Thanks

In 2018, Murphy thanked everyone in New Jersey and tried his best to thank them all by name.  He thanked his opponent, he gave shout outs to cabinet members, members of the opposition and all manner of legislative leaders and often accompanied the thanks with complete sentence follow ups.

In 2022, Murphy still thanked people, but he only went really deep on Sheila Oliver and Tammy Murphy and his kids.  In 2018, Murphy thanked Oliver in 84 words.  In 2022, he used 191.  In 2018, he thanked his wife and kids in 83 words.  In 2022, he took 259 words.

In contrast, in 2018 Murphy spent 102 words thanking and naming the legislative leadership.  In 2022, He did it in about 32 words.  In 2018, his vanquished opponent rated 67 words of recognition.  In 2022 his opponent got none.

On one hand, the number of words spent on thank you notes is probably not that important. But on the other hand, maybe it is a recognition by the Governor that his closest friend going in are likely to be his closest friends going out.   The 2018 speech has the cheerleader optimism that by being nice he could bring everyone to his side.  The 2022 speech maybe recognizes that even with boundless optimism he can’t win everyone over.

Still Stronger and Fairer

Both inaugural addresses are filled with references to building a New Jersey that is Stronger and Fairer. But even so there is a I think notable shift in who Murphy sees as being in need of a stronger and fairer New Jersey and how he can help.

In Murphy’s 2018 speech he singled out people and groups that need special attention and care.  Among others Murphy calls out Millennials, Seniors, Differently Abled, LGBTQm women, veterans and minority owned businesses, and immigrants as all needing help.  He talked about job creation but focused on the need for higher wages and new training programs that were all geared to the less fortunate and the poor.  He talks about criminal justice reform, the need for affordable housing and frames both in language of giving, providing and helping those who have been oppressed. The 2018 speech is about using the power of government to provide goods to specific people in need.

In 2022, he talks about families.  He talks about passing on a better life to our children, all our children.  He argues that the 9.3 million people in New Jersey are an “extended family.”  In 2022, the stronger fairer New Jersey “makes sure everyone gets a fair shot” but also that everyone “live up to their responsibility to do their fair share.”  The 2022 speech is less specific both in terms of the exact groups that he wants to help and exactly how he wants to help them.  The 2022 speech seeks to connect all of New Jersey together as a family that can and will work together to make it a better place.

Phil Murphy Patriot

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two speeches is in Murphy’s use of patriotism as a theme.  In 2018, the closest he got to talking about patriotism was the Byrne flag reference and when begged people not to leave the state arguing that for those who stay “planting your flag in New Jersey will have been one of the smartest decisions you ever made.”

In 2022, the concluding section, the defacto crescendo of the speech, is all about taking the concept of Patriotism back from being solely owned by right-wing Republicans.  Murphy passionately argues that voting, fighting for good government and standing up for fairness are patriotic acts.  He frames this concept of patriotism against a backdrop of a dangerous, dysfunctional do-nothing federal government, that should look to New Jersey as a model for how to do things the American way.  At one point Murphy even says, “to be an American is a privilege, to be a New Jerseyan is an honor.”

The idea that it is possible to be progressive and patriotic has been a debate in many academic and progressive circles.  Some scholars and activists argue that modern day progressives spend too much time placing race at the center of political debates and policy choices.  These folks argue that more attention needs to be given to class and economic differences.  Other scholars and activists argue that race is such a central determining factor in outcomes that until systemic racism is dealt with, other issues are less pressing.  To be clear, race and class both matter, it is just a question of which deserves priority when seeking significant social change.

The concept of Patriotism is a central part of this debate.    Poor and working-class voters are often extremely patriotic in part because the poor and working class make up the majority of our military and always have.  Many of these voters (especially the white ones) run away from progressive candidates who seem to them unpatriotic and focused primarily on identity politics.  This is true even if the economic redistributive policies championed by progressives might make more sense to their pocketbooks.  The central academic and perhaps practical question is whether or not progressives should fight to redefine patriotism as a progressive value or is that battle (and voters who prioritize patriotism) lost forever?

No one fights harder for patriotism as a progressive value than New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.  He has an uncanny ability to be deeply patriotic towards America while at the same time recognizing when it often doesn’t live up to its high ideals.

I have no idea of Murphy was thinking about this academic debate, and he is certainly no Springsteen but I’ll be damned if he wasn’t fighting to redefine patriotism as a progressive value in his second inaugural speech.  One speech is not enough to know if Governor Murphy will continue channeling his inner Bruce in his second term.  But it certainly was different and new and worth watching.

Matthew Hale, PhD

Associate Professor Department of Political Science and Public Affairs

Seton Hall University

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