“Louisiana,” it was written in this space two years ago, “often seems to be America’s banana republic, with its charm and inefficiency, its communities interlaced by family ties and its public sector sometimes laced with corruption, with its own indigenous culture and its tradition of fine distinctions of class and caste. It is a state with an economy uncomfortably like that of an underdeveloped country, based on pumping minerals out of soggy ground and shipping grain produced in the vast hinterland drained by its great river, an economy increasingly dependent on businesses typical of picturesque Third World countries—tourism (now the second largest industry, hard hit by September 11) and gambling. Its politics too has a Third World quality, with its own peculiar election laws and a heritage of no-holds-barred conflict and demagoguery no other state can match: what other state has produced a Huey Long or an Edwin Edwards? Louisiana has a hereditary rich class and a large low-wage working class. It has conservative cultural attitudes: Louisiana and Utah have the most restrictive abortion laws in the U.S.—its partial-birth abortion ban and optional “Choose Life” license plates have been ruled illegal by federal courts—and Louisiana in 1997 became the first state to offer covenant marriages, in which spouses would agree not to be covered by no-fault divorce laws. But Louisiana also has a lazy tolerance of rule-breaking, and feels more like the Caribbean or the Mediterranean than the North Atlantic or the Pacific Rim. This is not an entirely original observation. Five decades ago, A. J. Liebling described Louisiana as an outpost of the Levant along the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the United States faces east toward the vast Atlantic Ocean or west toward the vast Pacific; Louisiana faces south, to the Gulf of Mexico and the steamy heat and volatile societies of the Caribbean and Latin America.”
Not much of this needs to be rewritten in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans on August 29, 2005, and resulted in flooding which devastated most of the city and sent hundreds of thousands of evacuees to shelter on higher ground. Katrina destroyed large parts of Louisiana, but it also highlighted its faults, exposed its weaknesses and shredded the fabric of a society that was already deep in decay. Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of Mississippi with Category 5 winds and New Orleans with only Category 4; in a few hours it destroyed far more structures in Mississippi than it did in Louisiana; New Orleans mostly survived the initial rains and winds. But then the levees broke and the destruction of New Orleans followed as water sought its level. The 17th Street Canal, constructed by one of several Louisiana levee boards, sprung a 200-foot hole through which much of the waters inundating 80% of New Orleans came. The Industrial Canal, along the picturesquely poverty-stricken Ninth Ward, had a similar break. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, built by the Army Corps of Engineers as a shipping channel though precious few ships ever chose to use it, funneled waters and winds into St. Bernard Parish east of the city and the lowlands of eastern New Orleans and devastated all in its wake. It had been known since New Orleans was founded by the French in 1718 that most of the land around here, beyond the two ridges piled high by the silt coming down the Mississippi River, was below sea level. It was known that New Orleans, the nation’s fifth largest city just before the Civil War and the only metropolis of any magnitude in the South, was at risk of destruction. It was no secret that the Mississippi River often flooded, as it did disastrously in 1927, or that hurricanes came roaring out of the Gulf, as one did that destroyed Galveston, Texas, in 1900. Yet in retrospect it is clear that New Orleans was unprepared for the predictable disaster that wreaked more wreckage on an American city than anything since the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
