Perhaps the most promising aspect of the nascent Louisiana Legislative Conservative Coalition is that, for the first time, it can articulate a genuine, principled conservatism in the formation of public policy, which until the 21st century was all but absent among Louisiana policy-makers.
The group (minus the “Legislative” in the name”) filed paperwork early in the year under the Internal Revenue Code section 527 to organize in order to “provide continuity in the adoption of conservative legislation in the State of Louisiana and to promote the economic and cultural advancement of Louisiana through the bipartisan, conservative principles of limited government, free enterprise, individual liberties, and strong traditional families, at all times consistent with the progress of our State and with the well being of the people of Louisiana.” Thirteen Republicans have acknowledged affiliation with the group, with state Rep. Alan Seabaugh being its president.
In remarks about the group, Seabaugh indicated its formation came as a result of ideological confusion among Republicans. A lazy mythology has developed that because majorities in both legislative chambers are from the GOP, that conservative ideas always triumph in legislative action.
This is decidedly not the case, and last year’s dealing with both tax reform and the budget exemplified a struggle between principled and populist conservatism. Principled conservatives largely adhere to the laundry list in the group’s IRS filing. Populist conservatives, drawing upon the state’s extensive history in embracing populism, concern themselves less with principle and more with distributive decisions paralleling group identifications.
Within the confines of liberalism populism has an extensive history in the state, starting in the post-Reconstruction period but coming into its own in the 1920s with the emergence of former Gov. Huey Long. That kind of populism emphasized in- and out-groups, making assumptions that the two were inimical (if not one’s group being the more legitimate and tolerant and the out-group members being greedy, selfish, and oppressive, if not evil) and incompatible, and that government was the instrument by which out-groups would be brought to heel for what they had done to in-groups.
That required powerful government, and given the extant political culture it was natural that opposition to that would coalesce around the same populist dimension. In the beginning, it took the form of reform defined as honesty in government, but as government continued to grow (at all levels), the backlash transferred onto big government defined as the problem itself, the argument now being that government that was too big inherently acted, if not dishonestly because of the temptations of power, with an illegitimate favoritism towards the groups that controlled it. This fueled the rise of the Republican Party in the state beginning in the 1960s, the primary causal agent that largely is ignored in reviews of this period by writing off that ascension imply as a reaction dependent upon social issues.
Rather, this rise was dependent upon not principled, but populist impulses. Populist conservatives built their ideology around the idea that big government was controlled and used by liberal interests to threaten their liberties, where the solution was to boot these contrary elites out of office and to replace them with theirs. Its fullest expression came in the 1991 gubernatorial candidacy of former state Rep. David Duke, and the failure of it as a means to inject into policy-making principled conservatism divorced from populism is evidenced by the fact that after his defeat neither the House nor Senate sworn in subsequently had more than 15 percent of their memberships from the Republican Party.
Louisiana has been lazily considered a “conservative” state only because of general conservatism on social issues while the inherent liberalism of populism that, as recently as the 1991 election, overwhelmingly drove general policy considerations. In contrast, regarding genuine conservatism, which rejects the zero-sum, group identification model of populism and government role in it for one where government is to impose itself as lightly as possible onto individual choices and in ways to facilitate voluntary interactions among people that maximize persons’ abilities to contribute maximally to society through those interactions without government creating winners or losers, little existed in Louisiana policy-making until the 21st century.
The watershed moment came as a result of the 2007 elections, the first shaped by term limitation that provided inroads for principled conservatives, and with the election of Gov. Bobby Jindal who was the first principled conservative not just to win election to the state’s highest office, but also to govern more often than not in that mode. Not always have his policies consistently followed conservative principles, but his record is that government has not grown in dollars spent, government has grown significantly smaller in employment because of privatization initiatives, which also have made it work better, other efficiency measures such as education reforms additionally will make it work better, taxes in the aggregate have been cut, and is promoting policies that respect life and understand government’s role in reinforcing behavior that benefits the whole. It’s unquestionably a principled conservative agenda enacted with some consistency.
Which jarred some who call themselves Republicans because their route to adopting the label came through the populist prism that still drives their worldviews. It’s why Jindal had to abandon his tax reform agenda of last year, because too many Republicans became fixated on protecting certain groups that under the current crazed patchwork system of exemptions might have paid more. It explains why Jindal ended up accepting a budget, and with a small tax increase, larger than he wanted (even accounting for a surplus not forecast), because Republicans calling themselves “fiscal hawks” were too cowardly to address the root cause of “one-time money,” allowing hundreds of dedications benefitting special interests large and small that subvert the idea that spending needs to be prioritized, and instead protected these funds from use for general purposes while engaging in the gimmickry of a tax amnesty.
This speaks precisely as to why this group would form. Until the last few years, there never has been a critical mass of principled conservatives in state government to create a clash with populists who call themselves conservative. Instructively, all but one of the group’s officers were elected after 2007, only one was elected prior to 2007, and Seabaugh himself initially aligned himself with the “hawks” only to quickly dissociate when after the collapse of the tax reform plan their initial plan featured hundreds of millions of dollars in tax increases.
And it comes a moment not too soon. The state’s mainstream media (as exemplified by its descriptions of policy-makers here), through lack of realizing the dynamics involved and/or as a method of caricaturing in order to delegitimize, rarely presents principled conservatism in its true form in public policy debates. Populist conservatives have neither the inclination nor understanding to do likewise. Combined with the populist tradition that insulates what passes as conservatism in Louisiana from achieving more principled status, this retards the growth of the influence of principled conservatism. It’s hoped that organizing this group will lead to more conservative policy more robustly explained successfully enacted into law, and in all issue areas (Seabaugh described the group as initially hesitant to engage in actions specific to budgeting). The question is whether the group has the temperament and commitment to help continue the introduction of this novel political philosophy into Louisiana’s political culture.