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Legislators casting social conservative votes tactically

Have Louisiana’s legislators become significantly more conservative over the past decade, as one source muses. Or is it just strategy on the part of many of them that just make it seem so?

At the end of July, the Louisiana Family Forum issued its 2014 Legislative Scorecard, prompting one observer to report the comparison made by the organization’s head that in 2004, of the 144 legislators, only 26 voted overall “pro-family and pro-life” (defined as voting at least 80 percent of the time with the organization’s preferences), while according to the 2014 version the number was 83. This prompted the assertion that there has been “further reddening of Louisiana.”

Reviewing the scorecards separated by a decade, and assuming the issues selected as represented by the votes constitute a representative sample of those, then it appears that on this universe of issues Louisiana legislators are voting considerably more conservatively, as the LFF uniformly picks what observers would consider conservative issue preferences to be scored high (thus higher scores mean more conservatism in votes). But those votes chosen by and large represent only issues of religious faith and personal conduct (which would be consistent with the organization’s objectives in championing traditional views on those). For example, in 2014, with its chosen slate of issues dealing with the right to bear arms, protection of human life, government regulation of conduct, and facilitating education delivery by faith-based organizations, the only vote on the scorecard that had any economic component to it was on Medicaid expansion. The ones in 2004 also showed just one tax issue among other dealing with the definition of marriage, cloning, and others.

So when making statements about what the scorecard shows, it really measures more than anything else ideology concerning issues of faith and conduct, but not ideology comprehensively. Its selectivity mirrors that of the scorecard put out by another state interest group, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. It has kept scorecards since 1999, and a comparison of 2004 to its most current 2013 offering reveals information about ideology as it relates to economic and business issues (although a review of them shows it’s not always quite a pure indicator of economic conservatism, as pro-crony capitalist positions that the group on occasion has favored run counter to principled conservative beliefs that government should not pick winners and losers in the marketplace, but no such recommendations appeared for the two years studied). Last year, 56 legislators scored 75 or better, while nine years ago that number was 68.

Thus, the LABI numbers run counter to the trend of those from LFF, if somewhat less powerfully – but they do measure different aspects of policy. But perhaps the most comprehensive scorecard is that of my Louisiana Legislature Log, which attempts to score on a combined conservative/reform to liberal/populist continuum (the two dimensions largely, but not entirely, measure the same thing) using issue preferences from all policy areas (the three scales also differ in other ways, such as in bill similarity between chambers, amount of weighing in scoring, and fewer to more votes used, but as comparisons being made here are within scales temporally, this should not pose a methodological problem). On this scale the average score in 2004 (which had the same weights for economic issues as noneconomic issues) was about 48, but by 2014 (which was overweighed slightly towards noneconomic issues) it was 59. (For all three scales, 100 is considered being most conservative, 0 being most liberal.)

To some degree, this confirms what the other two scales show in this kind of simplistic analysis (using all the data points to smooth trends would be better, but probably would not materially change the conclusions of the analysis solely of the end points). There has been a marked shift towards social conservatism, but a drift towards economic liberalism, that when combined showed a moderate conservative trend. Yet it seems curious that, in a sense, the two area scales are moving in opposing directions.

This may be explained by the strategy of legislators taking more conservative noneconomic issue votes to establish leeway allowing them greater numbers of liberal economic votes – a supposition consistent with both the long term factor of the state’s political culture and the short term factor of its recent partisan shifts. Specifically, Louisiana’s history of populism continues to encourage economic liberalism, if diluted, while its rapid move to a solid Republican legislative majority comes as much from tactical image considerations as ideological aligning, and minority party reactions are affected by this as well.

Undoubtedly, Louisiana policy-makers have demonstrated conservatism on social issues consistently throughout history, which often has overshadowed the economic liberalism inherent to the populism that burst onto the scene in the post-Reconstruction period (but which did not find its way into public policy until after World War I). The maturation of the state’s economy and the demographic changes that wrought, along with advances in education and communications, in the latter half of the 20th century began a steady erosion of populism as an influential source of policy. However, the social conservatism has remained largely intact, buttressed by continuing strong faith networks and institutions, the lower degree of urbanization (and with most urban areas in the state predominantly Catholic in religious affiliation), and recent low levels of non-native residency.

This environment allows politicians who harbor the populist sentiments that increasingly are falling out of favor with the larger electorate some exculpatory room to maneuver by assertion of pristine social conservatism credentials. Even as their electorates become increasing unaligned with them on economic issues, their emphasizing similar social views, where there is a greater public consensus than over economic issues, can create a perception of much larger overall issue congruence than in reality.

In part, this dynamic drove the number of legislator switches from Democrat to Republican that occurred in the early part of this decade. Several who did hardly changed economic views more in common with populism than with limited-government conservatism, but no change was needed in the views on social issues. And the tactical use was not limited to Republicans, new or old. Democrats also have learned to emphasize social issues in attempts by some to retain power and by others with safe seats to raise their profiles potentially to make themselves more attractive to a larger segment of the electorate, such as state Rep. Katrina Jackson becoming a leading anti-abortion policy-maker this past year as the primary force behind the state’s insistence on safety for clients utilizing abortion clinics (if obviously their activities remain as fatal as ever for the unborn), which may have the impact of retracting the industry.

So, in the final analysis, the apparent increasing conservatism of Louisiana legislators occurs more as a function of political posturing. By casting more votes more often for conservative social policy, for many this creates a particular perception for voters that allows for them to operate in greater policy space away from conservatism for votes on other kinds of issues, specifically in the area of economics. Looking only at the social issue dimension overstates the ongoing gradual ascendancy of conservatism that still leaves Louisiana, in terms of partisanship and policy, as one of the less conservative of the southern, plains, and mountain west states.

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