For fundamental change to occur in Louisiana politics – more specifically, evolution away from a state government-centric, primarily redistributive, and populist system – conservatives, including Eddie Rispone, the man who bore their standard in the 2019 gubernatorial race, have to understand why things are as they are before they can act to make things different.
Including when they are their own worst enemies.
A couple of examples surfaced last week illuminating how some conservatives don’t get it; one from the world of electoral politics and the other from the milieu that provides the intellectual ammunition for conservative ideas to triumph. In the aftermath of state central committee elections earlier this month, former Republican gubernatorial candidate Eddie Rispone announced his intentions to lead the state party.
Prior to his run for governor, where he almost knocked off Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards, Rispone had worked behind the scenes to elect conservatives. During the latest round of governance elections, he backed several candidates. In a sense, this desire for the GOP’s chairmanship merely extends his history of building an infrastructure to elect conservatives.
Historically, both major political parties in the state have had minimal impact on elections, for cultural and institutional reasons. Louisiana’s political culture overemphasizes the role of the individual officeholder, with voters placing inordinate emphasis on a candidate’s personal characteristics and too little on their ideas and ideology and the related heuristic to these in the minds of voters, partisanship. It makes the electorate less likely to respond to both ideological and partisan appeals or to work on behalf of party interests.
The electoral system itself also discourages thinking in terms of parties and supporting their efforts. The blanket primary system neither awards voters for loyalty and desire to identify their political selves with a party, nor penalizes them for failure to do so, in the process leading to ideological confusion both in the minds of voters and in policy-making agendas. Political parties in Louisiana can have nothing more than trivial impact until this factor changes for contests at all levels of government, and will remain the weakest state parties in the country until then.
Rispone has argued that the party does too little to support conservative candidates, a trend which he says he would reverse as chairman. He said Democrats did much more for theirs, and in reference to his 2019 contest he said that cost him the race.
He’s right about the state GOP doing too little. Problem is, he’s wrong about why and the consequences, beginning with the blanket primary system. The hold that personalistic politics has at the state and local government level doesn’t change like throwing a light switch; you begin with a closed primary system that places more primacy on parties as the initial factor eroding personalistic attitudes over the long haul, which will encourage voters to think more ideologically as well that over time wins for Republicans.
Rispone didn’t lose because the state party didn’t perform well. He lost because he ran a poor campaign, and Democrat-allied – but not the state party – organizations along with the Edwards campaign did a better job. It speaks badly of his qualities to assume the GOP chairmanship, especially on a pledge to improve the party’s electoral fortunes, if he can’t even correctly diagnose what happened in his own election, much less he misunderstands the steps necessary to increase the party’s relevance.
Perhaps no more illustrative of the consequences of weak parties and how this leads to electoral confusion with its policy consequences comes from commentary about a noxious brew percolating from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. All of the state’s universities must follow the Regents-mandated general education requirement, a listing of areas of competency in six areas of study totaling a minimum of 39 hours, to award all but a very few bachelors’ degrees (one kind needs six fewer hours in the arts).
Universities may designate which of their classes meets these requirements, or may add additional hours as a university-wide mandate for undergraduate degree completion. A movement afoot at LSU wants to do the latter regarding a “woke” course, explained in a takedown of the notion in two posts by Louisiana writer Rod Dreher. Suffice to add, LSU would cease to become a serious educational institution if it required all its undergraduate students to take this propaganda bath that has no intellectual grounding nor can stimulate analytical thinking.
Dreher goes a bit overboard in the threat posed – proclaiming that this becomes fact if LSU’s Faculty Senate passes it, when in reality Faculty Senate resolutions at any school have the same value as toilet paper with no binding power – but doesn’t overstate a whole lot. Such policy-making issues forth from one place and one place only – the chief executive officer of a school, in this case interim President Tom Galligan, and Dreher claims the measure has the support of LSU administrators.
Which, if it does, it wouldn’t with one command from Edwards or his surrogates on the LSU Board of Supervisors. Governors appoint, with essentially rubber-stamp approval of the Senate, its members, who govern the operational aspects of the system (mainly LSU). Most importantly, the supervisors decide on the system’s (and thus LSU’s) presidency, which Galligan seems to desire on a permanent basis. The resolution will disappear into nothingness if Edwards wills it.
However, he may not, in large part because of the outsized role that personalism plays in Louisiana politics. His base needed to make good on any future political aspirations has a majority black voter component. And while most black voters probably don’t care about, or even oppose, a course that, in Dreher’s words, “reveal[s] the magical key to understanding American life as nothing but a cesspool of hatred, in which heterosexual white Christian males have their boots on the necks of everybody else,” a number of black Democrats in office and political activists likely want to see it in the curriculum. Because they hold outsized power in vote production because of party weakness, they become more influential in this debate.
Meanwhile, an Eddie Rispone in the state’s highest office never would allow this debasement of higher learning to see the light of day. But he didn’t win, because of Rod Dreher and those like him.
You see, Dreher voted for Edwards. And proudly so. And despite Edwards having only a middling record as a social conservative where he walks the walk when convenient and a record of economic liberalism not outside the national party mainstream, Dreher still drinks the Flavor Aid a year later by calling Edwards a “conservative Democrat.”
Despite his breadth of knowledge, Dreher epitomizes the confused Louisiana voter who doesn’t quite get that elections have policy consequences, caught up as they are in evaluating candidates on personalistic factors. More relevant parties provide more help to voters in understanding candidate inconsistencies between their issue preferences and those of the candidates.
Confused political and thought leaders won’t deliver the state from a political culture, echoed in its present Constitution, laws, and electoral and policy outputs, that attenuates the life prospects of its citizens. They either must learn from the errors in their thinking and analyses, or others better equipped to shepherd the evolution away from the present environment must take the lead.