Polarization is coming home to Lafayette

Illustration by Peter DeHart

Election season is in full swing, and political battle lines are shaping up. From controversial ads to fake candidate Facebook pages, it’s easy to fear the worst national political trends have taken root locally. While politics in Washington, D.C., has polarized dramatically over the last 50 years, local politics has generally been immune. Though Louisiana is known for its political flair, our politics has historically been more personal than partisan. This election cycle will put that trend to the test. 

Because polarization is so often in the news, there’s an impression that everyone falls into one of two ideological camps. You’re either with the red team or the blue team. Polarization occurs when public opinion clusters around political extremes. Rather than having views on an issue that range across the spectrum, polarization describes a situation where the moderate middle effectively disappears and joins one of the camps on either ideological end. 

Because the media talks about polarization so frequently, it’s easy to conclude that most people are politically divided. But social science research has shown that while polarization has increased, it hasn’t increased across all groups. Political elites — officeholders and political pundits — are primarily the ones who have polarized. Regular folks, not so much.

If anything, most Americans are deeply united in their distaste for politics. Nationwide in the 2016 presidential election, 92 million eligible voters stayed at home. Even in Louisiana, during our last major statewide election in October 2015, 1,759,740 registered voters didn’t participate, meaning nearly 60% of eligible Louisiana voters felt that voting wasn’t worth their time or effort. Far from politically polarized, a super-majority of Louisianans are united in their alienation from politics. 

Even among those who do participate in elections, polarization at the citizen-level is less evident than one might suspect. Instead, the parties have sorted along ideological lines. In the 1950s, for instance, the Democratic Party leaned left, and the Republican Party leaned right, but there was also a substantial conservative faction among the Democrats and a significant liberal wing among the Republicans. Today, however, there is less ideological diversity within the parties. 

Far beyond political ideology, political parties have also sorted along the lines of numerous identities. In decades past, political parties had members from various backgrounds. Supporters of the Democratic Party in Louisiana in the 1960s, for example, included a mix of Catholics and Protestants, whites and blacks, folks from both sides of I-10. But today, as Lillian Mason has argued in her recent book, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, partisanship has become a mega-identity, an umbrella under which other identities are gathered. In other words,  if you know whether a person voted for John Kennedy or Foster Campbell in the 2016 U.S. Senate race in Louisiana, you could make educated guesses about not only that person’s political ideology but their race, gender, sexuality or religion. 

This partisan sorting of identities creates a self-perpetuating cycle that makes politics deeply unattractive for most people. More than one-third of Americans eschew partisan affiliation and identify as politically moderate. The majority do not participate in elections, especially state and local ones. Those who vote typically choose between the two major political parties. As those parties have become increasingly sorted, there is less diversity of identities within the parties. If you’re a black conservative, or an Evangelical liberal, or a gay moderate, or any other combination of cross-pressured identities, finding a partisan home can be a challenge. Research has shown that people are more likely to change their beliefs to fit their partisan identity — including even switching religions.

Further exacerbating the political division is the nationalization of media. As local media has dedicated more time to national issues, local voters have become more dependent on partisan cues to make election day decisions. Nationwide, as local newspapers and tv news stations have closed or rolled up into conglomerates, there has been a reduced number of people running for office. The lack of coverage leads to a lack of competition, which diminishes voters’ enthusiasm and interest. With fewer candidates running, those who do run tend to be less moderate and more representative of the partisan extremes.  

In Louisiana, while there are deep and pronounced divisions among state lawmakers along partisan lines, regular folks are more united than one might expect. The Louisiana Survey, conducted annually by LSU’s Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs, asks Louisianans about their views on contemporary policy issues. Though national polarization trends would predict wide-partisan gulfs, the survey shows remarkable consensus. The study found strong bipartisan support for raising teacher pay, increasing the state minimum wage to $8.50, approval of Medicaid expansion, and the 2017 criminal justice reforms. 

Even more so than state issues, local politics has long been thought to be relatively immune from political polarization. As the old peril of wisdom goes, there isn’t a Republican or Democratic way to fix a pothole (recent political ads notwithstanding). Lafayette is in a fortunate situation at the moment, with three area papers and several TV and radio stations providing local political coverage. The split of the councils and the increased media coverage has invigorated a large number of candidates to throw their names in the election ring.

Since the 2015 elections, Lafayette has seen its fair share of polarizing issues: debates over the construction of the I-49 Connector, the potential relocation of the Alfred Mouton statue, the possible sale or private management of LUS, and the uproar over Drag Queen Story Time. With polarization, there is typically less compromise and more gridlock as the gulf between partisans grows. Given the pressures facing the parish budget and the log of delayed maintenance requests for parish buildings, drainage, road and sewer systems, compromise will be key moving forward. Undoubtedly, the campaigns will be polarized. Once elected, they can’t afford to be.