Saturday’s gubernatorial election marks an inflection point for Louisiana’s political culture in two ways, in both products and processes, with a profound impact on the state’s future.
A victory by challenger Republican businessman and novice politician Eddie Rispone would demonstrate a critical mass for evolution of that political culture has occurred. A win for incumbent Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards temporarily extends the life of a dying superstructure.
The Edwards vision emanates squarely from Louisiana’s past, a century-old ideology that divides society into exploiters and the exploited, the favored few and the multitudinous unfortunate, and the rescuers and their charges. It proffers a Manichean view of society with enemies of the state, who have used good luck and dastardly behavior to put them in a position to earn too much and have too much, against everybody else, with only government able to tame the oppressing class through redistribution of power and resources that benefits all (although this process inevitably provides opportunities for the elites overseeing it to acquire power and privilege as their price for aiding the unwashed).
It stubbornly refuses to recognize that individuals in society are free beings with life prospects for most determined largely by their own choices and actions and not explained by the presence of various bogeymen. It is a divisive worldview that rejects a unifying philosophy of responsibility for oneself and for any others who conduct their lives accordingly, with compassion for the rest that does not enable their worst.
Rispone offers a contrarian vision that government should ask for personal responsibility in exchange for services that permit one to achieve success, and beyond that not interfere in people’s lives for better or worse. While a view congruent with the larger American political culture, it is alien to Louisiana’s as that developed from its undemocratic patrician roots to its doppelgänger backed by populist pitchforks.
And the advance of Rispone’s vision in Louisiana politics is inevitable. There may be the right way, the wrong way, and the Louisiana way, but the state doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As technological changes have extended and amplified information exchange, and the imperatives from a globalized economy triggering increased and improved educational attainment have washed over the state, larger forces erode the state’s unique political culture built on fear and envy. The success of conservatives within the Republican Party who now control, and decisively, all major state organs of power except the Capitol’s fourth floor – all such seizures of power occurring within the past decade – attest to this. Their electoral success reflects the shift in people’s thinking shaped by the transfiguring political culture.
In short, even if Edwards pulls it out this weekend, he will represent nothing more than a rotting political corpse decomposing over the next four years. His agenda attuned to the liberal populist past has no chance of any advancement, and all he can do is stick all his fingers in the dike to delay the inevitable.
Unfortunately, even ten rotted fingers can hold back the pressure of beneficial change. The most horrendous outcome of liberal populism is it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that makes it even more difficult to change at greater cost. Edwards’ term provides an object lesson in that, as in terms of opportunity the rest of the country continues to distance itself while Louisiana obsessively tries to redress manufactured grievances committed by illusory villains, in the process facilitating formation of a burgeoning underclass indoctrinated into the zero-sum outlook propagated by the political left that only increases its dependency on government elites.
Meanwhile, the more self-reliant and ambitious, whose efforts disproportionately produce wealth for all members of society, recognize the sinkhole for what it is and decamp to environments better suited to rewarding them and ultimately the societies in which they live. This migration (which already has cost Louisiana 75,000 or so people during the Edwards years) of the most productive only increases the degree of difficulty in filling the hole, by ejecting those most capable of doing it and leaving behind those least able to, who then continue to back the very same policies that created the morass that entraps them in the first place.
The real danger of an Edwards return is not that he can advance liberal populism, but in that he can, most cognizant in the minds of the most productive, too effectively block beneficial change. The problem has reached such a crisis level that you must have all hands on deck to solve for it, and a rogue agent, particularly in the most powerful office in the land, will prevent that.
That won’t go unnoticed. With Louisiana falling further behind, one more year of this, much less four, simply will be too much for these citizens who want to achieve and achieve now, who will respond by escalating the currently highest per capita level of emigration from the state even more, making recovery even more difficult and therefore delayed. And the vicious cycle will deepen.
A Rispone election, by contrast, gives these people hope that they can stick around and kickstart the turnaround. And if he can knock off Edwards, it will be because the larger cultural forces washing away Louisiana’s deleterious uniqueness, allowing this kind of campaigning to succeed.
Rispone, far more than any serious gubernatorial candidate in the state’s history with only his general election competitor GOP Rep. Ralph Abraham coming close, relentlessly has nationalized the contest. He has supplemental generalized conservative appeals with bridges connecting himself to the top national Republican, Pres. Donald Trump, and connecting Edwards to the advanced-stage lunacy of national Democrats.
Predictably so as run largely by out-of-state consultants, it has produced, by one thoughtful account, a hit-and-miss record that squandered its potential for effectiveness. Regardless, it has marked a distinct departure from any other successful campaign in the state’s history by its de-emphasis on retail politics, on personalistic appeals, and on mobilization tactics through intermediaries.
Even the successful endeavors of the state’s only non-populist governor in the past century, Edwards’ predecessor Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, didn’t abandon the traditional model nearly to the extent that Rispone has. Jindal had a background in politics, relentlessly toured the state, made use of every media channel outside of the state’s chattering classes who ally themselves with liberal populism, and positioned himself personally as the antidote to the ills of liberalism.
By contrast, Rispone started with few alliances among existing political elites, hasn’t emphasized using traditional elites for mobilization efforts, hasn’t energetically presented himself to voters, and sold himself not only as a change agent but one from outside of the system entirely. And he has defined himself as that agent of change mainly through identifying himself with his national party, the president, and their issue preferences even as some of which don’t have much salience with state-level policy-making.
Of course, Edwards has done the exact opposite. One of the many whiffs of dishonesty emanating from him over his term has been his avoiding any association with national Democrats (during the final televised fourm, he wouldn’t even answer a question as to why he supported former Pres. Barack Obama and former Sen. and Sec. of State Hillary Clinton in their presidential bids). His entire campaign has focused on cherry-picking the few positive elements of his term while doing everything possible to shield voters from finding out the rest of the story (such as with the issue of cronyism) and has carried over this same strategy about his party affiliation and ideological congruence with its elites. He simply refuses to tell the electorate what he believes on many important issues and what motivates his political activity.
(Earlier this year I posted this piece asking Edwards his view on prominent pieces of legislation, actual and intended, from his party in Congress and in other statehouses. I had thought I might run it as a piece in the Baton Rouge Advocate, and sent it along to Edwards’ media people. In turn they replied not to me, but to my then-editor at the Advocate, rejecting the request because none were actual bills for consideration by the Louisiana Legislature. This was standing operating procedure, by the way – with just one exception never contacting me directly even about pieces that didn’t appear in the Advocate but always through the Advocate staff for as long as I produced pieces for them, probably because that editor has sympathy for the Edwards Administration and his wife works for it and as a tactic to inflate their egos which might curry favor the paper’s editorial side. Now that I no longer write for the Advocate, I never hear from the Edwards Administration about anything I have written.)
A campaign like Rispone’s only has become possible to succeed in Louisiana because of the evolving political culture, where enough people value ideas over candidate image and the politics of paternalism. His triumph would signal the definitive ascendancy of American national political culture over that of Louisiana, as well as confirmation that patrician politicians backed by outraged populist clients no longer call the policy tune.