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Making sense of LA political, media changes

A mainstream media attempt from the old left to understand the new right leadership in the Louisiana Legislature failed. Let me be of some assistance.

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.

In others words, a much larger and more consistently conservative bloc emerged in 2020 than had been in place in the Senate in 2008, and who would become its leaders over the next dozen years. In 2008, the House as a whole had a much more consistently conservative cohort replace departing members, with that cohort refreshed in 2020 on an even larger scale. What had become a disconnect between Republicans in the chambers in 2008 had disappeared by 2020. Simply, the Senate had caught up with the House, facilitating the ability to work together on a common conservative agenda.

And with their dominance, their ability to control the agenda also carries the ability to control communication channels. You can sense the vexation, if not umbrage, Bridges evinces when, in his article, he wrote about how Cortez doesn’t spend much time directly answering media questions and Schexnayder barely gives him the time of day.

Back when Bridges cut his eye teeth as a reporter, those were the days where a small coterie of media gatekeepers decided what information went out into the public, with the mass public itself having almost no other sources for state political news. In each market, all it had was five or fewer television stations, maybe a news radio station, and a daily or weekly newspaper to depend upon.

That’s all changed with the advent of the Internet. Now, you can receive for free state political news from dozens of television and radio stations across the state, with much of the content original, and even get it directly from the Associated Press. And you can access several websites full of original stories and analysis about state politics, if not specialized blogs and content aggregators – all free. Meanwhile, all the large and most of the rest of the state’s newspapers have gone behind soft paywalls, driving state news consumers to these other sources.

Keep in mind as well that the largest old media in retreat, newspapers, also have the most liberal orientations guiding their editorial pages and news coverage choices, while smaller papers and electronic outlets, both broadcast and Internet-based, show greater ideological diversity. And, to top it all off, e-mail and social media allow policy-makers and their allies to bypass mediators and to communicate directly with the mass public.

Thus, Cortez, Schexnayder, and the like don’t have to pay obeisance to the likes of Bridges. The changing times in Louisiana have invalidated the old aphorism “never pick fights with a guy who buys ink by the barrel and paper by the ton.” They can afford to make the legacy media not count because they know they will get out their messages unfiltered by the agendas of others to a significant number of people regardless of whatever the legacy media may disseminate.

Ultimately, that’s why unity under the state’s conservative majority in its electorate has taken hold in the Legislature. With the breaking of the ability of the legacy media to use its monopoly powers of story selection and presentation, isolated by market, legislative Republican leadership can bring its case more directly to more of the people without distraction. And it wouldn’t even be a story if it had a sympathetic governor in office, as it would fly under the radar.

Liberal Edwards, too, as both a political tactician and in his agenda, also is a relic of the past, and only the consequent clashing with the Legislature makes for a story. Have a conservative governor in place with a sympathetic legislature instead, and not only would you not have seen this post, you wouldn’t have seen the original story, either, missing a chance to observe more overtly the fundamental power shifts among ideological factions occurring inside and outside of Louisiana government.

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