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Emergence of partisan politics good for Louisiana

The media template regarding the recent special session of the Louisiana Legislature is that it brought partisanship to a new level, and which may stay at that level forever more. Assuming this accurately predicts the future, will this be positive for the state?

Some, particularly legislators who are long in the tooth, don’t think so, arguing flexibility becomes decreased. Such a view entirely misses the point because a major problem in why Louisiana government has been so dysfunctional, in terms of producing policy outcomes that don’t rank the state at the bottom of almost all indicators of quality, is because too much flexibility has been afforded individual legislators.

Politics in Louisiana traditionally have been “personalistic,” meaning the exercise of power derives more from the efforts of individuals for individualistic goals than from any collective source with more holistic goals. Another way of putting this is policy-making is skewed towards a confluence of individual agendas as opposed to any agenda-setting and promulgation by collective institutions, along a collectively agreed-upon program.

It is no accident that in this environment the only powerful institutions in the state are built around the individual, the executive elective offices, particularly the governor. Even though, in a comparative sense with other states, Louisiana’s governor in terms of formal powers at best rests in the middle of the pack, the office’s influence gets magnified by its superior ability to exert personalistic power, as opposed to a collective institution such as the Legislature which is weakened by this reliance on personalistic power.

The central problem with this kind of culture is it is far less capable of promoting and implementing a policy agenda focused on the holistic needs of the state born of a political culture that vests more authority into institutions. It also is no accident that a weaker Legislature has gone hand-in-hand with a weaker set of political parties, probably the weakest in America, at the state level in Louisiana. Parties are the primary agent around which legislative power can be collected and utilized.

Without parties, and the necessary partisanship that makes them effective, rather than an impetus existing to draw individual legislators together around a holistic agenda, instead the Legislature dissolves into a number of princes representing fiefdoms with much less emphasis of acting first towards the good of the state, than making their districts their primary focus. The most visible example of this inanity is the capital outlay process and budget. There, legislators more often fight over money to fund certain projects to aid their districts than take a more reasoned, collective view over the kinds of items that really would benefit the state as a whole. It’s why things like needless reservoirs and horse barns get funded while the TIMED highway program designed to impact the entire state drags on years behind schedule.

Part of the “bring home the bacon” emphasis is the fault of voters. Like it or not, Louisiana suffers from one of the least sophisticated electorates which disproportionately evaluates candidates not on the basis of their issue preferences, but on how well they come across, or on what favors members of it feel have come their way from the candidate. The ideological thinking necessary to promote voting on the basis of issues, on the basis of an agenda that must include general principles applied to decisions affecting the entire state, will happen only as the Louisiana public increases its overall level of educational attainment and quality.

But this doesn’t means that political elites such as legislators and party officials can’t invigorate the process by taking the lead in shaping institutions that will encourage thinking in ideological terms, that will lend themselves to formation of a holistic agenda, thereby demanding partisanship from them. Simply, partisan parties provide clear policy choices for voters, shifting thinking from “what’s good for me” to “what’s good for the state, which in general is good for me?” It works the other way as well; increasing use of ideological discourse in Louisiana politics from its elected officials signals they are attentive to this growing preference in the electorate.

Additionally, the personalistic nature of Louisiana’s political culture has encouraged its tolerance of big, intrusive government. It prompts thinking about politics in zero-sum terms (“I have to fight for a piece of the pie for my district”) as opposed to non-zero-sum terms (“How can we make the state better for all concerned?). The latter attitude gets legislators away from trying to grow government (because the more it grows the more each of them personally can get a piece of it) towards reducing its size and power, because that empowers people, which is to the benefit of all. (This does not mean that a political ideology such as liberalism does not want there to be powerful government, just that the countervailing force of conservatism has the opportunity to resist creation of such a government, whereas the other view gives up on this by default.)

“Partisan” politics is a welcome innovation to Louisiana. The idea-driven politics that would lie behind a strengthening of collective institutions both informal (parties) and formal (the Legislature) would make for more efficient policy implementation, or at least would reduce politics based on personality where the transient coalitions must be built issue-by-issue more geared to reelection than to statesmanship. Given that the personalistic model has produced such dismal policy outcomes, theoretical arguments aside, the mere fact the partisan model offers something quite different alone should be enough to think any such transformation cannot happen too quickly.

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