Monday, 12 September 2011 17:59

Political Culture Change Explains Louisiana Democratic Party Fall

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KingfishWith qualifying for fall state elections (never mind what the actual results might be) demonstrating an increasingly surging Republican Party while Democrats seem in a recession of growing permanence, speculation arises over why this has occurred and why now. Understanding the intersection of political culture and institutions explains.
Offering the idea that a decline in unionization of the state’s workforce contributed in reality confuses symptom with disease. The concept of a union, simply, is a device employed by a collective of individuals to expropriate resources from shareholders (in the private sector; taxpayers in the public), based on the idea that it is legitimate to transfer from a target group to a preferred group by use of coercive power based on numbers of individuals.
That same idea lies behind what once was bedrock of Louisiana’s political culture, populism.
Beginning over a century ago, but not reaching fruition until the 1920s, the populist persuasion argued that the collective instrument known as government should expropriate wealth from those with resources to those that did not, and could do so because the power to do so was determined by number of votes where those interests with wealth constituted a minority.
Thus, the same attitudes inherent to populism translated to support of unionization. It also supported an outsized government structure in Louisiana, with the state assumed to provide for certain things that in other places were considered the responsibility of the individual even if finding the resources to do so came from those with little or no connection to the benefit. So, a decline in unionization comes only when the base attitude that reflects it, a belief in the appropriateness of use of collective power to transfer from the weaker to the stronger, becomes disrupted among those who must come together to exercise that power.
In Louisiana, that began in the 1970s when the internal contradictions of liberal economic policy through decades of its adoption began to make plainer the invalidity of that viewpoint. Populism, the relative of liberalism in that they posit artificial societal divisions based upon an erroneous notion that economic resources are not distributed on the basis of contribution to society but somehow are rigged to favor certain interests, continued to hold some better currency in Louisiana because it specifically could target an out-group, economic interests outside of the state largely and mainly within the petrochemical industry. This visible group continued to prosper because of the geopolitical climate that boosted oil prices, but in the 1980s when that situation changed, Louisianans began to understand what the rest of the nation had come to realize – the existence of an agency problem in liberalism.
That is, liberalism falsely promised to represent the economic interests of workers through redistribution of wealth (mistakenly echoed by one of my colleagues when he asserts to vote on the basis of conservative issue preferences somehow worked against workers’ economic interests). Instead, it deliberately retarded through heavier taxation and regulation the economic rewards the majority could achieve and instead transferred power to government and its allied special interests – which included union leaders. As president, Ronald Reaganin this era was successful in empowering people and disempowering government and these elites precisely because he enabled workers to see through the false consciousness of liberalism.
This trickled more slowly into Louisiana’s political culture, but the decline of the oil-based state economy knocked a major prop out from the artificiality of populism and allowed economic attitudes in the population slowly to align better with the predominantly conservative issue preferences in other policy areas. The movement followed that of the rest of the South, playing catch-up, but remained retarded for two other reasons, once a historical accident, the other deliberate policy.
The quick rise and fall of David Duke as a political force in the 1990s threw an anchor on the transition because, while Duke proved an able spokesman in the Louisiana populist tradition with a message that correctly identified government and its special interest allies as the forces favored in the political system from which political power needed redistribution, his racism, relegated to the closet but still present, clouded the thinking of some who would otherwise have rejected populism. They allowed the flaws of the messenger to equate to the non-racial part of the message, despite the inherent incongruity between the two. This would slow the metamorphosis.
But of greater consequence was institution of the blanket primary election system at the height of populism. As noted elsewhere, this has done wonders to obscure accountability of politicians, allowing their personalities rather than issue preferences to take prominence in voters’ decisions and playing right into the strength of populism, rooted in the promise of transfer of tangible rewards to supporters, which is based not in abstract ideology but in concrete desires. “Voting the man” makes much more sense when you need somebody to exchange a reward for your vote, rather than voting on the basis of ideas that produce policy to suit your interests.
Also as noted previously, in an ancillary sense the blanket primary also put a brake on changing partisan self-identifications. Because under this system essentially party primaries do not exist, it devalued the meaning of party and association with their ideas, discouraging making political decisions on the basis of ideology. In a behavioral sense, it also subdued voting for Republicans, as a slower move away from Democrat identification psychologically made it more difficult to vote for candidates who did not share that label than would have a quicker transition.
Thus, the blanket primary reinforced the populist persuasion. But, it over time it cannot provide enough resistance to the larger trend of aligning ideology with voting – especially as alternative information sources (such as this space) become available to facilitate that convergence. Yet perhaps one final historical occurrence has accelerated this (both in Louisiana and to a lesser extent elsewhere, as the process was more complete elsewhere), that being the election in 2008 of Pres. Barack Obama complemented by a Congress controlled by his party. In the ensuing two years, their explicitly ideological rhetoric and actions complete with class warfare appeals, combined with the empirical evidence of the failure of those economic policies, better and more intrusively informed Louisianans clinging to voting for Democrats as a final demonstration that this behavior was against their interests. This translated to candidate decisions for this fall in terms of whether to run and under what label.

Thereby, Louisiana’s political culture has followed belatedly the path of other Southern states, as well as those, if less decisively converted, in the Mountain West and Midwest. This has driven almost to irrelevance the political power of unions in the state’s private sector, although as clients of government largesse they remain potent in the public sector. If in fact Democrats continue unable to govern in the state, it’s not because of weak unions, but because of larger secular changes in Louisiana that weaken support for both Democrats and unions.

by Jeffrey Sadow, Ph.D.   Read his blog, Between the lines

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