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American tradition rejects rabid populism, but the mad dog is loose again

  • Author: Steve Haycox
  • Updated: June 26, 2016
  • Published January 28, 2016

In 1935, the newly elected U.S. senator from Louisiana, Huey P. Long, began what looked to be a vigorous and aggressive campaign for president of the U.S. Long was a hugely popular populist politician. He had risen to public prominence in Louisiana by attacking the oil interests who effectively ran the state, charging them with callous greed and indifference to the deprivations suffered by the common people -- which the companies could have done much to alleviate by ceasing to buy politicians who successfully opposed mitigating legislative reforms. A flamboyant anti-elitist known for his bombastic rhetoric, use of radio to reach people in remote rural regions, and strong-arm political tactics, Long had been elected governor in 1928. An authoritarian who controlled state government with an iron hammer hand, was ambitious, impatient and vain, he held the allegiance of his poor constituents by embarking on a building spree, which benefited them with roads and bridges, hospitals and schools, and for the first time, free textbooks.

Elected to a four-year term, Long soon enjoyed hero status in Louisiana, and in 1930 he ran for and was elected to the U.S. Senate. Seeking to maintain his control of state politics, he left the Senate seat vacant for two years while he continued to serve as Louisiana governor in order to prevent a rival from succeeding him there. Although he had considered himself an ally of Franklin Roosevelt, when Long did finally go to the Senate, he broke with FDR and began his presidential campaign.

He became a national figure with a plan to tax high incomes heavily and legislate a cap on personal wealth, proposing a 100 percent tax on incomes over $100 million and limiting inheritance to $5 million. Called "Share Our Wealth," the plan's collected funds that would be used for a $5,000 relief grant to families, and a guaranteed annual income of $2,000-$3,000. Long's radio broadcasts reached millions of people weekly. The national organization he founded, the Share Our Wealth Society, had 27,000 local clubs with 7.5 million members.

FDR considered Long his most likely and most formidable opponent for the 1936 presidential election. An uncompromising authoritarian, Long's popularity with the financially desperate and politically excluded in American life brought him loathing from the upper classes, who feared his confiscatory policies and disbelief and consternation within the political establishment -- among whom his disdain of law and cooperative politics inspired dismay and dread.

In September 1935, a month after he announced his presidential campaign, Long was assassinated by the son-in-law of a political opponent, a judge, whom he was trying to unseat.

Long has been called a fascist for his authoritarian approach to public life and politics. He has also been called a communist for his redistribution ideas. He was probably neither. But in the throes of the Great Depression, many Americans were willing to overlook the undemocratic character of Long's policies because he attacked those the powerless saw as their tormentors, and because he promised action and followed through. He did something about the things that frightened and frustrated the electorate.

In the 1930s, economic dysfunction and fear for the future alienated a sizeable portion of the electorate from traditional party politics. Long's was not the only authoritarian movement to attract large numbers of people looking for a champion. The radio priest the Rev. Charles Coughlin's Christian Front was another, also the second Ku Klux Klan and the overtly violent Black Legion, among others. Their adherents were ready to trade in their democratic heritage for the nationalism, xenophobic exclusion, and sense of purpose offered by populist tribunes willing to promise anything for the adulation of the frightened mob, happy to capitalize on their terror and need for simplistic answers. For many Americans, faith in democracy waned in the face of looming penury.

But not for the majority. Most Americans rejected the Depression-era populists and their authoritarian blandishments, steadfast in reliance on electoral representation and the rule of law. Historians often credit FDR and the New Deal reforms. But it is also true that the American democratic faith was too rooted in rationality and experience to be shed easily. Eighty years on, we face a new test of that ancient faith.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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