Benjamin Stolberg says Huey Long was the first politician who knew how to make power just as the robber barons made money.
1. DEMOS AND DEMAGOGUE
Huey Long was too great a demagogue to be a mere charlatan. The difference seems small but it is important. The charlatan is never more than an amplifier of confusion, often quite “sincere” in confounding himself with his own noise. But the main characteristic of the political charlatan is his enormous activity in evading whatever real issues may come up. The New Deal charlatan, for instance, reconciles all the contradictions of our economy by proving, with fancy-fake statistics, that at bottom these contradictions are really complementary; and in administering these contradictions in a hundred bureaus he of course only deepens them. Upton Sinclair, who is as naive as Dostoevski’s Idiot might be in American politics, would End Poverty in California, and elsewhere, by erecting a rag-tag economy within monopoly capitalism, and then wave the rag to frighten the House of Morgan. Father Coughlin, a definite fascist adventurer who fortunately is a fool, would abolish private credit, without which modern industry would bleed to death, yet he exalts capitalist production. And Doctor Townsend would give everybody over sixty $200 a month to start heavy industry going. Such quacks, of whom undoubtedly we shall have many more, may be as honest as was little Dr. Coué, though most of them are mere publicity hounds in public misery. They have no mass base in any class, no matter how high their temporary office or how many putative millions may follow them today only to turn tomorrow to some other barker.
Huey Long was not that kind. For all his “clownishness” he was not a loud-speaker of bunk. He was a far more dangerous man because he was an expert rider of our social chaos. He was a man of character and mind who despised the charlatans with whom he often dealt. “Coughlin,” he said to me, “is just a political Kate Smith on the air. They’ll get tired of him.” Long used demagogy as an unscrupulous and dangerous art and not as a mere bag of tricks. He was far from being just an opportunist in the sense of jumping at every opportunity. He was a strategist of opportunism whose tactics can be studied in detail by his rise in Louisiana.
Indeed, he was the first American politician who knew how to make power just as our great “robber barons” knew how to make money. Unlike Roosevelt, he did not believe in “experimentation” for its own sake, in the pseudo-statecraft of “trial and error.” His every trial was a bait for some error by his enemies, and nothing amused him as much as baiting the President, whom he came to hate with an almost insane bitterness and whom he outboxed in every round they had. It was he who framed the White House fumbling with the so-called soak-the-rich act. And even his last filibuster, which the editorial wiseacres so solemnly discussed as his “political suicide,” was a brilliant bit of demagogic strategy. Long needed primarily the farmers of the country, especially in the cotton-planting South. Accordinly he stood up and seemed to fight their battle to the last breath of the adjourning Congress. And had he decided to run against Roosevelt next year, there would have been plenty of time to point out, with telling vituperation, that the deficiency bill which he thus killed meant next to nothing; that the President had billions from which to allocate the measly $76,000,000 which was needed to save “the aged, the crippled, and the, widows”; that the President had indeed promised the Democratic Senate leaders that he would allocate this money, should the deficiency bill hold up adjournment; and that the whole social-security program of the Roosevelt Administration, anyway, violated every principle of social insurance.
Social chaos, which was Huey Long’s natural habitat, results when in a period of intensifying class war there is no corresponding growth in class consciousness but in general confusion. And the demagogue is he who trades for personal power on such a widening public ignorance. Hence the demagogue cannot have an economic program, only a political strategy. Long was the perfect leader for such a period. He himself neither understood nor wished to know the fundamental class forces at work, of which his career was a profound expression. But he knew to perfection the lower-middle-class mentality which infects the whole of our American society with its bewilderment. He did not know the causes of our social anarchy but he could see through it like a cat through darkness. His economic program, which made no economic sense, made a great deal of political sense because it expressed the deepest wish of the average man in financial trouble. The American people do not crave New Deals, which they cannot understand, or Epics or Utopias or technocracies. They just want more money. Long’s economic slogan expressed a simple wish of the common man—let’s “share our wealth”; surely everybody is entitled to $5,000 of the world’s wealth and to $2,500 a year per family in a land of unlimited abundance. Of course under finance capitalism this is impossible, and Huey Long, I’m sure, knew it only too well. But as a political slogan, it has an immense appeal to the lower middle class. The average American believes in such a seemingly reasonable program of “sharing wealth,” and he will believe in it long after the Epic and Utopian dreams have disappeared. Incidentally, speaking of sound economics, Huey Long’s share-our-wealth movement is quite as sound as the economics of the Brain Trusters, if anything even sounder. For though we cannot share our wealth under monopoly capitalism, we can under some form of socialism. The New Deal, however, makes no sense under any system, including cannibalism. All the New Deal has accomplished in its efforts to distribute the national income is to hand over to big finance almost thirteen billion dollars. At least Huey Long never went backward under the illusion that he was going full speed ahead.
