Huey Long of Louisiana may be the most complicated figure in American politics. His path to obtaining power and holding onto it was ruthless and a lot of it was illegal. But his actions while in power show a man who wanted to make a difference in the lives of those who needed it the most. Huey ran his state of Louisiana for seven years as a Dictator, crushing opposition, using the state for his own political benefit, and in the end subverting Democracy. But along the way he surely changed the relationship to the government and the people in a way we still feel today.
Huey Long was the unique southern politician that didn’t have family members who fought in the confederate army. He wasn’t defined by the generational bitterness that the loss of the Civil War left engrained in so many of his contemporaries. Growing up in rural Northern Louisiana, he had a mixed upbringing of a family that was moderately well off but disconnected from the power from the Southern part of the state. He had great successes in high school with the debate team, recognizing that he would some day go into politics. Stumbling through his post high school years he worked as a salesman before pursuing law at Tulane University. Through his prowess he was able to get the state board to let him take the bar after only one year. His work as lawyer was well respected and admired for his stance of defending the poor man. The money in the state was with the big oil companies, but he stuck to his decision to represent under privileged plaintiffs. It was a decision that was both admirable and pragmatic, as he recognized the symbolic power of standing up for the little guy in his future run for office.
His first run for office was for state railroad commission in 1918. It was in this regulatory capacity that he was able to form his populist message of higher fees for the oil companies and breaking up the monopolies. To the dismay of the states’ conservatives, he ran for governor, losing in 1924 before winning 1928. It was unconceivable at the time that the folks of Louisiana would go for such a radical. His win drastically changed the electoral collations of the state.
Over the course of his four years as governor and the 4 additional years he ran the state through proxy, Huey Long drastically changed the expectations between the people and their government. Prior reformers or supposed progressives would win occasionally in the South promising a great deal, but once in power they accomplished very little. He pushed through major infrastructure projects including building roads and bridges. He invested in education with free text books and built up Louisiana State University into a nationally recognized school. The spending on these programs was greater than anything the state had seen. The more that was built, the greater the need for continued investment appeared. Through an impeachment attempt in 1928 and major battles over funding for a new capital, Huey almost was defeated. But after 1930 he fought back with a relentless zeal to crush his political enemies.
After he was elected to the US Senate in 1932 he took his populist message to Washington. Initially Huey was an ally of Roosevelt, voting with the administration about 70% of the time. But over 1934 he began to see Roosevelt as a protector of Wall Street and a roadblock in his quest to ‘share the wealth.’ Huey Long’s fierce advocacy for redistributive tax policies pushed Roosevelt further to the left. With a style that resembled Ted Cruz, he became a pariah within his party. He denounced the majority leader Joseph Robinson on the Senate floor. Huey would filibuster major parts of the New Deal he saw as either not going far enough or only relevant to the well off. Nationally broadcasted radio addresses made him the second most admired person after the president. As the 1936 election approached he began to build a national coalition, setting up ‘share the wealth’ clubs throughout the country. His brand of demagogy frightened many that he could be an American Mussolini.
By 1935 he had control of all leaves of the Louisiana government, including appointment of county sheriff, patronage, and state funding. The radical change and dictatorially way of wielding power led to great sea of discontent from conservatives. Early on in his governorship he started to have armed guards accompany him because of threats. His opponents started to speak openly about the need to use violence to end his reign, as their forefathers had done to repeal the carpetbaggers during reconstruction. Huey was assassinated at the state capital on September 8, 1935 by a doctor who felt burned by Long’s policies.
Socialist Bernie Sanders is surely the politician closest to Huey Long in substance. Huey never identified as a socialist out of recognition that it would be a losing label if he made a run for the White House. Sanders has had to explain his political philosophy in a way that I am sure Huey would identify with. His battle against income inequality and emphasis on the need for higher taxes on the wealthy is very much in line with Huey. As mentioned, the presidential candidate that is closet to Huey in style is Ted Cruz. As Huey was far to the left of his party, Ted Cruz is far to the right of his. Cruz has gone to war with the leadership of his party over funding for Planned Parenthood and was a leader figure in the 2013 government shutdown. Both used the media in a way to play the base of their party off the leaders to further their own political ambitions. Huey used the radio waves, bought his own newspaper and used direct mailing to build his loyal followers. Over the last couple of years Ted Cruz has used his own fights in the senate against Mitch McConnell in fundraising emails and TV appearances.