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Lessons from the 2019 LA governor's race

Louisiana learned some lessons from the conclusion of 2019 state elections, primarily focused on the gubernatorial contest – largely unflattering, but with some hope for the distant future.

Personalism still matters more than issues and ideology. Louisiana’s electorate to a degree not seen elsewhere in the Union places its emphasis on candidate images at the expense of issue preferences in its voting decisions. The state’s history of paternalistic government, its population’s lower levels of educational attainment, and its relative lack of economic development and the insularity that produces all contribute to this being out of step with the nation as a whole and even makes it distinct compared to its regional neighbors.

Louisiana voters, even as this aspect of the political culture continues to erode, disproportionately don’t incorporate and analyze information about candidate records and preferences in making their decisions, preferring to supplanting that with vague perceptions (often influenced by negative advertising that has little to do with reality) about candidates as leaders and providers of things. In essence, the fog created by personalistic appeals obscures the ability of many to vote in their own self-interests (such as this guy, who should know better).

Reelected Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards oversaw a Louisiana where during his term personal income and job numbers grew at one-tenth the rate of the rest of the country and featured one of the highest unemployment rates which had come down only because the workforce hemorrhaged through out-migration at the highest per capita rate in the country. Only in Louisiana could a governor with such an underwhelming record achieve a second term.

But he was aided by Republican challenger Eddie Rispone’s campaign that pretended linking Rispone to national issues, not all of which translated to state concerns, could activate enough latent partisanship to win the day. Largely conducted by people ignorant of Louisiana’s political culture, they mistakenly discounted that political culture and/or thought it had matured beyond its actual condition.

Liberal populism’s demise was greatly exaggerated. When former Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal won without a runoff in 2007 and by an even larger margin four years later, it seemed that the state finally had shed its liberalism populism that had led to nearly a century of failure. But Minerva’s Owl in the Hegelian sense has revealed the prematurity of that sentiment.

Realize that Jindal, as the only governor in the state’s history to run on and to some degree execute in office an ideologically conservative platform, also understood the imperatives of the political culture. He spent years developing relationships with political figures, factions, and people. His impressive command of facts and ability to relate these to larger concepts helped cut through the fog of personalism so that people more easily would draw upon ideological referents in making their vote choices, while in governance he diluted to some degree the reform conservatism he preached in practice to keep insiders pleased.

By contrast, the Rispone campaign never understood that presenting him as an outsider that would drain the swamp as a means of reversing Edwards’ doubling down on policies that had made the state last in economic development and quality of life couldn’t succeed on its own. The problem is, with its long history of paternalistic government, too many in Louisiana liked the Baton Rouge swamp and benefitted directly from it. A candidate can turn enough of these people towards conservative reform solutions only by retail politicking and personal engagement, activities about which Rispone did next to nothing.

Too many people have a vested interest in the way things are in Louisiana. Even if that course reduces the life prospects of the majority, they don’t care as long as they get theirs and only some of them can be persuaded that they also could benefit from changes. They voted for Edwards because Rispone did little to convince them otherwise; linking Edwards to increasingly unhinged national Democrats with which he shares the large majority of policy preferences just wasn’t enough to get them to see past their largesse from paternalistic government.

However, the final nails in the coffin for liberal populism are coming.  It’s a long-term optimism that requires some short-term pessimism. In the next four years little will change in Louisiana and its economic crisis will magnify with more of relatively stagnant growth and opportunity. Isolated with Republican and conservative majorities in all other parts of government, Edwards only will be able to maintain liberalism’s shrinking territory in state government – which took a substantial hit during the Jindal years – with no chance to advance it.

Yet that will induce enough tragedy. The malaise Edwards has endorsed will fester with him blocking potential solutions. As the state falls further behind, this will lead to the necessary catharsis that tips the repudiation of liberal populism in Louisiana. Four more years of Edwards and his tax-and-spend agenda will cause such fiscal deterioration as to discredit liberal populism to the point that it never will regain its footing as the driving force in the state’s public policy.

Regrettably, the roots of this populism infiltrated too deeply for the Jindal years alone to pull them up. The rot of the Edwards years will enable finishing of the job, and Louisiana finally can start aspiring to greatness.

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