Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and The Great Depression
It is not often that we get a book as good as this one about demagogic public figures like Huey Long and Father Coughlin. In most works on such leaders the simplicities are too often allowed to obscure the complexities and the obvious is permitted to overshadow the ambivalent. Yet if it were not for their complexity and ambivalence these people would hardly be worth bothering about. Nor would they likely have attained the conspicuous place in history they did.
Long and Coughlin were particularly susceptible to stereotype and simplification. They came along at about the time American intellectuals were being alerted to the menace of mass politics, the dark and irrational forces that released the terrors of totalitarian movements in Europe. It was perhaps inevitable, and not wholly without justification, that these two American mass leaders should have been thought analogous to contemporary European prototypes, if not their American counterparts. Father Coughlin’s vastly popular radio sermons of the Thirties calling for “social justice” for the little man, and his open anti-Semitism later on, made comparisons with European demagogues seem plausible.
More recently the balance of intellectual sympathy has tipped to the opposite side, and tends to favor mass movements of protest, defending some of their leaders from charges of sinister manipulation and their followers from characterizations of irrationality and alienation. From this more sympathetic point of view mass political behavior is likely to be seen as a largely rational response to injustice and oppression. 1 The most exhaustive and influential study of Huey Long, for example, a biography by the late T. Harry Williams, leans toward the latter view. Though apparently little influenced by the theorists of mass politics, Williams defended Long from charges of demagoguery and fascism and pictured him as a “good mass leader” who awakened the people to the injustices they suffered and led a crusade for progressive reform.2
Alan Brinkley, a young historian at MIT, finds himself in Voices of Protest “at odds with both views”—both the view that Long and Coughlin were the leaders of irrational and antidemocratic rebellions, and the view that they were champions of great progressive crusades for social transformation. Rather, he sees them as illustrating one of the strongest impulses of the Great Depression and of a long stretch of American history before it—the deep impulse “to defend the autonomy of the individual and the independence of the community against encroachments from the modern industrial state.” Far from yearning for any utopian future of collectivism, the followers of Long and Coughlin called for an order in which the individual retained control of his own life and means of livelihood, where power was accessible in visible institutions, and wealth was more equitably shared. In short, they were for turning the clock of history backward, not forward. Their challenge was significant mainly for its failure, for they never seriously threatened the structure of the modern economy or the national system of politics.
These conclusions are not arrived at impressionistically or based on superficial investigation. While Brinkley makes full use of the existing literature and the numerous books on his two subjects; he does not stop there, either for biographical information or for insight on national politics. He goes to the sources, including sixty-eight manuscript collections scattered from coast to coast. The more valuable of these unfortunately did not include the papers of the two leaders or their organizations, which left no records of signficance. He supplements these, however, with extensive use of the press, local and national, and exploitation of public records. His findings add to our knowledge of the leaders themselves, but more significantly to the nature of their appeal, their methods, revenues, organizations, and constituencies, as well as the differences and relations between them, and their relations with President Roosevelt.
Long gets full credit for his achievements in Louisiana—highways, bridges, public-health facilities, a university, a medical school, public schools, free schoolbooks, and all. While he exempted low-income families from most state property taxes and shifted part of their tax burden to the giant oil companies, he offered no fundamental challenge to the power of the latter and did virtually nothing for tenant farmers and share-croppers and very little for labor. The most that can be said for his policy toward blacks (then thoroughly disfranchised) is that he generally refrained from the crudest race-baiting outside Louisiana, though not within the state.
Long left the state as it was in his lifetime—one of the poorest and least developed in the nation. The price of his achievements was the subversion of democratic processes. With total and contemptuous mastery of the legislature, Long used it to destroy and humiliate opponents and seize control of county and city governments down to the level of local school boards. The city of Alexandria, when it ventured some opposition, woke up one morning to find its mayor and other officials removed by act of the legislature, their successors to be appointed by the governor. “More systematically than any politician in American history,” writes Brinkley, “Long was destroying the normal functions of basic democratic institutions, turning a government founded on the principle of checks and balances into one directed by a single man.”
Like Long, Father Coughlin was a master of the radio when it was becoming central to the lives of American families. But Coughlin was the greater artist and genius and had the more sensational success with the medium. An obscure parish priest in a Detroit suburb who started broadcasting in 1926 partly to raise money for his church, he soon found himself receiving thousands of letters and not long after he became a national voice on the CBS network. At the peak of his popularity, during the hour of his weekly sermon one could walk for blocks in urban neighborhoods throughout the East and Midwest and never miss a word of his voice blaring from house to house. When he became too much for CBS, he founded his own network that reached a national audience of up to forty million people. His rhetorical techniques included “maudlin sentimentality, anger and invective, sober reasonableness, religious or patriotic fervor.” Uncontroversial at first, his radio sermons grew intensely political and were laced both with red-baiting and attacks on the big banks as the Depression tightened its grip on his Detroit parishioners and the country at large. Attacks on high finance seemed an important aspect of his political appeal.
