When asked about the base assumption on which the Rep. Bill Cassidy campaign to oust incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu was constructed, a campaign official declared it was that the Louisiana electorate increasingly was moving towards a “post-pork paradigm.” That’s one manifestation of the larger theoretical construct that bears scrutiny, and which if gauged correctly will go a long ways towards the Republican sending the Democrat packing.
This sentiment implicitly recognizes the populist foundation to the Louisiana political culture, which assigns government an outsized role. Rather than merely be an instrument by which conflicts over power are resolved and liberty protected through its limitation, populism also assigns to government the task of redistribution, either through direct provision (such as jobs in government-owned providers) or indirectly (through policies that differentially take the peoples’ resources, shuffles them, and returns). By taking on this function, populism also empowers individual politicians relative to the people, for the people are trained to see politicians as arbiters of largesse, the relevant forces they must depend upon to get back as many goodies as they can for the amount of money government absconded with from them. This devalues policy and ideology as factors by which politicians are to be judged, shunted to the background and obscuring that fact that ideology serves as the precursor to distributive decisions made by government: ideology determines how much government will take, and thereby regulates how much discretion and importance is awarded to politicians when funds are returned in their various forms.
In other words, Cassidy banks on the belief that Louisiana’s public has become more aware of and willing to think in ideological terms in evaluation of candidates. He has good reason to do so. In the last 15 years, improvement in education has created a new generation of residents better able as a whole to think critically than any before. However, their number are relatively small, but supplemented in the last several years from the first significant in-migration to the state plus the hurricane disasters diaspora happening simultaneously that has, to put it bluntly, also led to a population less wedded to the state’s populist political culture that deemphasized thinking ideologically and proportionally now is more than ever capable of doing so. Finally, the information explosion and mushrooming accessibility of it of the past two decades has made it less costly for the public to obtain information about politics that bypasses politicians, rendering elected officials less useful and less able to foster dependency of the citizenry on them.
With a public more likely to score politicians on the basis of issue preferences and more able both cognitively and materially in terms of available data to do so, at the same time cultures do not change overnight. For example, despite clearly inimical interests on the large majority of issues to and on actions taken by Landrieu, some achievement-oriented folks such as in the petroleum industry or shipbuilding industry continue to give her support, or local government officials that share Cassidy’s ideas in the main and certainly his partisanship hesitate to support him – all because in the past Landrieu talked a good game when it came to issues closest to their industries or helped grease the skids for government contracts or aid. This typifies the zero-sum thinking behind the populism burrowed into liberalism indicative of the left in Louisiana – an ideology in all other instances a great many of these folks would disdain.
And while they may give lip service to Landrieu and open up their pocketbooks to give her the means by which to amplify that, what they and she must recognize is that this kind of influence is on the wane. The center-right majority in the Louisiana public increasingly has the ability to dispense with intermediaries in the judgment of politicians, and more easily can compare their issue preferences to those of politicians – which is to the disadvantage of Landrieu. Those on the right in the thrall of the “pork paradigm” who fight this tide out of self-aggrandizement, inertia, or mere lack of understanding of it must recognize resistance’s increasing futility and perhaps that there no longer are enough of their fingers available to plug the dike ready to overwhelm them as early as this senatorial election cycle.
Yet that leaves the largest question, of whether the impetus eroding at the populist element within the political culture has gained sufficient mass to cause this transformation here and now. Long-term trends precisely are that, and the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk. But there is one short-term force that Cassidy can influence to push history more forcefully in its inevitable direction – supplying the fullest information possible about himself and his opponent. The more he does so, the more evident the contradiction between the majority’s issue preferences and Landrieu’s (and the greater his general congruence with that majority’s) will be seen. If he wants an ideological election that is his best hope of victory, he has to make it one, despite the distractions Landrieu’s camp will try to create from the issues, all based upon smearing his image as much possible. His available resources certainly suggest the tractability of this task.
This election will tell much about placement on the transformation’s timeline. The dinosaur Landrieu’s ability to center elections on the redistributive skills of politicians is Mesozoic thinking as Louisiana evolves to the Cenozoic era. But whether the political culture is at the equivalent to the end of the Jurassic or Cretaceous periods, we’ll get a good marker by this contest, and by the way Landrieu’s position continues to deteriorate, Cassidy may find it’s the latter period on tap.