The initial verdict was that the public officials responsible for responding were responsible for the grim consequences. George W. Bush, unwilling to cancel a West Coast speech and then telling his FEMA Director Michael Brown that, “You’re doing a heckuva job Brownie,” was held up to ridicule. But in fact the Coast Guard moved in quickly and rescued perhaps 20,000 people; but no one knew it because they didn’t have room in their helicopters and boats for cable news anchors and their camera crews. And, as Harvard scholar and Clinton administration official Elaine Kamarck has noted, the FEMA battle plan assumes that local first responders are not incapacitated by the emergency, which was not the case with Katrina (or with Hurricane Andrew in Miami in 1992): a mistake made by many administrations over many years. Governor Kathleen Blanco was undoubtedly tardy in officially requesting federal assistance, seeking guarantees of post-hurricane aid that could never have been realistically expected in the height of the storm. But she also dispatched the boats of the Louisiana Fish and Wildlife Service which rescued thousands, again out of camera range. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was pilloried justly for the school buses that were left under water when they could have been deployed to evacuate helpless people out of the city and for not ordering an evacuation sooner. But the supposed murders and violence which was reported in the city’s shelter in the Super Dome never actually happened. The inundation of New Orleans was the result not of the inadequacies of the current incumbent officeholders supposedly in charge but of the decisions made and the derelictions committed by federal and state and local officials of both parties and many administrations over many years. The New Orleans levee boards were incompetent and corrupt; the Army Corps of Engineers never had a long-term strategy appropriate to a predictable disaster, and its congressional and executive overlords never insisted on one. The destruction of so much of New Orleans in the few days after August 29, 2005, was the result not so much of the negligence of the officials in the spotlight but of many other officials, over many years, who operated out of full view, of congressional logrolling and administrative inertia, and of the particular civic and political culture of New Orleans and Louisiana which, for its charms, has been more dysfunctional than any other in America.
This is a product of history. The very things that made New Orleans distinctive—the look and feel it has had as a French and Spanish outpost in the New World—were linked also to dysfunctional traditions, traditions of dirigiste centralized control and easygoing corruption. Louisiana is the only state whose law is based not on the common law of England but on the Napoleonic Code of France; the concept of civil liberties has shallower roots in Louisiana than in the other 49 states. And it is a state whose economy has always been based on export of raw materials—sugar, rice and cotton in the 19th century, oil and gas in the 20th. Antebellum Louisiana’s agricultural abundance generated the wealth which built grand plantation houses behind alleys of oaks running in from the Mississippi and made New Orleans the one significant city by the time of the Civil War. Then came oil, first discovered in 1901, at the dawn of the automobile age; the first offshore well, out of sight of land, came in 1947, at the start of the postwar boom. In 1921 Governor John Parker and a young Public Service Commission Chairman Huey Long got the idea of putting a severance tax on oil; in the 1970s Governor Edwin Edwards, a man similar in many ways to Long, changed it from a tax on amount of production to a tax on market value. Oil money came gushing into the Louisiana treasury and financed state government for six decades—and found its way into other pockets as well.
The most enduringly famous politician here, and by far the most talented, was Huey Long, who in less than a single term each as governor (1928–32) and senator (1932–35), left an imprint on the state’s public life and imposed an organization to its politics that have faded into history only recently. Long’s genius was not that he promised to tax the rich to help the poor—hundreds of idealists and demagogues in America have done that—but that, to an amazing extent, he actually delivered. He dominated the legislature so thoroughly that, as governor, he roamed the floors of both chambers at will, bringing to the podium bills he insisted be passed without changing a comma—and they were. He was ready to use bribery, intimidation and physical violence. He built a new skyscraper Capitol, a new Louisiana State University and more miles of roads than any state but rich New York and huge Texas. He also built a national following, and by 1935, he was planning to run for president on the platform of ‘‘Share the wealth, every man a king,’’ when he was assassinated at age 42 in the hallway of the Capitol, where the bullet holes can still be seen in the marble walls.
