Blue City, Red State: A Historian’s Reflections on a City’s Politics
Historian Alecia P. Long offers her viewpoint on New Orleans city politics in relation to Louisiana state politics. The following post can also be found in the annual meeting supplement, both online and handed out during the meeting.
New Orleans is a defiantly blue city in an otherwise overwhelmingly red state. Many of its residents see themselves as constantly besieged by Herculean efforts to control New Orleans’s politics and change its culture, and they strive to remain an island of political liberalism and social and cultural laissez-faire, even as parishes dominated by more conservative “values voters” surround the city on all sides. A “live and let live” ethos has survived continued efforts by state legislators intent on regulating and restricting the city’s legendary joie de vivre. New Orleanians have a long and robust history of refusing to bend to the desires of those who would try to determine their fate or interfere with their pursuit of the good life as they define it. As a progressive New Orleanian— and, by default, a gambler—my bet is that the city’s legendary ethos will outlast what many residents see as powerful legislative assaults on the civil rights and personal freedoms of so many of our citizens.
New Orleans has been shaped by and has benefitted from a healthy disrespect for authority and a stubborn streak of self-interest for its entire existence. The city’s very location is evidence of how a few colonists, led by Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, outmaneuvered the designs of the French colonial authorities. Despite repeated directives and strong Parisian preferences for sites further upriver, Bienville simply ignored them and began building the city at its current location.1
France largely abandoned New Orleans in the 1730s and surrendered it to Spain near the end of the Seven Years’ War. Spain agreed to absorb French holdings west of the Mississippi River, including the inaccurately named “Isle of Orleans.” This clever diplomatic sleight of hand gave Spain control of a promising port city even though, in actuality, New Orleans was neither an island nor located on the west bank of the river.
Despite differences with France, the citizens defended their French cultural identity once the Spanish arrived. A small revolt and a few strategic executions later, the Spanish secured effective control of the city in 1769. Despite establishing political control, the Spanish gave in to the strength of the city’s French cultural heritage—often by marrying the daughters of the colony’s most prominent families.
After the Louisiana Purchase gave the United States control of the city, the people of New Orleans pushed back yet again, this time against what they saw as American cultural incursion. After several decades, the English language and American political institutions triumphed. Yet the people and their culture remained stubbornly singular and proudly out of step with the rest of the nation.
The city’s current differences with and from the rest of the state are also nothing new. For two centuries rural legislators have taken issue with the city’s inordinate economic power and cultural prominence. The state’s first constitution privileged large landowners, in part to wrest political influence from New Orleans. In a campaign designed to remove the gem of political power from the state’s urban crown jewel, the legislature shifted the capital away from and, revealingly, back to New Orleans half a dozen times between 1825 and 1879, when Baton Rouge finally secured that distinction for good. Even the legislators who led the drive for these transfers of political authority were ambivalent about sacrificing their yearly sojourns to the “Great Southern Babylon.”2
The city has long had this kind of vexing appeal—even for its most vocal moral critics. In describing this kind of schizophrenic behavior on the part of the state’s early 20th century advocates of prohibition, New Orleans mayor Martin Behrman remarked that “people from the country were for prohibition at home but when they came to New Orleans they were wet and wanted New Orleans to be saturated.”3
That reputation for being saturated, even obsessed, with intoxication endured despite and throughout prohibition. So did the Crescent City’s pursuit of good times. People in the city see themselves as culturally distinctive from the rest of the nation in general and their red-state brethren in particular. In short, there is still an Isle of Orleans.
Voters in New Orleans remain reliably Democratic, but the state’s political agenda is set entirely by Republicans. Their power is underwritten and heavily supported by culturally conservative groups like the Family Research Council and the Louisiana Family Forum. Though he is not an elected official, Gene Mills, president of the Louisiana Family Forum, is widely perceived to have the ability to arrest the progress or seal the success of bills in which his organization has interest.
To progressive New Orleanians, this means legislation designed to control the bodies and choices of women, to privilege the lives of heterosexuals, and to find ingenious ways to punish, demean, and deny civil rights to the state’s gay and lesbian citizens. Each year as the legislature goes into session, social liberals in New Orleans watch in powerless astonishment as the legislature passes law after law seemingly designed to control the private lives of those they deem unrepentant, heathen urbanites.
