As the economic crisis deepens, our nation is continually reminded of the Great Depression. News articles and pundits regularly make comparisons to the troubled times of the 1930s, even if only to remind us that this disaster is not yet as bad. The recent passage of the $787 billion stimulus plan, with its focus on job creation, evokes memories of the New Deal with Obama cast as a new Roosevelt.
However, in the story where the great hero Roosevelt takes bold action to help the needy in a time of crisis, we tend to miss the political forces with which he was forced to contend.
In our national mythology of that era, the most important character overlooked is the complicated Southern politician Huey P. Long, who presented a populist threat to Roosevelt, influenced the direction of New Deal legislation and left a political legacy that both provided for the poor and modernized the state of Louisiana. Unfortunately, when Long is remembered, it is usually as a distorted caricature, and the real impact of his work is lost.
FDR as reformer?
The national memory of FDR as an immediate champion of the people reflects a profound amnesia of larger political circumstances. Roosevelt was elected in 1932 with the support of sections of big business, including newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. His first actions as president were to bail out large banks and cut veterans benefits. He mistrusted deficit spending and for the first two years showed inconsistent support for public works programs as a means to deal with unemployment. His most ambitious economic plan in the first year of his presidency, the National Industrial Recovery Act, favored larger businesses and did little to put the nation back to work. Barack Obama has far more aggressively attacked the issue of job creation.
It took two years for FDR to embrace long-term public works programs to put the unemployed to work and to create a permanent social safety net with programs such as the Works Progress Administration and Social Security. In that time the nation had changed. By the end of 1934, the United States was entering the sixth year of the Depression and radical movements were threatening national stability. A series of massive strikes had erupted, including general strikes in Minneapolis and San Francisco and a 700,000-strong strike of textile workers on the East Coast. Organizations of the unemployed were becoming more aggressive and in some cases joining with striking workers.
Many around the nation were beginning to follow charismatic leaders who proposed major changes to the American system. The most influential of these was Huey Long, who called for the radical redistribution of the nation's wealth.
Long’s Message and Legacy
A former traveling salesman from north-central Louisiana, Huey Long made a name for himself as a lawyer who would represent small plaintiffs against big opponents. He was elected to the state’s Railroad Commission (later renamed the Public Service Commission) at the age of 25, where he continued to win concessions from the biggest business interests in the state, including the Standard Oil Company. Long was elected Governor of Louisiana in 1928 and U.S. Senator in 1932. By this time he had perfected a political message that was to carry him to national prominence, the core of which can be heard in a radio speech delivered in early 1935.
“God invited us all to come and eat and drink all we wanted. He smiled on our land and we grew crops of plenty to eat and wear...God called: ‘Come to my feast.’ But what had happened? Rockefeller, Morgan, and their crowd stepped up and took enough for 120,000,000 people and left only enough for 5,000,000 for all the other 125,000,000 to eat. And so many millions must go hungry and without these good things God gave us unless we call on them to put some of it back.”
Long’s “Share the Wealth” proposal was premised on heavy taxation of the wealthiest Americans in order to pay for a national minimum income. Details were sparse, but Long’s message won him a huge national following as the champion of the poor in their fight against large banks and corporations, and their servants in Washington.
Long also delivered. As Louisiana’s governor, he taxed the oil industry to pay for free textbooks for all children, bridge the Mississippi, and expand public universities. Long’s roads program was the largest public works program in the South before the New Deal and it increased the mileage of paved roads in the state ten-fold, employing eight thousand men at its height and creating vital commercial improvements in the backward state.
Louisiana was never the same. Well beyond his tenure, candidates for state office fell primarily into two camps: pro-Long or anti-Long. Despite rampant corruption, Long’s successors sustained electoral support through expanding public services, like establishing a statewide system of free “Charity” hospitals.
Long’s impact was not confined to the South. As a senator, he was among Roosevelt’s fiercest critics, continually challenging the president to do more for poor and working people. In one example, when FDR cut veterans benefits and government worker salaries, Long denounced it as the work of J.P. Morgan and Rockefeller. By 1935 Long had created a national network of “Share the Wealth” clubs with millions of members nationwide, was appearing on national radio criticizing Roosevelt’s policies, and had written a book presumptously titled My First Days in the White House.
