Search This Blog


Louisiana political culture helps stymie minor candidates

It’s never a lot of fun to rain on somebody’s parade, to dampen their enthusiasm, but … people not running as Democrats or Republicans in Louisiana really have no chance of winning an election, or even getting close, and here’s why. (Stop. Before anyone can point out about this guy or this guy [District 2], read below and you will understand why anomalies like them can appear – but never beyond anything than what we could consider a locally-oriented office in this state.)

Paradoxically, it’s mainly because political parties are so weak in this state in the first place. Louisiana’s political culture has placed more emphasis on personalistic, rather than institutionalized, politics, than those we see elsewhere. In other words, political power is disproportionately vested within the individual politician relative to institutions when compared to other states. An oft-quoted example is the relatively weak formal powers of the Louisiana governor, but a long history of legislative kowtowing to her. (If this sounds a lot like the rule of strongmen or juntas or caudillos reminiscent in less developed countries, well, if the shoe fits …).

Parties are one of the casualties of this cultural strain. Historically (which means mostly the Democrats), individual politicians, usually governors, have dominated their parties even more than they do the Legislature. This style has created the weakest state political parties in America and explains why they couldn’t fire a shot when former Gov. Edwin Edwards pushed through the nonpartisan blanket primary system which reinforced their weakness (P.S. earlier this week a federal appeals court declared unconstitutional its version in Washington – stay tuned for this developing story).

Louisiana’s election system outside of federal offices illustrates the little value party labels traditionally have had in its elections. Simply, parties have no control over which candidates get their labels, period – no party primary where party affiliates, either wholly (closed primaries) or partially (open primaries) can choose the party’s nominee. Thus, potential aspirants to offices can choose whatever labels they want and the party can do nothing about it (remember this guy?).

Therefore, as long as you have a solid campaign organization and enthusiastic supporters (usually built around yourself or with another powerful political figure as your patron), as a candidate you can appropriate whatever label you like on your way to being a competitive candidate. And the more powerful you are, the easier it is to take a major party label and define it around yourself because the party apparatus can’t do much to resist.

One reason why we have seen more people run as “other” in contests (technically, one does not run as an “independent” in Louisiana) in recent years is part of long-term secular changes in American politics that have increased the number of self-identified independents and reduced the proportion of major party self-identifiers; as there are more non-Democrats/non-Republicans out there, more turn up in contests. But an “independent” label has next to no meaning; even if the major parties are weak in Louisiana, “Republican” and “Democrat” are labels with considerable content, are strongly defined labels, and have remained relatively stable in meaning for decades. Since these labels convey useful information to voters about candidates, even most of those who register as “no party” will prefer one of these candidates, given what the labels tell them (presumably) about the candidates.

Having a minor party label such as “Libertarian” will improve the fortunes of those candidates who shun the major party labels because it also conveys substantive information about a candidate – but not much improvement. Simply, at this point in time, the vast majority of Americans are comfortable with one (or both) of the broad coalitions, ideologically fuzzily-defined, that represent the two major parties, and will wish to vote for candidates with those labels. Until things happen politically that cause that to change, candidates unable or unwilling to use those labels in a general election will be disadvantaged.

This is especially true in Louisiana. Much is being made of Sen. Joe Lieberman’s battle to win reelection as an independent in Connecticut. Note that this never would have been an issue were that state not a closed primary state that lacks a “sore loser” law (about half the states prohibit losers of party primaries from running in the general election). But if Lieberman wins, it will be because of a personal following he has built, plus strategic defections from Republicans from their official nominee, and the fact Connecticut has a history much more amenable to accepting “maverick” politicians than does Louisiana (who in its history the best it can do is guys like the one above and this one – hardly a credit anyone sensible wants to acknowledge.)

As a result, to be honest, this fall’s slate, and likely next fall’s for statewide offices, of independent or minor party candidates doesn’t have a 10 percent, or 2 percent, chance of winning – it’s zero barring incredible circumstances extremely likely never to occur. But that doesn’t mean they ought not to try, because more choices in elections always are better, and I give credit to them for trying.

No comments: