Nobody said representative democracy was supposed to be easy. As political philosophies go, it’s—by design—a wonderfully messy, inefficient and slow-moving form of government. Its massive upside, in theory, is it demands the interests of those being governed trump those doing the governing.
That all sounds fabulous and it’s what every child attending a semi-decent school learns in civics class, but here, in Baton Rouge, it’s pretty hard right now to see the virtue of democracy.
Even tougher is embracing the joy that’s our particular brand of it. Think about the mayhem that’s playing out with the prospective city of St. George and then consider this: The theoretical beauty of the metropolitan form of government that we employ—consolidating Baton Rouge city and East Baton Rouge Parish governments—is that it supposedly offers greater flexibility to account for population shifts to the suburbs.
How’s that working out?
Our Metro Council is a fractured, parochial and largely ineffective legislative branch made even worse—if such a thing is possible—by voters having little faith in the ability of council members they elect to actually do their job. So deep is the mistrust that even anti-tax, small government conservatives support the creation of independent taxing authorities and dedicated taxes—both of which grow government and lead to higher taxes—just to keep a check on the council’s spending power.
Sharon Weston Broome, the Democratic mayor of Baton Rouge who’s also the parish president, is a plaintiff in a lawsuit out to stop a rather large group of her suburban, mostly Republican constituents from incorporating into what would be Louisiana’s fifth-largest city. Amid the growing urban-suburban partisan divide, Broome has the distinction of being a quite popular mayor and an equally unpopular parish president.
All of which is leading a growing number here to wonder if maybe the best path forward is to scrap our greater-good-loving consolidated form of government, transferring the majority of the self-rule power to EBR’s five cities (assuming St. George becomes a thing) and then creating a weakened parish government to handle a limited number of obligations, like the judicial, parks and library systems.
One might think public transportation belongs in that group, but supporters of CATS effectively removed the bus system from parish government a few years ago by creating a dedicated taxing district that magically mirrors the boundaries of incorporated Baton Rouge and Baker.
To be fair, Baton Rouge is hardly the only place where the democracy most of us fondly remember is becoming a distant memory. Anyone paying attention to what’s happening in our nation’s capital? How about in Canada, our neighbor to the north, where the prime minister can’t form a majority government?
It’s getting so dysfunctional that, according to The Wall Street Journal, The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, which exists to plant the seeds of democracy, declared in a report earlier this year: “Democracy is under threat and its promise needs revival.”
Talk about a Debbie Downer.
Keeping the spotlight on Baton Rouge, there’s no single reason for the tribulations of democracy. Instead, it’s a set of forces that have come together to create a tapestry we began weaving in 1960 when U.S. District Court Judge J. Skelly Wright ordered the parishwide public school system to desegregate. After a slow start, change began accelerating in 1981 with U.S. District Judge John Parker instituting a desegregation plan that brought widespread school busing to Baton Rouge.
In response, large numbers of white families fled to private schools, the suburbs and neighboring parishes, leaving in their wake an increasingly black Baton Rouge and an increasingly poor and underperforming public school system.
The shifting demographics led to a political transformation that’s seen the parish go from right-of-center Republican to increasingly left Democratic. Right around the time these middle class, suburban Reagan Republicans were seeing their political clout take a hit, their economic might was walloped by the financial crisis that began in 2007.
Roughly a decade later, in response to the police officer killing of Alton Sterling, the long-neglected and largely silent black community came together in a near singular voice to demand a seat at EBR’s economic and political tables.
The result of all this upheaval is rising populism and a sprint to the political right in the Trump-loving suburbs, and rising voices for change in an Obama-loving city that’s demanding more from government.
Stuck in the middle of this tug of political will is a city-parish government that’s woefully inefficient even in the best of times.
On one side, there are those who generally live in places like Central, Zachary and the prospective city of St. George who distrust government, believe they pay a disproportionately high percentage of the tax load while not getting enough of the ever-growing largesse back in return, and are adamant the system is rigged to favor both the city’s elites and its poor.
On the other, a growing majority, who generally lives in north Baton Rouge, Mid City and neighborhoods near LSU, believes government isn’t doing enough to eradicate institutional racism, is demanding more public and private resources be pumped into long-neglected areas of the city and parish, and is convinced the system is rigged to reward long-established power players, denying the disenfranchised opportunities for economic empowerment.
Technology adds another wedge to the divide. The internet and social media provides the instant ability to find like-minded individuals willing to reinforce one’s thinking. And when opposing sides do meet, the vitriol is such that it only accomplishes driving all parties back to the comfort of their respective silos.
Further complicating the situation is the reality that the nation’s economic activity is increasingly concentrated in a dozen or so major metropolitan areas—which doesn’t include Baton Rouge. No doubt, we have the petrochemical industry and it’s a powerful one, but those outside that sector—especially folks in the middle class—are seeing their spending power struggling to keep pace with inflation. That, too, has many on edge, especially at a time when the Broome administration is pushing to spend more of the city-parish budget on areas that for decades have been slighted.
The goal is noble, but the timing is tough.
So, what’s the solution?
Honestly, I don’t know. The best I can offer is perhaps it’s time for people to leave the comfort of their silos and actually listen—and hear—what the other side has to say. Certainly, there’s got to be a piece of common ground somewhere.
No doubt what’s true is that Broome, members of the Metro Council and other elected officials in the parish must reach out to those who don’t support them and truly listen to what they have to say.
After all, democracy demands that all of the governed be heard. Otherwise, you get what we’ve got now.