As early as 1933 Roosevelt described Long as “one of the two most dangerous men in the country” to key aides. However, Roosevelt had much more to worry about by 1935, when he commissioned a secret poll in advance of the 1936 election. The poll found that Long had national support and could potentially throw the election to a Republican. Seen in this light, Roosevelt's “shift to the left” in the Second New Deal is more than a change in conscience. When defending proposals including Social Security and the WPA, Roosevelt threatened Congress that the alternative was Huey Long.
Long also saw the Second New Deal as an attempt to co-opt his momentum, particularly a proposal to increase taxes on the wealthy and on inherited wealth. When Roosevelt’s 1935 Tax Act was read, Long strode through Senate chambers, pointing to his chest and laughing.
Six months later, Long’s political aspirations were stopped short by an assassin's bullet in Baton Rouge.
Long is rarely remembered for his progressive efforts. The most popular accounts of him tend to focus on style and not substance, most notably Robert Penn Warren's All the King’s Men, where he is represented by the sinister Willie Stark in a moralistic tale of personal corruption, an effectively de-politicized memory of Long.
There are legitimate criticisms of his record, of course. Long rode roughshod over democratic procedures in Louisiana and consolidated tremendous political power in his person. But in a state where African-Americans were almost universally disenfranchised and plantation and commercial elites had dominated state government for centuries, for the majority precious little democracy existed in Louisiana to be abused.
Long also did little to advance the rights of African-Americans. However, he was very different from the other leaders of poor whites in the South at that time in that he channeled white resentments against the wealthy and powerful instead of blacks. And as mostly poor residents of Louisiana, blacks often materially benefited from Long’s policies.
Despite these failings, Long had a profound impact on the lives of millions of poor and working people by virtue of his policies and the threat he posed. One of Long’s most ardent critics, Hodding Carter, wrote in 1949 that Long had “led a social-democratic revolution in Louisiana, and after his death the entire south was debated ground.”
Why Long is Relevant Today
More than any personal failing of Long’s, the most problematic aspect of his legacy is the way that class tensions were often absorbed by a movement centered on his person. The contemporary emphasis on Obama as a savior is not fundamentally different; in both cases citizens depend on the ballot box as the primary form of political activity, and cults of personality substitute for movements where ordinary people are more directly involved in social change.
Obama’s presidency is very different from Roosevelt’s not only in that he has already embraced job creation and deficit-spending policies reminiscent of the second New Deal, but also in that there is no significant pressure from the left. There is no Huey Long in America today, nor do radical elements in labor have the power they did in the 1930s. If oppressed groups take action, such as immigrants filling the streets of major cities on May 1, 2006, they typically do so only for a day. This low level of pressure means that Obama's policies will likely be pulled to the right and watered down, as was evidenced in the version of his stimulus package that the Senate produced.
Today the essence of Long’s reforms appears elsewhere; in particular Long’s petro-populism is echoed and expanded upon in Hugo Chavez’s policies in Venezuela. Coming from very different political traditions, Chavez calls it 21st Century socialism while Long claimed that he was saving capitalism from itself. However, in both cases charismatic, powerful leaders built broad support by using oil money to pay for expanded public services.
If Long is alive (albeit unknown) in Venezuela, he is dead in his home state. In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina has been used as an excuse to further the destruction of the legacies of Long and Roosevelt, including the closing of New Orleans’ Charity Hospital and the advanced privatization of public services. And the state’s current Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, has tried to lead to the fight against Obama’s stimulus plans.
Amid these excesses of Neoliberalism, Long’s message has a new urgency. His call for redistribution of the nation’s wealth and for a society that provides basic services for all its members speaks to our current economic crisis, when so many have lost their homes and livelihoods and so many continue to be without affordable health care. After thirty years of growing income inequality, Long’s emphasis on class is timely. And as unemployment grows, bank executives give themselves exorbitant bonuses with money from the bailout, and Exxon-Mobil posts record annual profits, we should remember Huey Long.
We may not need a new Huey Long, but we do need a movement to address inequality. With all his flaws, Long was nothing less than a hero for bringing this message to the forefront of national politics, a message that is relevant today just as it was 75 years ago.
Christian Roselund is a writer based in Brooklyn.