Pennies from Heaven

Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and The Great Depression

by Alan Brinkley
Knopf, 348 pp., $18.50

Father Coughlin
Father Coughlin; drawing by David Levine

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.