As previously noted, the recent win by Republicans in a special state Senate election to give the party its first post-Reconstruction legislative majority carried plenty of symbolism, but to assign that as the only outcome fundamentally mistakes and misreads that event and those leading to it.
Those on the left tried to downplay its significance by muttering about how Louisiana’s legislators don’t frequently act in a partisan matter and their labeling habits are rather casual. History largely supports that contention – except this is now 2011 and conditions have changed enough for a permanent alteration to the state’s political culture going forward.
To understand this, the state’s political history does matter. Up until the 1920s typically the state was, for the most part, conservative if that is defined as unwilling to pursue extensive government spending and intervention and in social arrangements (i.e., segregationist). But not entirely, as witnessed in the latter part of the 19th century when the populist movement achieved some of its greatest electoral successes in Louisiana, more than anywhere in the American South. Thus, when Gov., later Sen., Huey Long consolidated power, he did so by tapping into that latent populist discontent and fused it with an ideology of government intervention and redistribution.
With legal and social restrictions causing only the Democrats to be able to function as a major party, different factions formed within it, populist and reform. The latter typically believed redistributionist tendencies had gone too far but often did not differ much on social issues with race relations being paramount. As such, for an extended period no impetus existed for the legitimatizing of another major party, for in an American party system that especially tends to obscure party differences, one cleavage only was not enough to cause a split.
But as time passed and the civil rights movement brought that issue to the forefront, the issue of government intervention added the civil rights component to its mix, creating both economic and social cleavages that could bifurcate the Democrats. Yet the populist tendency of the state held back significant growth of the GOP. Reformists now could have a semi-competitive GOP as a home, but it was competitive only because of social conservatives who maintained their populist economic outlook. Therefore, relative to the two parties at the state level, there often was more of an echo than a real choice in terms of those candidates willing to take on the GOP label to distinguish themselves from Democrats.
The first real significant alteration in this arrangement came concerning national issues, especially where Republican presidential candidates provided choices and not echoes that contained, for GOP candidates, few if any populist appeals. This allowed alignment of both economic and social issues along a clear liberal/conservative continuum. Especially after the election of Pres. Ronald Reagan in 1980, that began to filter down in to Louisiana’s state and local politics, gradually breaking the hold populism had on the majority of political elites and voters.
Yet at the state level, this process was slowed by the presence of the blanket primary. Because it featured no nominations for party labels, it greatly cheapened the labels as signals to voters about the clarity of the issue preferences of candidates. It allowed candidates to build disproportionately support on the basis of candidate personality, which deemphasized the role issues played. A popular canard is that the blanket primary helped kickstart the state’s GOP, but only insofar as it made easier one ideologically-similar candidate to distinguish himself from another, choosing that label not so much because there was significant differences between him and other on issue preferences, but as a tool to entice voters of conservative persuasion to think he was different. The reverse sometimes happened in districts with a significant black minority registration, where a candidate who might be more conservative than liberal would term himself a Democrat to pick up black votes to prevail.
This lens once was correct to understand the smaller role party played in public policy-making in the state. But to continue to apply this to the present situation ignores the different environment and dynamics in play today. Several such changes have emerged.
Steadily, real world results have eroded the legitimacy of the redistributionist tendency, dulling the appeal that populism has, reducing its number of adherents, and purifying the parties as reformers comfortably have found a home in a competitive GOP. A political generation has come of age since Reagan that sees clearer differences between labels, less hampered by the populist persuasion, despite the obfuscating impact of the blanket primary. Access to information particularly has exploded in the past 15 years that makes it easier for candidates to present and voters to find information that clarifies ideological choices. Finally, term limits promoted the chances of more ideological candidates to campaign relying more heavily on issue preferences without having to compete against long-standing officeholders who built a lasting image perhaps at odds with their actual voting record at a time where issues meant less and voting records were more difficult for voters to discover.
These changes mean partisan labeling has become more important, because increased willingness of candidates, particularly conservatives, to convey issue-based information to an electorate able and desirous to access this information better aligns competing ideologies to labels. And because Louisiana traditionally, except in the area of economics due to the populist strain, has been resistant of government intervention, especially as populism has eroded has seen this strengthening alignment redound to the favor of the GOP.
So there is more than symbolic value to the Republicans achieving majorities in all of the majoritarian power centers in government, and it does signal policy consequences. One vote absolute majorities will not produce revolutionary changes in policy. But they signal the shape of things to come. Particularly after the fall elections, when we can expect even more pure ideologues elected to the chambers with larger Republican majorities, party will matter more than ever because more than ever it provides a meaningful distinction on a criterion increasingly important to voters.
Mark this year down. It will be the last, particularly in the House, where partisanship does not play a consistently significant role in policy emanating from the Louisiana Legislature.