For America, the Long threat may have moved Franklin D. Roosevelt to embrace the liberal programs—the Wagner Labor Act, social security, steeply graduated taxes—of the second New Deal. For Louisiana, Long delivered a political structure that revolved around him even after he was dead—and a class of political leaders who, lacking his talents, treated the state as Long’s incompetent doctors had treated his fatal wound, leaving Louisiana without either a fully developed economy or a fully competent public sector. For 50 years, until Huey’s son Senator Russell Long retired in 1986, Longs and Long proteges held high political office in Louisiana and elections were run along pro- and anti-Long lines. The Long experience has strengthened Louisiana’s already strong predispositions—tolerance of corruption, disinterest in abstract reform and taste for colorful extremists regardless of their short-term means or long-term ends—in a way that helps explain the rise and fall of such unlikely politicians as the four-term Governor Edwin Edwards and the onetime Ku Klux Klan leader and state legislator David Duke, both of whom by 2003 were spending time in jail. It also helps to explain the state’s lack of dynamism. It has been a state with low incomes and work force participation and low levels of education, with income disparities greater than almost anywhere else in the United States; New Orleans’s rich, like many in Latin America, are notoriously unventuresome and tight-knit, determined to hold on to their wealth against the grasp of the impecunious and unlearned masses. This has made a huge difference over time. Metro New Orleans in 1940 had a population of 564,000; it was about the same size then as metro Houston (610,000) and metro Dallas (624,000). But in 2004, just before Katrina, metro Houston had 5.1 million people and metro Dallas 5.8 million, to New Orleans’s 1.3 million.
The oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 did for Louisiana what they did for Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Venezuela: they made it suddenly hugely richer. Louisiana incomes reached up to national levels and 500,000 new jobs were generated between 1972 and 1981. But oil prices plummeted in the 1980s, Louisiana’s rig count dropped by two-thirds, the state lost 150,000 jobs and energy taxes fell from 41% of state revenues in 1982 to 9% in 1996. The state’s economy has never regained much forward momentum. Gambling, legalized in 1991, produced less revenue than expected and nothing like the boom that some promised. People have been leaving the state: From 1980 until 2005 Louisiana’s population increased only 7%, far less than any other Southern state, less than any state except two in the Great Plains and the industrial triangle of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Then, as evacuees left New Orleans, its population fell sharply, by 5% in mid-2006 according to Census Bureau estimates, by more according to others.
Louisiana has long had natural political divides. One is by religion: Catholic Cajun parishes (Louisiana has parishes rather than counties) cast about 30% of the state’s vote, the New Orleans area casts around 25% or so, and about 45% are cast in Protestant parishes from Baton Rouge on north. White Protestants for years have wanted nothing to do with national Democrats, while Cajuns tend to mull it over. Another divide is by race: Blacks are overwhelmingly Democratic, whites split in seriously contested elections. A third divide is by income: Low- and high-income whites vote very differently and are much less influenced than voters in most other states by candidates’ cultural values, marital status, lifestyles and the like. As a result, Louisiana politics since Huey P. Long’s time has often been a struggle between reformist and conservative forces on one side and roguish populists on the other, a struggle waged in lavishly financed campaigns and with grandiloquent rhetoric.
For a quarter-century, the lead role was played by Edwin Edwards as the roguish populist, with a number of rivals as reformist conservatives. Edwards was elected governor in 1971 and 1975 and was not eligible to run in 1979. In 1983 he beat incumbent Republican David Treen; in 1987 he lost to Buddy Roemer, a Democratic congressman who later switched parties. For much of this third term, Edwards faced corruption charges, until he was acquitted by a jury in 1986. In 1991 he ran again, and this time an even odder character surfaced. David Duke was an active Nazi sympathizer up through 1989, but he also had a knack for speaking to mainstream political issues in attractive political language. In 1989 he was narrowly elected to the state legislature from a district in suburban Jefferson Parish as a nominal Republican—a victory that got enormous national publicity. Then in 1991, Duke ran for governor against Roemer and Edwards. Louisiana has a unique primary system, invented by Edwards, and now no longer applicable in races for senator and governor: candidates of all parties run in a single primary; any candidate who gets 50% is elected; otherwise, the top two finishers, regardless of party, have a runoff. Edwards received only 34% of the votes in that 1991 race, and Duke made the runoff by finishing second with 32%. All articulate opinion in Louisiana moved to Edwards’s side, and Republicans from George H.W. Bush on down endorsed Edwards, who won 61%-39%.
