Republican Realignment: How Populism, Catholicism Affect LA, Then and Now

Aug 20, 2013

On Saturday, gubernatorial candidate Rep. John Bel Edwards delivered what The Times-Picayune called an animated speech at a Democratic rally, aiming to distance himself from Republican Governor Jindal's practices. Edwards doesn't have to try hard: he's opposed nearly every one, if not all, of the Governor's initiatives since they both assumed office in 2008.

Edwards is a leader of the minority party. Republicans have two-thirds supermajority control over the Senate (thanks to a few recent aisle-jumpers), a majority in the House, and every statewide office other than US Sen. Mary Landrieu's seat. 

Historically, Democrats have held firm control of Louisiana state politics. That history, undeniably tied up in racism at points, (among other things) led Senator Elbert Guillory to switch parties, according to a Youtube video he released last at the end of last session.

It outlines select moments of the Republican party's history. He reminds his audience that the Republican Party was founded as an abolitionist movement, garnered praise from Fredrick Douglas and produced Abraham Lincoln as its first president.

After the civil war, Guillory notes, the democrats became the “party of Jim Crow.” 

“It was the Republican President Dwight Eisenhower who championed the Civil Rights Act of 1957," Guillory says, "It was the democrats who filibustered the bill.”

Dr. Wayne Parent, who studies electoral trends in the South at LSU, says Guillory left out important pieces of history — like the 1948 democratic national convention — the catalyst for the geographic divide of the democratic party.

“Once Hubert Humphrey, who actually went to LSU, saw the racism and went back to Minnesota, and at that 1948 convention he says 'we’ve got to support civil rights,'" Parent detailed, "Southern Democrats walked out of the party for the most part, but not Earl Long, not Louisiana.”

Louisiana’s Republican conversion took a detour, thanks to populism and the teachings of the Catholic Church. The populists needed the vote of Louisiana's low-income population, no matter the color of their skin. 

Louisiana's Catholic dense population could align political messages with Sunday sermons. “The Catholic Church at the time," Parent said, "the emphasis was on economics, was on poor people’s movements, things like that."

As the national Republican party moved to sway the South into its circle, its message changed, most notably during the 1968 presidential election. Parent said the move was called The Southern Strategy.  When Richard Nixon ran, Parent said, his message was, "We can be the party against crime, and that was sort of a codeword for race.”

Ronald Reagan then helped develop the Republican brand. “He kept codewords like welfare queen," Parent said, "but he picked up other moral issues, like abortion, gay rights, those are all relatively new to the scene.”

At the same time, the Catholic Church's emphasis shifted. "You can see this in the voting patterns of Cajun Southern Louisiana," Parent said. "Emphasis changed to abortion, gay marriage and the like, and abortion especially moved Southern White Catholics in Louisiana into the Republican party.”

But what does history mean for Edwards? Parent says scales will tip depending on Governor Jindal’s choices over the next two legislative sessions.

“If the emphasis turns away from social issues in Louisiana, if Jindal keeps pounding economic issues," Parent said, "in other words being pro-business and less concerned about low-income people, that’s going to help democrats a little bit.”

But if economic issues are connected to race, Parent says, or if social issues come into play, Republicans could further cement their hold on the state.