Besides the more immediate concerns of electoral politics, a recent poll also shed some insight into the evolution of Louisiana’s political culture.
The JMC Analytics survey of last week, among queries focusing on this fall’s Senate contest and next year’s gubernatorial race (and even extended to the 2026 Senate one in asking about the falling political fortunes of Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy), asked about approval of Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards, who frankly has no electoral political future in the state and seems set on slipping away from state politics after his term ends. Respondents gave him at best lukewarm numbers at 48 percent approval (28 percent very) and 44 percent disapproval (27 percent very).
This is somewhat below the more dated Morning Consult number that it collects for all governors and would put Edwards squarely in the middle of the pack. It also indicates a snap election would find Edwards in trouble, for two reasons: an incumbent who can’t pull 50 percent is vulnerable, and especially in one where the median voter is closer to the other major party than his. Another way of putting it is few of the disapprovers can be enticed to support such an incumbent, but many of the approvers would switch to another candidate of which they also grant approval.
Academic, however, is this practical question and ultimately less fascinating than one more far-reaching: even if below water overall, how can Edwards still garner on balance a positive rating? After all, indisputably the state is worse off economically from 2015 and among all states is considered worst in the country by one evaluator while another puts it second from last. Taxes are higher with greater spending, both with his blessing, and no visibly improved or more comprehensive provision of services has occurred with him at the helm. That perception of willingness to tax and spend more and policy producing bad economic numbers, by contrast, have put Democrat Pres. Joe Biden’s presidency on life support.
Non-economic issues also don’t paint a very attractive picture of Edwards’ watch. He declared war on young female athletes in order to privilege those born biologically male, pursued a pandemic policy that caused more problems, especially for parents, and apparently cost more lives than a more scientifically-based approach, wants to foist a ruinously expensive remake on the economy at the altar of the false god of climate alarmism, and who affronted every citizen in the state, especially insulting those who are black, with his incuriosity and evasions regarding the death of black motorist Ronald Greene in the custody of the Louisiana State Police.
Yet nearly three-quarters of blacks give him approving marks, despite his overseeing an economy that has disproportionately hurt them and his unwillingness to bring accountability to the LSP’s spotty record of dealing with blacks. And on the coronavirus issue, just under half yet a bare majority approve of his handling of that issue.
Most head-scratching, in comparison Edwards’ numbers appear considerably better than those of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal towards the end of his term, despite Jindal’s reign producing notably better economic performances both in absolute and relative terms and his successful pursuit of a number of popular policies. Does this make Edwards the Teflon governor? More accurately, the seeming disconnection between record and popularity reflects enduring, if eroding, aspects of Louisiana’s political culture that center on personalistic rule.
Historically, Louisiana political culture has directed the locus of political power to be more a function of individual leaders than of ideology or partisanship. It’s an oddity that reaches all the way back to the area’s history under Franco-Iberian rule and became accentuated by divisions first from the plantation economy, then from its more enthusiastic embrace of populism. All blurred the impact of political ideas as a basis to form an agenda and emphasized the pursuit of discrete interests based upon perceptions of group membership, with groups defined around leadership that emerged to direct pursuit of these interests.
Hence, historically voters feel a tighter bond with particular politicians than in other places in the U.S., and a greater degree of learned helplessness in exchange to take charge of their own political fates. In the aggregate, they have been more likely to invest their hopes in a man on horseback to bring them benefits than to work towards policies that increase their abilities – as well as their responsibilities – to enable them to reap those benefits by their own efforts. It also prompts a higher degree of balkanization, with individuals having a greater degree of identification with primary groups, such as race, class, and community that promotes thinking about in-groups and out-groups as sources of allegiance or opposition, instead of banding around ideology or party (as a shorthand for ideology).
Within the black community personalistic politics becomes even more prominent. A history of institutionalized discrimination meant for a century after the Civil War’s end that few blacks could succeed, so those few that could gathered enormous influence within the black community with the blessing that they could eke out some victories here and there for the community but with the curse that the larger community acquired an even greater dependence on these figures in politics and became less likely to think outside the box represented by this system. By that century’s end, this had coalesced among Democrats willing to use government power increasingly to promote equality in outcomes rather than in opportunity.
In an environment, of course, thankfully which has gone the way of the dodo, but too many black leaders because they came up through it and hold power according to its assumptions continue to rhetorically perpetuate this state of affairs, despite reality, in order to hold onto power. As allies with Edwards and since the state at about a third has one of the highest black proportion of population in the country (second only to neighboring Mississippi), this creates a natural boost for Edwards in polling. After all, among whites he is well under water with 38 percent approving, 55 percent disapproving.
That mirrors national trends that have made a greater imprint on Louisianans’ attitudes – that is, evolution creating increased consideration for evaluating political questions on the basis of ideology and partisanship – as the state’s citizenry have seen greater diversity in information about politics courtesy of the World Wide Web’s proliferation challenging its insular mainstream media as well as improved cognitive capacity through improvements in education (while still scraping the bottom in a relative sense among the states, absolute improvement has been better). But he has more of a backstop with the more inflexible attitudes of a greater proportion of the population, with blacks overly wedded to a leadership that owes its power to propagating an increasingly unrealistic view of the world.
While this insulation may be greater among blacks, Louisiana whites as well are less resistant to abandon a leader. Even as circumstances in Edwards’ second term have revealed him as fairly closely aligned with the far-left leadership controlling national Democrats, the intense negative attitudes white Louisianans on the whole associated with them (for example, this poll showing Biden at 36 percent approval and 58 percent disapproval, with such numbers for white being respectively 23 and 73) haven’t translated nearly as well to him.
This is because the personalistic attitude running deeply in the state’s political culture provides some shielding that gives leeway to those politicians who can create an appearance that they commiserate with the masses, despite profound policy differences. That aspect provides the clearest explanation as to why Jindal, much closer to the median voter in policy than Edwards, racked up a lower rating (to date).
After failure of his tax reform in 2013, for the remainder of his term while Jindal continued to pursue state-related policies, but increasingly linked to those at the national level as he edged towards a presidential run and casting appeals to constituencies that could assist him in that quest. As he did so, he began to create a perception back home that he, the group leader, was leaving its members behind. Perhaps no issue encapsulated this more than his shift from support to opposition of the Common Core educational standards (a conflict, given the inherent weakness of the opponents’ arguments, that predictably died out years ago), taking him from ideas man to populist, which led those who had supported him and Common Core feeling abandoned while the opponents never really accepted him as one of their own. Jindal’s precipitous fall in popularity over his years in office came not from blacks or Democrats, whose leaders loathed him because he could and did defeat them in the battle of ideas, but from whites and Republicans who felt he abandoned them. (Cassidy’s fall from grace mirrors Jindal’s, somewhat differently through his alienation of conservatives by his policy deviations).
Edwards will see reduced erosion in support for the rest of this term as long as he steers clear of ideological politics as best he can, trying to mutate those unavoidable such conflicts headed his way into narratives involving group clashes based upon class or other such designations. As long as he can continue to play the populist card as he has his entire career, pitting people against people and creating bogeymen to blame, he can distract them from an ideological politics that would help them better discover their own best self-interests that for many he doesn’t represent.
That creation of conflict will keep the loyalty of some who otherwise would see him for what he really is in policy terms, regardless that the forces of evolution unrelentingly cool the embers of this approach as a way to maintain power in Louisiana. As his power steadily erodes, expect more of this behavior from him, as it takes advantage of a unique but decaying facet of Louisiana’s political culture that allows him to levitate in popularity above where he would outside in the world with a more mature politics.