“Will you kindly explain to me, Senator,” I asked him at his Capitol, which was on the twelfth floor of the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, “how you can share wealth without socializing the productive process?” “Never explain, my boy, never explain! For explanation is the mother of sectarianism.” He laughed with enormous joy at his own brilliance. “But let’s suppose,” he continued, “just for the sake of argument, that you’re right, that you can’t share wealth without socializing its creation. That’s socialism, isn’t it? And will you please tell me what sense there is in running on a Socialist ticket in America today? What’s the use of being right only to be defeated? First you must come into power—POWER—and then you do things.” That of course is the eternal argument of every demagogue.
Long’s own background reflected the bewilderment and anger of the lower middle class. He was a child of the nineteenth-century populism which began with Andrew Jackson and wound up with Bryan and with Debs. In the Long clan there had been Socialist voters, and his mother, Callie Long, was the professional radical in her community. Long sprang from the deep hill-billy revolt against the apathetic and grafting “aristocracy” which was in power in Louisiana before his dictatorship, a revolt which later on was also directed against the Northern monopolies. In short, Long represented and expressed our century-old populism, which now is deteriorating into the reactionary confusion of the lower middle class. In California this deterioration is assuming definitely fascist tendencies. Long showed all the psychological characteristics, bordering on monomania, of the effective leader of such class deterioration. His central drive was his lust for personal power, which was almost visibly lascivious. You just couldn’t trust him, no matter how much you liked the color of his vitality. He once wrote a hook which he called “Every Man a King”; and the subtitle, automatic as a reflex action, was “The Autobiography of Huey P. Long.” Obviously he thought of democracy in terms of his personal dictatorship. And his political philosophy, for all his amazing political sophistication, was very simple. It was—more power to Huey Long!
His political passion expressed itself in an enormous capacity for sustained work and thoroughness. His power of work was a neurosis by which he was driven day and night. Of late years his working day began around nine in the morning and wound up in the early hours of the next day. Every minute was spent expertly and efficiently, and his power of decision was both astute and instantaneous. On his brief trips to Louisiana he would authorize the expenditure of millions of dollars for various projects, but never before he had completely grasped their technical nature and knew every detail of their cost.
In his drive to power he was utterly ruthless. His vindictiveness was one of his most formidable weapons, and his machine was built on fear no less than on patronage. Such political selfishness of course had its drawbacks. For one thing he could never tolerate men of great ability around him and he never delegated power. His influence was coextensive with his own energy, which is the reason why the shot which killed him also destroyed his machine. Furthermore, I do not think that he inspired a great personal loyalty in most of his henchmen, with the exception of his fellow-townsman, Governor Allen, who had “discovered” him and really loved the little Huey who was going to be in the White House some day. As one very wise old newspaperman in New Orleans explained to me, “You can’t love a man whose face you have to watch for weeks before you decide that he is in the, mood to take up what’s on your mind; or who may insult you in front of everybody at any moment.”
There has been much speculation about Long’s intellectual qualities. The so-called “better elements” and the intelligentsia were rather condescending in their recognition of his mental discipline. The New Republic, for instance, began its editorial obituary of him as follows: “In the man there was one genuine thing, and that was his awe of book learning.” The theory behind this estimate is that Huey Long was a sell-taught country hick who through envy of his betters developed remarkable intellectual abilities. This Adlerian interpretation seems to me sheer nonsense. For one thing, Long was not at all self-educated. He went through high school and telescoped three years of law school into two. His record at Tulane is memorably brilliant. But the really important thing is that in the fields of law and of government Long did not think merely as an educated man but with a superb formal discipline. The late Chief Justice Taft and Justice Brandeis considered him one of the most brilliant constitutional lawyers who ever practiced before the United States Supreme Court. To be sure, Long was not a cultivated man and he was ignorant of almost anything which did not pertain to his intellectual interests. But so, for that matter, are most university professors. Long’s conversation certainly was full of observations which were not merely natively shrewd but impossible in a man untrained in the formal literature of his subject. And his technical knowledge of government and administration was immense.
Fundamentally, however, Long’s genius was his political realism. He was an instinctive Machiavellian who knew that absolute power is lawlessness legally intrenched. But he also knew that dictatorial power in America can be achieved only by perverting political democracy into a patronage dictatorship, which is exactly what he did.
