By Matt Higgins
The recent U.S. Senate election in Louisiana caught my attention but not because of the candidates. Rep. Bill Cassidy seemed to be a broken record, answering every question with, “Mary Landrieu voted for Obama 97 percent of the time.”
Not that Mary Landrieu is a mesmerizing orator or even a populist, but even people who voted for Cassidy couldn’t articulate why they chose him, other than he’s not “Mary Obama.” How did a state with a rich history of colorful politicians like the Longs and, most recently Edwin Edwards, elect a senator like Cassidy?
Louisiana may have a history of colorful politicians, but this populist approach has only been characteristic of Louisiana politics since the 1930s and now that Mary Landrieu lost, this type of politician is no more in Louisiana politics but will resurge if the state continues its “government of the few, for the few, and by the few.”
Prior to the late 1920s, the state was in the hands of a ruling elite, known historically as the Bourbons. This group was the wealthy landowners, but by the 20th century, it was mineral wealth, not agricultural wealth, that made this group a fortune.
Of course, this group also included the other professional classes like lawyers, bankers, and doctors. Nevertheless, it was a small class compared to the rest of the population of Louisiana.
Consider this quote from the “Survey of Southern Markets” from Fitzgerald Advertising Agency in 1930.
“Only four major cities are worth looking at — Alexandria, Lake Charles, New Orleans, and Shreveport, because only those have necessary transportation infrastructure in place.”
Louisiana’s major industries employing residents were oil and gas, agriculture and, in New Orleans, the port.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, in 1928, about 10 percent of residents were illiterate.
Huey Long became governor in 1928. He is well known for his accomplishments. Highway construction, Charity Hospital and free textbooks to students are the most known. Many benefited from these initiatives, well after Long’s assassination.
The man who ran on a platform of “Every man a king” managed to begin a loose confederation of the white working and middle classes along with African-Americans that would be solidified by the 1970s when Edwin Edwards entered state politics. The common thread was the “greatest good for the greatest number,” one that, if not overshadowed race, at least kept race from dividing blacks from middle- and working-class whites.
The 2014 Senate election was a death knell for populist Democrats in Louisiana, of which Mary Landrieu was nominally one. The trend toward a solid red state has been happening for the last 20 years, but now it seems Louisiana politics has come full circle. The Solid South still exists, but it is now solidly Republican, not Democratic, as it had been for more than a century.
Only 15 percent of white males voted for Landrieu. Gov. Bobby Jindal openly slashes government budgets and supports tax breaks for companies, even Wal-Mart, which make billions in profits. Few in the Legislature challenge the governor’s legislative agenda.
The dominant industry is still oil and gas, despite the obvious need for transition to renewable sources of fuel, both for environmental and economic reasons.
Educational achievement in the state has improved but still lags behind all other states except West Virginia in the percentage of residents who hold higher education degrees. Only 30 percent of Louisianans have a two- or four-year degree.
In today’s economy, higher education is a necessity for transition to the middle class.
If oil prices remain at five-year lows for an extended period, then state coffers will be depleted, meaning less for education, health care and infrastructure.
It is yet to be determined the course Louisiana goes in this reincarnation of the Bourbons.
At best, we can eventually see a reaction and expect colorful figures like the Longs and Edwin Edwards, but along with that comes corruption and demagoguery.
Those who said Mary Landrieu was too liberal and was not in touch with ordinary Louisianans, will see someone who is in touch with Louisianans. That is, in touch with their anger, and in touch with the average resident’s desperate situation.
There is, of course, another way. The descendants and benefactors of the populist movement – especially the white middle class who grew up with free textbooks and moved up into the middle class as the state funded highway infrastructure allowed for economic development – can learn the pros and cons of Louisiana populist politics and follow a more enlightened path.
Such an enlightened course would include reversing cuts to health care and education. That would mean eliminating tax breaks for the Wal-Marts of this world, creating a health care system actually managed by state government and not one that is moneymaker for private insurance companies.
Enlightenment would also mean higher taxes on the oil and gas industry to fund transportation expansion and improvement. It would give many of our citizens more opportunity to improve their way of life, an opportunity, not a handout.
Those who would equate these progressive policies with socialism and communism should remember Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
If Louisiana continues its Bourbon ways, there will be an equally extreme reaction.
Matt Higgins is an assistant professor of History at SUNO and a freelance journalist. He taught in the Jefferson Parish Public School System for four years.