Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #41: Huey Long
Demagoguery isn't new in America. Since the inception of the republic we've had ambitious souls who manipulated the masses for political gain, exchanging promises for power. Often these glad-handing gasbags earn votes by pointing to villains for voters to rage against. Communists, immigrants, blacks, Catholics - the list is long and ignominious, and grows every day courtesy of a certain executive toddler's vitriolic Twitter account.
Some of the most successful demagogues have selected corporate interests and consolidated wealth and privilege as their windmills for us to tilt at, and for good reason. There's plenty of grist there, plenty to legitimately resent and fear in the filthy lucre that poisons our body politic and unduly influences the halls of government. One of the most skillful salesman of this particular narrative was Huey Long, the Kingfisher of Louisiana. In the 1920s and 30s he rode the twin tigers of charisma and corruption to seize control of the entire Bayou State, rallying the largely poor residents behind a banner of anti-poverty and anti-wealth. He had some successes, too, investing heavily in infrastructure and education, tearing down some of the embedded systemic privilege that dated back generations. He came close to bringing the show nationally, introducing his "Share Our Wealth" program to Washington DC as a United States Senator, an agenda that included legally capping personal income at $50 million a year. FDR was sufficiently threatened by Long, fearing a primary challenge for the Presidency from his left flank in 1936, that he adapted some of Long's ideas into the New Deal to sap his appeal.
Long was deeply, catastrophically flawed, of course. He was a racist, extending and deepening segregation in Louisiana and frequently accusing political opponents of black blood in their families to discredit them with the public. And he was personally morally bankrupt, lining his pockets with the product of endless grift from the public till. He was only 44 when he was assassinated in 1935, and who knows what would have happened in 1936 if he hadn't been. We need only look at recent history to see that race-baiting, power-hungry, narcissistic con men have plenty of voters willing to swallow their empty promises.