Coughlin and Long were Roosevelt supporters at first, Coughlin more enthusiastically and consistently than Long, who tried to dictate the terms of the alliance from the outset. Father Coughlin advertised himself as an intimate and constant adviser in the White House. FDR was quite aware of the usefulness of the two men to his cause but regarded them as “demagogues” not to be trusted and took a genuine dislike to Coughlin, who became something of a pest. While no supporter who sometimes received more than a million letters a week could be hastily dismissed, ideological differences and personal distrust were widening the breach with the midwestern priest as well as the southern senator.
In the meantime each had established his national organization—Long his Share Our Wealth Clubs, Coughlin his National Union for Social Justice. Both propagated economic programs at odds with the New Deal and gained national followings. They denounced Roosevelt for doing too little and also for doing too much; for failure to curb the power of the rich, redistribute wealth, and reconstitute the currency and at the same time for creating an overbearing bureaucracy and interfering too much with community and local affairs. By early 1935 each man had cut his ties with Roosevelt. Though suspicious and even hostile toward each other and never formally allied, both were bent on working outside the two-party system. Moving toward a third party to influence the 1936 presidential election, they plunged into frenzied activity. With their radio audiences swelling by millions, with other dissident leaders in the West and South in prospective alliance, with the Republicans demoralized and the New Deal slumping in popularity, the future of the rebellion looked bright.
>With all these things going for them, the interesting question is why they failed so miserably. For one thing, the enormous numbers enlisted in the movements were misleading indications of strength. Ill-defined, loosely organized, decentralized, and highly diverse, they were the creation of the radio and not the makings of a new party. Nothing comparable to the grass-roots Farmers’ Alliances that prepared the way for the Populist Party in the 1890s stood behind the Long and Coughlin hordes. Their own ideology stressed decentralization and local control, and they denounced Roosevelt for “constructing a ponderous bureaucracy to meddle in what were properly local and individual matters.” Long could impose a one-man government on Louisiana, but not a one-man party on the nation.
Even more important than the weakness of the dissenting movements was the strength of their opponent, the formidable grip that Franklin Roosevelt retained on the American electorate. Long and Coughlin found no way of breaking or appreciably loosening it. Some of their followers shared their hostility to the president, but most of them hung on to the New Deal. The senator and the priest were stronger when they supported the administration than when they attacked it. And FDR took much of the wind out of their sails by the so-called Second New Deal, which strengthened his hand among almost every group to whom the dissenters were attempting to appeal. Among them were three million people for whom the Works Progress Administration of 1935 provided jobs. Long’s assassination in September of that year was, of course, a great shock, but if Brinkley is right his cause was already lost by then.
The millions of Long and Coughlin followers, according to this analysis, were not the rootless riffraff with nothing to lose pictured by frightened conservatives. On the contrary the typical followers were people desperately afraid of losing something: “men and women clinging precariously to hardwon middle-class life-styles; people with valued but imperiled stakes in their local communities.” They were salespeople, bank clerks, realtors, shopkeepers, grocers, barbers, farmers threatened with foreclosure of mortgages, professionals of marginal status, all of them faced with the fear of being pushed over the brink. Followers in the working class were not usually the worst sufferers from the Depression but rather those with something to lose, most often a hard-won status in the working-class elite.
Long and Coughlin were commonly seen by their critics as cynical manipulators of this constituency and perfect illustrations of the demagogue. While conceding that they “in some respects deserved the label,” Brinkley is not willing to dismiss their plans and programs as meaningless nonsense or ominous portents of fascism. Granting that their “ideology” was full of deceptive simplicities and insuperable obstacles and that Coughlin later turned to anti-Semitism and fascism, he points out that they did not in their heyday divert attention to racial scapegoats or phony villains. They raised issues of genuine importance, such as the concentration of wealth and insufficient purchasing power of the populace. On a deeper level they stressed the erosion of the individual’s control over his own destiny and the displacement of local community by faceless institutions and remote powers.
They doubtless romanticized the community, but they at least offered an affirmation of its threatened values, some explanation of the forces that menaced it, and some plausible programs for salvation. Consciously or not, they were challenging modernization itself. In doing so they were not contriving improvisations to exploit current opportunities but, as Brinkley says, tapping “some of the oldest and deepest impulses in American political life.”At their root, from the Revolution on down through populism, lay a fear of distant, concentrated, and inaccessible power. This late manifestation was more futile and obsolete than its predecessors and more of a failure, but it was a manifestation of an old tradition rather than an ominous portent for the future.
A final note on the manner, apart from the substance, of Vioces of Protest. In spite of its rather unsympathetic subjects, it is a sensitive and subtle work moderated by grace and restraint, and tempered by a caution that in no way suggests timidity. It would be well for American historiography should this book mark a turn in predominant fashions.
A perceptive assessment of the two schools of thought on mass politics is Margaret Canovan, Populism (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), especially pp. 136-186.↩
T. Harry Williams, Huey Long (Knopf, 1969).↩
Now at Harvard October 21, 1982