In Louisiana, old populism has died, replaced by a new form that creates problems for Democrats it once served.
Democrat Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell found this out when Republican Treasurer John Kennedy walloped him in the U.S. Senate contest. That outcome popped the balloon filled by Democrats’ hopes that they can compete regularly for statewide offices following Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards’ gubernatorial victory last year.
Even more explicitly than did Edwards, Campbell ran as a liberal populist. He railed against alleged business perfidies and selfishness and championed nanny-state government, evoking the classic divisive rhetoric that for his kind won elections in decades past.
This failed because these days, Campbell and his kind have lost touch with what the working class wants. Campbell proposed raising the minimum wage and addressing a fictitious equal pay gap for equivalent work between sexes. With Louisiana median family incomes barely higher than when Democrats captured both the presidency and Congress eight years ago and with the largest proportion of able-bodied adults out of work in four decades, many voters fear such an agenda would destroy even more jobs and further increase dependency on government.
It’s little wonder that Louisiana’s workers shied away from a party that nationally shows little interest in creating opportunities for Americans to earn money and to keep more of their earnings but in contrast demonstrates great concern for maintaining open borders, preventing families from keeping health care they like at lower costs, and letting people use bathrooms to suit their self-conceptions. By rejecting Campbell, in the main Louisianans generally, but workers specifically, voted to fulfill their self-interests.
But that doesn’t mean populist appeals didn’t attract workers’ votes. Kennedy himself relied on the conservative brand of populism that also succeeded in sending GOP President-elect Donald Trump to the White House. This lens frames political discussion not according to the reputed oppressiveness of moneyed interests but on the oppressiveness of big government, with all of its waste and inefficiency, and a power elite backed by clients who benefit from that.
It’s the difference between government causing stagnant incomes and lack of jobs through taking and regulating more and then proposing to do more of the same to solve for these problems, and government getting out of the way to increase economic growth and clamping down on illegal immigrant job-takers. Unleashing a productivity boom and tightening the labor market will boost wages and employees needed, and with this argument Kennedy and Trump persuaded the working class to see as its chief adversary overgrown government serving special interests that by definition makes policy against workers’ interests.
This transformation of populist appeals bodes ill for state Democrats. Kennedy’s thrashing of Campbell clearly confirms the fluky nature of Edwards’ win that depended upon Republican opponents more interested in harming each other in pursuit of their own ambitions than in seeing their party’s policy advanced regardless of whether they won. It also sends a clear signal that Democrats typically can no longer triumph in statewide elections if they insist on building campaigns around liberalism’s populist talking points.
If Louisiana’s Democrats want to win any meaningful policy-making power, they must go beyond saying they worship God, hate abortion, shoot guns for reasons of sport and protection, and let government redistribution take care of the rest. With more Louisianans than ever perceiving government not as a corrective to assumed imbalances but as the instigator of unfair inequity that victimizes them, liberal populism has lost its statewide appeal.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana Government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at http://www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at http://www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter @jsadowadvocate. Email him at jeffsadow@firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.