In the years leading up to Katrina, Louisiana was not on a clear political course. In 2000 the state, after voting twice for Bill Clinton, voted 53%-45% for George W. Bush. In 2002 Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, elected by 5,788 votes in 1996, failed to win a majority in the November primary and faced a runoff with Republican Suzanne Haik Terrell. Shrewdly Landrieu cast this as a choice between an independent who would fight for Louisiana interests and a Republican who would vote in lockstep with Bush; she won 52%-48%. In 2003, when Republican Governor Mike Foster was ineligible for a third term, Republican Bobby Jindal led in the October primary with 33% of the vote to 18% for Democratic Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. In the November runoff Jindal’s youth, Indian ancestry and policy wonkishness didn’t set well with voters in northern parishes who vote heavily Republican for president, and Blanco, a Catholic Cajun, was elected 52%-48%. In the 2004 Senate race, left open by the retirement of Democrat John Breaux, the balance fell the other way. Democrats had two serious candidates running, Congressman Chris John and state Treasurer John Kennedy. There was just one serious Republican, suburban New Orleans Congressman David Vitter and, as George W. Bush was carrying the state 57%-42% over John Kerry, Vitter surprised the pundits by winning outright with 51% of the vote. Vitter, who jousted with almost every other legislator when he served in Baton Rouge, fits the mold of the Republican reformer; neither Landrieu nor Blanco fits the mold of rogue populist.
Katrina changed the political balance, but no one is sure by how much. Commentators speculated that the departure from New Orleans of perhaps 200,000 blacks would tilt the state to the Republicans and make it impossible for Democrats to win narrow victories like Landrieu’s in 1996 and 2002 and Blanco’s in 2003. Under-sea level black neighborhoods like New Orleans’s Ninth Ward and East New Orleans were devastated, while the French Quarter and the Garden District, on higher land built up by the Mississippi over many years, were relatively unscathed. But the partisan effect may not be so one-sided. Comparison of turnout in the 2006 and 2002 U.S. House elections—the closest thing to commensurate races—shows the biggest percentage turnout decline, 72%, came in devastated St. Bernard Parish, which votes Republican. Turnout in suburban Jefferson Parish, also Republican, declined 18%. The combined turnout decline in the two parishes was (rounded off) 38,000 votes. Turnout declined 42% in Orleans Parish (coterminous with the city of New Orleans), or by 54,000 votes. And not all those were black Democrats. The 17th Street canal breach flooded adjacent Lakeview, relatively high-income and heavily white, the only part of the city that voted for George W. Bush. Evacuees may continue to vote in Louisiana in 2007 and 2008. Secretary of State Al Ater set up absentee polling stations around the state to increase voter turnout, while a state Senate bill that would have set up out-of-state voting locations never made it out of committee. Evacuees were reached by mail with absentee ballots, which accounted for 22% of the May 2006 New Orleans mayoral runoff. It is possible that white evacuees have been more assiduous about voting, but not certain; Ray Nagin, supported by most blacks and opposed by most whites, managed to get reelected over Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu in May 2006.
These calculations may not make much difference when Louisiana elects a governor in 2007. Kathleen Blanco, widely criticized for her handling of Katrina, announced in March 2007 she wouldn’t run for a second term. Bobby Jindal, elected congressmen to succeed Vitter in 2004 and 2006, announced early on that he was running. Polls showed him far ahead of Blanco and also ahead of former Senator John Breaux, his onetime boss. Breaux showed some interest in the race, but after leaving the Senate he had registered to vote in Maryland, and Jindal made it clear that he would challenge his eligibility under the Louisiana law requiring five years of residence in the state. Louisiana judges tend to be easy going about these things but Breaux, noting that a court challenge could take up most of the campaign, announced in April 2007 he would not run. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin flirted with a bid up until the September filing deadline but chose not to run either. Polls showed Republican frontrunner Bobby Jindal running much better in northern Louisiana than he had in 2003.