II. THE SECOND LOUISIANA PURCHASE
Huey Long’s rise in Louisiana is divisible into two parts. Until his threatened impeachment in 1929 he was primarily engaged in building his patronage machine. From 1929 on he was primarily engaged in integrating his power through his complete control of the legislature. On the whole, the Long machine was less corrupt than most other political machines. And through his legislative dictatorship Long could render almost anything he wanted technically honest. Also, his ambition to get into national prominence and power was so overwhelming that he carefully avoided all personal entanglements with the underworld of politics, though he had to grant considerable latitude in political ethics to some of his lieutenants. But fundamentally he rose through the bold use of patronage, encouraging in his officialdom the must outrageous nepotism. He always insisted that his machine be practically self-supporting, and that every little cog supply its own grease to keep from burning out.
Long’s political career-began in 1917 when he looked over the constitution of the state of Louisiana to find out to which major office a young man of twenty-four might be elected. He decided to become Railroad Commissioner, and he went about it with characteristic energy. At 2 or 3 a.m. he would land at some out-of-the-way farmhouse and wake up the folks to tell them how wonderful he was. He was elected. From 1917 until 1924 he was first Railroad Commissioner and then Public Service Commissioner, and it was in those days that he began his fight against Standard Oil and the various public utilities on which he built his reputation as an enemy of the interests, though his final compromises with them were often questionable.
In 1924 he decided to run for Governor, and the fire of his campaign he directed against the public utilities, though he did not hesitate to accept a $10,000 contribution from the Southwestern Gas and Electric Company. He lost the campaign, but he won a tremendous following. In 1926 he helped to elect Edwin S. Broussard to the United States Senate, thereby gaining heavy support among the Creole Catholics of southern Louisiana. He already controlled most of the Protestant hill-billy parishes (counties) in northern Louisiana where he was born, and in 1928 he was triumphantly elected to the governorship. It was then that he began to build his machine inearnest. With amazing audacity he began to fill every board, commission, and committee with his new henchmen, multiplying jobs like mushrooms. He converted the state highway patrol into a personal police force and turned the state militia more or less into his personal army. With the state militia he carried out a swift series of spectacular raids on vice and gambling houses, using the money thus confiscated to buy schoolbooks for free distribution.
His bold appropriation of the whole state apparatus and his brazen interference with the legislative process during the first year of his governorship frightened his various oppositions into a united front, and in 1929 they were under the impression that they had purchased the unwavering loyalty to democratic principles of enough state senators to get Huey impeached. But they had underestimated Huey’s capacity to regain the prodigal Solons. He made a furious tour of the rural parishes, flooding them with his circulars accusing the various corporations of attempting to buy his impeachment. He pointed out to the electorate his vast program of highway construction and other public works which were just getting under way. But mainly he frightened enough senators with the threat of door-to-door campaigning against them personally in their constituencies, exposing their political records in detail. He also of course made counter-offers. “I bought them like a sack of potatoes,” he subsequently said. At the crucial moment fifteen state senators, one more than needed, signed a round robin declaring that they would acquit Long regardless of any evidence presented.
His threatened impeachment was the major political crisis in Long’s life… After that he “knew his friends from his enemies.” From then on he encountered no major obstacles in forging the most daring dictatorship this country has ever known. He strengthened his political machine around the immediate group of men who had saved him. He proliferated his patronage throughout the state by his open control of the election boards, by creating hundreds of new jobs in connection with public works and services. And he gained popular support by his tangible results in highway and bridge building, by furnishing free textbooks and transportation for the schoolchildren, by abolishing the poll tax, beautifying the capital, and reducing to some degree public-utility rates. There can be little doubt that Long was by far the most socially-minded, individual in public life in Louisiana, which before his rise to power was in many respects the most backward state in the Union. To be sure, Long did not trouble about social legislation any more than any of his predecessors. Nor did he ever do a thing for labor, but he did proffer to the A. F. of L. the eminently practical advice of organizing in order to make its influence felt.
One of Long’s closest friends remarked to me, “The genius of Huey Long lies in his gift to exploit the misery and the confusion of the American people. And he will rise into national power because this misery is not regional but national.” Whether this friend was right or wrong, there is little doubt that Huey Long was rapidly extending his national influence when he was shot down. The murder of Huey Long removed the ablest representative in public life of our lower middle classes. His whole career is an index and a warning of the type of leader who might forge his way to a national dictatorship.
Such a potential leader will have to be a monomaniac for personal power. He will have to represent the populist drive in American history, which is now decaying into lower-middle-class despair. He will have to integrate his dictatorship by perverting political democracy, not by abolishing it. And if such a man should ever come to power, no matter how benevolent his intentions, it is hard to see how he can ultimately keep from submitting to finance capital, as indeed Huey Long was beginning to do toward the end of his career. For a dictatorship, even more than any other form of government, which has no economic program must submit to those who control the economic order.