Saturday, July 29, 2006

Parish Populism

I had stopped at a red light on Main Street in a small town in Union Parish, Louisiana, when I noticed something strange. It was a sign for a 2007 gubernatorial candidate prominently displayed roadside in an otherwise vacant lot. . I will not mention the candidate’s name, as I do not wish to be accused by his or her potential opponents of providing this candidate with free advertising space. Also, as is more likely to be the case, I do not wish to be accused by this candidate of implicitly providing free advertising space for his or her potential opponents.

Anyway, the sign itself struck me as highly unusual for several reasons. One, due to its elections being held in "off years", the Louisiana gubernatorial election will not be held until November 2007. Two, this "sign" was on a piece of cardboard and had been written with what appeared to be an unusually large magic marker. Three, the candidate’s sign was partially blocking the sign indicating the lot itself was "for sale", leading me to question whether permission had been secured beforehand. I admit that I had to suppress a chuckle or two as I drove away.
Upon further reflection, I found myself pondering my reaction. Was I just being a snob, betraying all of the prejudices of a Louisiana-born man raised in the Northeast? More importantly, was I belittling Louisiana’s rich tradition of populist politics? Did such populism still exist? Why were the cars behind me frantically honking their horns? As I drove past the lot (giving a wave acknowledging my culpability in holding up traffic) I realized that I could only definitively answer one of those questions. I’d just posed myself.

Let me backtrack a little.

Louisiana’s political legacy is dominated by two main themes. The first theme is the populist tradition best exemplified by the meteoric rise to and hold on power of assassinated U.S. Senator and former Governor Huey Long. The second theme is the tradition of graft and corruption best exemplified by the meteoric rise to and hold on power of assassinated U.S. Senator and former Governor Huey Long. As events in New Orleans and Washington, D.C. have made clear, the presence or appearance of corruption among Louisiana politicians remains a prominent topic of discussion. Reserving that topic for later, let me focus instead on Louisiana’s populist legacy.

It is fair to say that, for better or for worse, populism still reigns in Louisiana. It is also fair to say that both major political parties, in attempting to label themselves as heirs to the populist tradition, now attempt to embrace a label they used to avoid.
Populism in Louisiana (as elsewhere) had its roots in rural areas. Agrarian discontent contributed strongly to Huey Long’s rapid ascent (If you don’t believe me, just watch the movie "All the King’s Men").

Huey Long’s old-style populism appealed to the economic interests of the electorate. While the purity of his motives remains a bit of an open question, he nonetheless sought to address those economic issues that contributed to the dissatisfaction of agrarian voters. He strongly supported organized labor and an increased role for the state government in the economy. He vehemently opposed the concentration of wealth among the fortunate few as well as the corporate influence on government that contributed to it. He did all of this with flair, panache, and more than a little bit of demagoguery.

So, just who is Huey Long’s populist heir and what does he or she look like?

Can we find glimpses of that legacy in the ideology and career of Gov. Kathleen Blanco? After all, she cut her political teeth serving on the Louisiana Public Service Commission, the same commission once chaired by Huey Long.

Can we find it in the life and career of a man like Rep. Bobby Jindal, her opponent in the 2003 gubernatorial election? Is his popularity representative of a shift in Louisiana politics that more than one pundit has identified as a positive response to an outbreak of so-called "conservative populism"?

Can a politician like New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin lay his own claim to the populist legacy? His claim could be based not only because of his controversial rhetoric, but also because of his equally controversial reputation as a reformer not afraid to step on a few toes.

The problem with labeling any of these three as a clear heir to the populist tradition of Huey Long is that the manner in which "populism" is viewed and defined has changed significantly over the years. A few politicians may display some of Long’s bombast. A few may even demonstrate his zeal for reform. One or two may even have the potential to attract the "buzz" (positive or negative) that accompanied the Kingfish, but it is doubtful that any of them will be true populists in the Long tradition.

In Huey Long’s day, that sign may well have marked the potential site of a "stump". A stump from which a fiery politician planned to whip an eager crowd into a frenzy while he promised to carry the fight for their rights from the streets and sidewalks to the highest levels of state or national government. On Main Street in Union Parish on a hot summer’s day in 2006, that sign is just a crude piece of cardboard in an empty lot, seen by many but noticed by only a few.

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