Yet, despite all this, New Orleans remains one of the nation’s most gay-friendly cities. This has not always been the case. In the 1950s and 60s queer people who met or gathered in public were routinely harassed, arrested, and had their names and addresses printed in local newspapers. In the years after Stonewall, however, gay people in New Orleans began to come out and come together forming a vibrant and very visible local community in the early 1970s. In 1972 a small group of friends threw a Southern Decadence-themed costume party, which, over ensuing decades, has become the city’s largest annual gay event. Each Labor Day weekend thousands of gay people from around the region and nation gather in New Orleans for Southern Decadence.
Cultural creativity and resilience against the odds has been the city’s long-time hallmark. Historically, this resilience can be detected in the dancing and drumming of enslaved people in Congo Square despite the depravations of enslavement. A century later, their descendants joined with other derided immigrant groups to create the unique American art form, jazz. That strength and cultural resourcefulness in the face of powerful challenges extends into the here and now. Many of the people who refused to pull up stakes and move away after the devastation visited on the city by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 opted to remain largely because of their love for their city’s cultural vibrancy.
In August 2012, the American Political Science Association (APSA) wrote Louisiana’s governor informing him that while the organization would honor a contract to meet in New Orleans in 2012, it would not hold future meetings the city. The decision was based on a 2004 amendment to the state constitution that not only banned gay marriage but also prohibited legal recognition of domestic partnerships or same-sex unions recognized by other states. The response from the governor’s office was unsurprisingly brusque and very nearly sarcastic. That New Orleanians at all levels of society depend on such conferences and the income they generate did not seem to make much of a difference to the current administration.
It would be hard for any social liberal to argue with the equalitarian grounds upon which the APSA based its protest. As a progressive New Orleanian, I regret the governor’s position. At the same time, I would still defend all the good things New Orleans stands for, as well as any organization’s decision to gather here. One might also observe that there are many other blue cities hemmed in by red state politics. If professional organizations decide to abandon New Orleans, other cities, like Austin, Atlanta, and Charlotte could reasonably come in for the same kind of prohibition.
In her important study of how Christian nationalism has shaped the contemporary Republican Party, author and journalist Michelle Goldberg acknowledges the resentment for red states that often seethes in progressive citizens of blue ones. After all, most “blue states subsidize the red ones with their tax dollars. Goldberg concludes that “it would be cruel for liberals to leave their progressive allies in right-wing states to the tender mercies” of cultural conservatives, suggesting that, “there should be a much greater effort to reach out to liberals living in Christian nationalist strongholds” since they are “often the people fighting the hardest.”4
In other words, blue cities in red states need the support of organizations like the American Historical Association as a show of support for the people who hold out against the rising red state tide. The support of allies is critical to keeping blue cities economically stable which, in turn, helps to keep them culturally vibrant.
The New Orleanians who are fighting hard in these political battles often do so in idiosyncratic ways. The post-Katrina years have witnessed a resurgence of grassroots organizing, but those efforts have been aimed mostly at finding effective ways to reduce the violent crime that plagues our city, or trying to draw the nation’s attention to the critically important issue of coastal erosion. Having said that, most New Orleanians are not politically engaged in the traditional sense. The explanation for this might be found in the deeply corrupt politics that have always defined the city and state. When you know for sure the system is stacked against or hostile toward you, turning inward and concentrating on cultural creativity and the joys of private life is an understandable response and reasonable survival strategy.
For all of its faults, New Orleans is a city with a rich past that its people still treasure, preserve, and are eager to share. It is a city that, despite many challenges, has a vibrant present. And—though I am betting again—I wager it may have a brighter, more equalitarian future ahead. More than anything else, New Orleans has magic, and no amount of red-state self-righteousness can denude it of that ineffable but very real quality.
1. For a recent account of this process see Lawrence N. Powell, The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 42–59.
2. Alecia P. Long, The Great Southern Babylon: Sex, Race, and Respectability in New Orleans, 1865–1920 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004), 2.
3. Long, The Great Southern Babylon, 180.
4. Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), 195–96.
Alecia P. Long is a resident of New Orleans and an associate professor in the department of history at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge where she teaches course on Louisiana history and the history of sexuality. She is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.
Tags: AHA Today 2013 Annual Meeting
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