The Baton Rouge Advocate recently ran a piece displaying equal parts of wonderment and pique at how easily the Republican-led chambers, with the House of Representatives under Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Senate behind Pres. Page Cortez, have worked together to put liberal Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards on the defensive and advance a decidedly conservative agenda. But, like an alien looking at a snow globe of a pastoral scene to divine how life on Earth really goes on, writer Tyler Bridges can’t quite figure it out the reality of the situation.
To understand why not, a review from where Louisiana’s political culture and communication have developed is in order. Keep in mind that the state’s populist past, with its reform character stemming from the post-Reconstruction era then half a century later metastasizing into a centralizing and redistributionist Longism, allied with its longstanding reliance on personalism by which to judge its rulers, for about a century conditioned the public to accept at the state level bigger and more intrusive government than state voters tolerated from the national government starting after World War II. In other words, Louisianans less frequently translated their issue preferences into voting behavior, enthralled as they were with candidate personalities and captive to a distinct political culture.
Those tendencies would change only when larger forces eroded that political culture and facilitated congruence between ideology and behavior. Two evolutions made Louisiana’s political culture more like the nation’s and promoted more ideological thinking at the expense of candidate imagery, which began to culminate towards a significant mass of change agency just over two decades ago: improved educational quality and attainment and greater and more diverse information about politics, particularly at the state and local level.
Educational reforms first rolled out in the 1990s and refreshed two decades later have increased the cognitive capacity of younger voters, with the vanguard now into their thirties, which makes them more prone to think about elections ideologically and less so depend upon candidate personalities. This makes them better able to formulate and compare their views to those expressed by candidates, ultimately better aligning their interests with their voting behavior (it’s no accident that in jurisdictions with lesser educated populations candidate appeals have lost less of their potency over this span). As an ancillary effect, over time a growing proportion of adults born outside of Louisiana and educated elsewhere had the same impact.
The other development had somewhat of a similar effect across all populations. Especially triggered by first the world wide web then accelerated in distribution through the advent of social media, the few, controlled channels of information (such as newspapers like the Advocate) faced challenges from a multiplicity of sources often carrying less expense to the consumer. Derivatively, this also allowed candidates, policy-makers, and their interest group allies to bypass traditional communication channels for information dissemination, allowing for unmediated information flow to the public.
In the past, reporting that gave a limited, often mutually reinforcing, amount of information about an issue emanating from a handful of gatekeepers now has given way to continually increasing amounts of information (aided by Internet-induced transparency into government’s working with the near-zero cost of real-time placing of documents, audio, and video into the widely-accessible public domain) from numerous sources that provide a much more well-rounded, thoroughly-analyzed discussion of issues of the day. This makes government by consensus less likely and empowers ordinary citizens in their abilities to evaluate issues and policy-maker responses to them.
So, when hearing a complaint such as one made in the article by Democrat state Sen. Troy Carter that the assertively-conservative legislature doesn’t produce “unity” that isn’t “bipartisan, to work for all of Louisiana,” that statement reflects the bias of the past from someone with minority views. Back then – recall that only a quarter of a century ago 85 percent of legislators were Democrats, compared to under a third today – almost all legislators signed on to the populist creed for which “unity” served as a mask. The end of “bipartisan” days came when enough Republicans understood that the assumptions of liberals about human nature were wrong and that they couldn’t compromise their very different principles to achieve their policy ends.
Today, GOP legislators know, given the superiority of their conservative principles over the inferior liberal set on offer, that by definition to pursue their agenda does “work for all of Louisiana.” You can’t have “unity” with those who believe in a set of ideas inimical to yours; where agendas don’t overlap, you have to defeat them, not compromise in order to advance the life prospects for all in society.
And that understanding differentiates decisively almost to a legislator today’s legislative Republicans as compared to those in the past, particularly in the Senate. Over half of current senators served at one point in the House (including Cortez). However, more to the point, the characteristics of Republican senators have changed dramatically from those who had occupied those same chairs even a year ago.
When the 2008 Regular Session started, which was the first after the three-term limit per chamber affected elections, six Republicans would end up serving their full three terms. They brought 102 years of previous legislative service with them, or 17 years for each. They comprised 40 percent of their delegation. Four rookies joined them, although one (GOP Sen. Bill Cassidy) quickly would leave for Congress. The remainder comprised just 20 percent of the cohort.
The half-dozen warhorses came from the get-along-go-along generation which served as a permanent minority that proved very flexible when applying their stated ideological principles. Contrast this with the senators seated at the start of this year. Five GOP representatives averaging the full three terms gained election, just 19 percent of the party’s cohort, while nine rookies made up a third of the class.
All 14 come from a much different policy-maker generation. Most of the experienced five came in with records of significantly greater and more consistent conservatism in their House voting records, and the nine all campaigned with agendas more congruent with the five than the six ushered into retirement.