There is a reason Louisiana Democrats from Sen. Mary Landrieu on down seem determined to ensconce themselves as a permanent minority: their flight from reality born of self-denial anchored in faith in liberalism.
Yet again, in the wake of more recent switches of former Democrat elected officials – three at the state level, another at the local – to the GOP, others of the party have been left to muse about why the stream flows steadily away from them, carrying support, politicians and, most importantly, power. And, it seems, nothing changes as they continue to fail to understand at the most basic level what is happening to them.
As noted previously, a combination of societal and political changes have reset the parameters of political contests in Louisiana. Given the heavy infection of populism in the state’s political culture, for decades primarily a personalistic style that attempted to wed voters as dependents to politicians on the basis of charisma and resource distribution from them carried the day. But with more access to education and information to the mass public, in the past two decades these bonds have frayed and increasingly have become supplanted by appeals to issue preferences, summed into the attitudes of partisanship and ideology. As the capacity for ideological thinking among the mass public has increased, to their credit Republicans have with greater and greater success have sought to induce the public to think about elections in more issue-based, less personality-based terms. This unmasks the internal contradiction created when liberal politicians try to obscure the content of their policies to the conservative majority, and creates escalating rejection of those politicians.
Louisiana came later to this transformation because of the populist stain, and part of the reason the transformation has started and is picking up speed is that some conservatives – think state Treasurer John Kennedy and the actions of the so-called “fiscal hawks” in the Legislature, for example – have fused populism to conservatism. This is what confuses the left, because in its mythology that justifies its brand of populism the redistributive foil is some mysterious, conspiratorial cabal made up of bogeymen such as business, the upper class, white racists, chauvinist men, Christians, etc. Instead, populists of the right identify as the problem big government designed to enrich certain client groups who then symbiotically support the leftists who enabled the transfers to these special interests. And increasingly it is populists of the right that are winning that battle of ideas.
However, the greater focus on ideas having consequences from the more distant, in terms of state political culture, principled conservatism also is proving more and more successful in winning elections. The outcome of the 2014 Senate contest should display a classic competition between the old, obscurant populist strategy that Landrieu will try yet again and a campaign by Rep. Bill Cassidy that stresses ideology and where Landrieu is deviant from the state’s majority on major issues. A victory by him will ratify the sufficiency of the transformation of the state’s political culture.
So it’s no surprise that Landrieu refuses to admit the obvious, maintaining that Louisiana is a “purple state.” Perhaps in reference to her, the last remaining Democrat elected to a statewide office, until now it has been, but only because she has been able to this point to muddy the palette by injecting blue. But the volume of that color has diminished precisely because Republicans like Cassidy have more aggressively appealed to issue preferences in campaigning and splashed more red onto the canvas. And no doubt he will highlight generally her very liberal record (American Conservative Union lifetime voting score through 2012 of 20.53, where a score of 0 is a perfectly liberal record) and specific liberal votes.
Thus, when challenged on this such as hers being the decisive vote for passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), she tries to switch the narrative to how well she has brought home the bacon. This might appeal to crony capitalists among Republicans, but they are being increasingly marginalized as the broader electorate is being encouraged to think – also aided by the visibility of relentlessly left-wing national Democrats who have captured that level of their party – less about direct transfers of wealth to it and more about the consequences of those transfers taking more of its material resources and freedoms. That is territory she desperately wishes to avoid, for she becomes defenseless at that point.
At least she appears more perceptive than state Rep. Sam Jones, who chalks up the switching to political opportunism. That might be a reason – but if so it is a symptom of the larger disease about which Jones appears oblivious. He seems not to have considered why a party switch away from Democrats is necessary for the presumably politically ambitious – because a current incumbent/future candidate for higher office having a Republican label who can credibly demonstrate voting more often conservatively removes from the candidacy the toxicity of a Democrat label caused by the increasing unpopularity of liberalism in Louisiana.
Nor does he seem to understand the dynamics of the transformation. When he claims that the state is a third of the state electorate is locked into Republican support, a third into Democrats, and a third up for grabs with this portion that can swing dependent on issues and candidates, he fails to realize that third increasingly responds more to issues than personalities. Further, he’s whistling into the wind if he believes, in his assertion that Democrats have a chance to win them over, voters will respond more to Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s line item vetoes of increased money available for more waiver slots to serve the developmentally disabled, when ordered by the Legislature to make cuts for health care spending and that program reform will provide more services without extra expense, than they will to being reminded that legislative Democrats more than once tried to expand more of Obamacare onto the state (the follies of which will have been further magnified by 2015) and attempted to raise taxes in the 2013 session.
It seems then that Louisiana Democrats suffer from two different delusions – on the pragmatic side that populism is not weakening as part of the state’s political fabric nor is it being remade into a form of conservatism, and on the ideological side that the issues can be made to work in their favor despite every indication that they can’t (and among the most ideological and ignorant of them, their organizational leader, that opposition to their agenda is based on irrational considerations). None of their more visible figures at least publicly will admit the obvious – that the party must move away from its full-throated liberalism in order to become more than an inconvenience to a conservative agenda in the state.
That’s why elected officials who realize this are bailing out of it, because they don’t see any kind of change of that nature coming from Beltway Democrats or from the Louisiana variety. Ironically, this ideologically purifies the party even more, making it all the less likely it can adapt to a state that has outgrown it in its current form.