If nothing else, resolution of the first half of the public policy contest involving education reform in Louisiana demonstrates the death throes of Democrats as a major political party in Louisiana and the erosion of a two major-party system in the state.
After roughly 25 hours in both committee hearings and floor consideration, HB 976 passed both the panel, about 10 days ago, and the entire House chamber, last week, comfortably. The same occurred with HB 974, using about a quarter of the time. The former would allow students in poorest performing schools priority in receiving state money to pay for attending private or better out-of-district public schools, while the latter created procedures to encourage better matching of pay and other personnel actions to actual educator achievement.
While about 80 percent of partisans lined up on the same side of the issue, Republicans for and Democrats against, most significantly the greatest defections came from the Orleans Democrat delegation, where the most of its members voted for both measures, Orleans, of course, has been the cockpit of reform to date in the state, with most of its schools run the by Recovery School District, all charter schools, and only a few of the remaining left in the Orleans Parish School District not being charters. Whether this indicates ideological preference is one thing, but almost certainly it denotes strong constituent favor for the reforms.
But the political significance of the events lies not really in the outcomes, but the invective used by opponents in the process. This result, derived from the consequences of the 2011 elections that gave Republicans solid legislative majorities, likewise on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and put them in all state executive offices, in and of itself tells us only that the GOP is the state’s majority party. However, it is the rhetoric in the run-up to the results that further reveals that Democrats have gone from a competitive major party to one that is not.
Instead, in Louisiana it has become what we political scientists term as a “relevant” party – one whose presence affects public policy, yet no longer a “major” party – one that governs at least occasionally thereby setting public policy. Statements by officeholders at different party levels around this issue demonstrate the retreat across this threshold.
The overwrought rhetoric of legislative party spokesman, conjuring up an environment where they claim persecution, if not using subtle, even conscious anti-Semitic undertones likening the state to an authoritarian regime, found company in the comments of Democrat Thomas Robichaux, Orleans Parish School Board president, who likened the emphasis on finding education solutions that departed from a malfunctioning, one-size-fits-all government monopoly as “fascism.” Naturally, as a comparison this represents ignorance of the tenets of fascist ideology and of how education is administered in the state – not a becoming attribute for the head of a school board, but neither erudition nor intelligence are prerequisites for elective office – but it also adds to the increasing tendency of Louisiana Democrats to use over-the-top language that has nothing to do with an underlying issue or political reality as their prime tools of persuasiveness in their debates.
This only underscores the bankruptcy of ideas facing the party when it impoverishes its discourse in this manner. When a party finds itself bereft of facts to support its preferred causes and unable to marshal logical argumentation to present them to compete effectively in the marketplace of ideas, it turns to the visceral and shrill that distracts from the real world to try to con the casual observer into accepting a distorted picture of reality. Even so, such a strategy, except in unusual circumstances, at the ballot box fails more than it succeeds, for only the most ill-informed voters and those least able to think critically do not perceive the hole in the soul of that line of persuasion. If people are to cast ballots for something, they will do so because the explicated program comports to what they observe in real life and they have an idea about a desired end state that the program can be shown to them as delivering them to this.
Still, the reliance on screeds disembodied from the true environment signals the party’s acquiescence in its reduction from major to relevant party status. And, form follows function: as elections have had their consequences to disempower a party in policy terms, it mutates into an organization more to serve its officeholders, who adjust their communications to interests that maximize chances of their elections into future offices, even if this surrenders policy-making authority and leadership. The education reform issue that has taken prominence in the state clearly has illuminated this as the path Louisiana Democrats are taking.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 11:00