“Every Man a King”: Huey Long, Louisiana’s Populist Governor
Long used anti-establishment rhetoric and economic empowerment to win the nation’s hearts. Dems should take notes.
In election year 2020, division and polarization are rife. But if there’s one fact the American people can agree on, it’s this: Joe Biden is certainly not an exciting candidate.
A mere 24% of those who intend to vote for Biden say they are excited to do so, compared to 53% of Trump voters. Will this end in his defeat? Maybe, maybe not. But Democrats should be deeply concerned their next leader can neither command respect or offer an inspiring vision of the future. So what kind of candidate could excite the country?
Look no further than Depression-Era Democratic governor Huey Long, a larger-than-life Louisianan who captured 96% of the vote and revolutionized his state. His distinctly populist policies and rhetoric, as well as his character and conviction could teach Democrats a lot.
Huey Long: Kingfish
Huey Long was born to farmers in the poorest part of Louisiana where illiteracy and poverty were rampant. Despite these humble circumstances, he educated himself and became a successful lawyer. Long never forgot where he came from and when he entered politics he aspired to eliminate Louisiana’s despair.
Huey Long entered public service as an elected member of the Louisiana Railroad Commission and immediately set himself apart as a grassroots reformer. He spoke directly with voters about how transportation monopolies hurt small farmers and sued a telephone monopoly for unfairly raising prices. Long’s victory in the Supreme Court defined him as a champion of the little guy.
When running for governor in 1928, Long interrupted a Southern political tradition of race-baiting and Confederate nostalgia. Instead, he focused the public’s attention on the severe underdevelopment and inequality rural Louisiana faced, and especially the role monopolistic robber barons played.
An Anti-Elite Message
Corrupted by wealth and power, your government is like a restaurant with only one dish. They’ve got a set of Republican waiters on one side and a set of Democratic waiters on the other side. But no matter which set of waiters brings you the dish, the legislative grub is all prepared in the same Wall Street kitchen.
Americans now could definitely relate to our 1930s predecessors. They, too, were often forced to vote for the lesser of two evils: both Democrats and Republicans serving the same corporate interests.
Huey Long capitalized on this sentiment and used it to distinguish himself. His virulent attacks on both parties earned voters’ trust and electrified audiences. These intra-party criticisms spoke to a sense of frustration in a system that preserved the status quo.
Watching Long speak, one may identify similarities with Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders’ language. He frequently mentions statistics like “4% of the American people own 85% of the wealth” and “70% of Americans can’t pay the debts they owe”. Much like Sanders decries the exorbitant wealth of Jeff Bezos, Long blasts billionaires Rockefeller and Mellon for theirs.
However, there are several differences that make Long a superior candidate. Socialism has never been viewed as a legitimate or desirable political term in the United States. Young voters mostly understand that by “democratic socialism” Sanders means a European-style welfare capitalism, but older generations fall prey to red-baiting. It is admittedly extremely easy for opponents to use this word to depict Sanders as an anti-American communist who wants to destroy America’s entrepreneurial spirit.
Long was more progressive than FDR and his “Share the Wealth” program was certainly to the left of the New Deal, but he distanced himself from socialism. Instead, he framed his redistributive policies as the antidote to socialism. If no one acted to raise the standard of living, Long suggested, the lower classes would revolt and impose a communist state. This messaging was a lot more palatable for the average American.
Long simplified his economic message: the elites were using their monopoly on money and power to hurt American families. Certainly, this was a notion most Americans could agree with then and now.
Every Man a King: Long’s Populist Policies
I’m for the poor man — all poor men, black and white, they all gotta have a chance. They gotta have a home, a job, and a decent education for their children. ‘Every man a king’ — that’s my slogan.
Long’s policies were populist in that they economically advanced the interests of working people. Across the board, Long wanted to tax monopolies and use government spending to improve Depression society.
Infrastructure was a major priority. Poorly maintained dirt and gravel roads inhibited travel, and Louisiana only had 300 miles of paved roads at this point. Long employed 22,000 previously unemployed men to surface 5000 miles of modern highways. He also constructed numerous bridges and dams to connect the wetlands.
Reforming education was paramount. Long had not been able to access public education as a rural youth, and had few books around. Illiteracy was high, and 25% of children couldn’t afford textbooks. Using revenue from taxing oil monopolies, Long made free textbooks available to all public school students. This immediately increased attendance by 20%. Long, a huge football fan, also tripled the size of LSU, built a new stadium, and subsidized tuition so more students could attend.
Long launched construction on 31 free health and immunization clinics for Louisianan's, dropping mortality rates by 30 percent. It was important to him that the rural poor have access to affordable healthcare.
But most central to Long’s platform was his “Share Our Wealth” program (with the slogan “Every Man a King”). Under this program, large fortunes would be capped at $600 million (adjusted for inflation). The proceeds of this tax would go towards funding vocational schools, free healthcare and education, and an early form of universal basic income.
Huey Long launched a campaign to promote his program, and 27,000 “Share Our Wealth clubs” formed by 1935. Nationwide, Long’s idea had 7.5 million loyal supporters. White supremacists criticized Huey for allowing blacks into the club, but he insisted they be allowed to join since they were disproportionately poor.
Although “Share Our Wealth” wasn’t implemented, historians suggest Huey’s ideas pushed FDR’s New Deal to the left significantly. These programs intended to solve many of the same issues we face today and were widely embraced by working class people across demographics.
What Democrats Can Learn From Huey Long
Comparing Joe Biden to Governor Huey Long is a night and day difference. The two candidates clearly have very different electoral approaches. While the 2020 election has yet to occur, Biden’s razor-thin margin is cause for concern and evidence his strategy is flawed. Especially considering how controversial his opponent is.
Huey Long embodies the programmatic, class-based approach that New Deal Democrats widely used. He had a clearly displayed set of policies geared towards improving the material conditions of disaffected workers across races. Long’s messaging identified the elite as part of the problem and encouraged voters to be skeptical of leadership in both parties, which won him valuable bipartisan framing as an outsider. It’s no surprise he earned 96% of the gubernatorial vote in Louisiana.
Biden, on the other hand, embraces the Clinton playbook developed since the 90s. His policies firmly embrace the neoliberal status quo, adopting few components of fairly popular progressive ideas. But noticeably, Biden chooses not to focus on an agenda at all. Rather, he messages the election as a moral dilemma (we just need to get a good guy in the White House). The DNC was almost entirely lacked a policy program or a vision voters could look forward to. And instead of blaming both parties for the COVID-19 and economic crises (as they are rightly jointly responsible), Biden squarely focuses animosity on Republicans.
Democrats should keep a few things in mind. Americans want an ambitious plan. They intensely dislike the two party system and trust neither side to deliver prosperity. And they could easily be united by a platform that appeals to common economic interests in a time of common need.
A change in strategy would be wise. In less than 100 years, the Democratic Party has gone from “Every Man a King” to “Anyone but Trump”. How inspiring.
Long Legacy Project. (2020). Huey Long Official Website: Biography, Quotes, Photos, Speeches. Retrieved September 17, 2020, from https://www.hueylong.com/index.php
Long, H. P. (1996). Every man a king the autobiography of Huey P. Long. New York, NY, NY: Da Capo Press.
Brewster, J. (2020, April 26). 5 Polling Stats That Should Make Joe Biden Worry. Retrieved September 17, 2020, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackbrewster/2020/04/26/5-polling-stats-that-should-make-joe-biden-worry/