Search This Blog


Eroding populism drives devalued Landrieu endorsement

Just as one Louisiana U.S.senator uses well the fading power of populism in the state’s political culture to keep ahead of his rivals, the other uses it as well in hopes of staying in power.

In the transformation of politics, in a functioning representative democracy this comes from the bottom up. That is, as change sweeps the grassroots, it changes the matrix of candidates available and ultimately those successful, in turn eventually translating into policy change. But it occurs most slowly at the lowest levels of government because of the asymmetry of information availability. Specifically, for the mass public there is less information about politics available at the local levels, in part because there is less interest among the public (because, unless directly impacted, what local governments do seem less important in the world and often are seen as less controversial) and because existing elites, incumbents in particular, face reduced competition in provision of information and therefore find it easier to combat opposing views.

Transformation becomes blunted at the lowest level, providing shelter for elites as the world changes around them, as the public has greater difficult in learning of elite actions, of the consequences of those actions, and in connecting the two. As transformation occurs, the disconnection between policy desired by the public and policy-makers’ actions must yawn to a greater extent before the public begins to place responsibility onto the policy-makers in question, and to sanction them for deviations. In Louisiana, the contradictions between liberal populism and principled conservatism started becoming clear enough to provoke a substantial electoral response at the national level about 25 years ago, while at the state level it began about a decade ago.

This is why in Louisiana the state’s electoral transformation occurred initially, and now most completely, at the level of federal office where, because only Sen. Mary Landrieu remains as an elected Democrat in constituencies not overwhelmingly demographically friendly to her party, it has become almost dominant. At the state level, that all state executive offices, single and collectively, are now under Republican control, as is the Legislature, demonstrates the transformation has matured at that level also.

But that has not been the case in the aggregate at the local level, especially in the more rural, less economically-developed areas of the state, as the societal changes which have pushed Louisiana away from populism have taken longer to penetrate those places. It’s inevitably coming (short of a massive population shift), but the factors above explain its slower pace.

Which is what Landrieu hopes is enough to help her cling to office for a fourth term. By far, she is the biggest officeholder-to-environment contradiction in Louisiana politics today. Her 18 years of service in the Senate shows an extraordinarily liberal voting record that has become more and more painfully out of step with the state’s majority as the transformation has proceeded, and makes her more and more dependent upon fig leaves to try to cover that.

She managed to pick up one this week, the endorsement of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association. The political calculus here works like this: Landrieu = liberal, but sheriffs = law and order, therefore sheriffs = conservative, and if Landrieu = sheriffs, then Landrieu = conservative. But it’s nowhere near that simple.

As empowered under the state constitution, sheriffs have the most to gain or lose by populism of any local office in the state. Except in the few parishes with parish chief executives, they act as the only parish-wide official with any extensive policy-making power or budgets. Thus, they become the point people for interacting with both state and federal governments in many areas and thereby more sensitive than otherwise not only to policy made in these areas that affects local jurisdiction, but also they deal more with the lifeblood of populism – the people’s money lifted from them by taxation (now, or later in the case of federal debt).

Sheriffs run big money operations – they collect taxes parish-wide, they auction off repossessed property, and most run prisons, many of which are cash cows. Most significantly, they gained homeland security responsibilities – and the gusher of federal dollars that came with it – after 2001. And under austere conditions, they want someone more likely than less to promote government policy that expands government the way populism asks that it does so that they enjoy the trickle down. That’s Landrieu, not her main opponent Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy who has said he sees and endorses a transformation away from populism.

That attitude is largely reflected in that over half of all sheriffs identify themselves as Democrats, even as many of them come from parishes where the majority of or only state representative(s) or senator(s) are Republicans. That’s because as long as they project a law-and-order image and make sure the tax or grant dollars pass through to the right agencies and elites in government, it doesn’t matter to much of the larger public what their allegiances are. With information about local government operations at a premium for the mass public, it’s easier for them to project the image they want that can keep them in office. And it’s not like Cassidy would launch into a vendetta against them should he win.

So if the calculation is that Landrieu is a more secure pipeline to money, and that a public weary of Landrieu’s liberalism won’t know or care that sheriffs share her label and ideas on many issues as long as these parish chief law enforcement officers fight crime, and local elites back them, and Cassidy can be mollified, then there’s little political cost to them for this endorsement. Until that situation changes, they will behave the same.

The irony, of course, is that the same dynamics that give sheriffs’ power in their local areas make their endorsement next to meaningless in this kind of contest in this era. Fifty years ago, when scarcely a Republican ran for federal office, much less state or local, even in a senatorial contest a sheriff’s endorsement meant something to distinguish among Democrats running for office, the candidates for whom many voters might see a newspaper advertisement here or there, might catch one on radio, but probably would not see one on television or attend a rally where the candidate or another surrogate might show up. Obviously today, with so many other cues out there, and with meaningful inter-party competition drawing upon the strongest of the cues which only recently became meaningful, hardly anybody pays attention to them. And any logistical support any sheriffs choose to give her barely will matter against the resources brought to bear by the Cassidy campaign, party organizations allied with him, and other interest groups supporting him.

Cassidy has called this election, using different words, a kind of test of whether the state’s electorate has matured into a post-populist environment. The only practical impact of this endorsement is to strengthen confidence in being able to use this election for that purpose.

No comments: