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New York Needs a Huey Long
Democrats in Washington have abdicated their responsibility to govern. It now falls to the states to deliver for the working class.
In 1755, British forces in Eastern Canada undertook a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Acadian people - descendants of earlier French settlers - in retaliation for their suspected alignment with France against Britain during the Seven Years’ War. Over 80 percent were deported to various destinations around the Atlantic; thousands succumbed to starvation and disease along the way. A community of survivors found their way to Louisiana, where they became known as the Cajun people and shaped the development of the region’s distinctive Francophone culture. A century later, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow dramatized these events in his epic poem “Evangeline.”
Its titular character is an Acadian woman who journeys across North America in search of her lover Gabriel after the two are separated during the war. Years later, Evangeline learns that Gabriel is among the Acadians who found refuge in Louisiana. She travels there to meet him, only to discover that he departed just hours before her arrival, sent away by his boss “to trade for mules with the Spaniards.” As she passes by an oak tree growing along the banks of the Bayou Treche, Evangeline pictures her lost love resting beneath its shade after a day of labor, longing to hold him in her arms.
Though rough on his love life, skipping town to pursue the mule trade wasn’t a half-bad career move on Gabriel’s part. Louisiana’s economic backwardness presented few opportunities for upward mobility, and would persist for at least another hundred years. The worst indignities were borne by African slaves and their descendants, but there wasn’t much dignity to go around for anyone outside of Louisiana’s ruling class. Most of the white population also lived under conditions of extreme rural poverty, widespread illiteracy, and political marginalization until well into the 20th century.
For these reasons, the barren parishes of the Louisiana upcountry were fertile ground for radical politics. In the 1912 presidential election, socialist candidate Eugene Debs got more votes statewide than the sitting president. In places like Winn Parish, Debs got over a third of the vote - some of his best county-level performances in the country. In 1928, Winn Parish made another mark on the American left when its native son Huey P. Long was elected governor on a populist platform, and spent the next seven years implementing an unprecedented expansion of public works, social services, and taxes on the rich. He also knew how to have a good time. Long never considered himself a socialist, but perhaps he would have if he knew he could still drink champaign.
Long gained further prominence after his election to the US Senate in 1930, though he maintained a grip on power in Baton Rouge through his political machine. Millions flocked to his Share Our Wealth movement, which called for curbing the influence of financial elites and a radical redistribution of the national income. He saw the New Deal as woefully unambitious, and planned to challenge Franklin Delano Roosevelt from the left in the 1936 Democratic presidential primary. FDR had the good sense to be nervous. Though party leaders smeared him as “basically Communistic,” Long had a gift for salesmanship. Consider this excerpt from his most famous campaign speech, delivered under an oak tree growing along the banks of the Bayou Treche:
“It is here under this oak where Evangeline waited for her lover, Gabriel, who never came. This oak is an immortal spot, made so by Longfellow's poem, but Evangeline is not the only one who has waited here in disappointment.
Where are the schools that you have waited for your children to have that have never come? Where are the roads and the highways that you send your money to build, that are no nearer now than ever before? Where are the institutions to care for the sick and disabled?
Evangeline wept bitter tears in her disappointment, but it lasted only through one lifetime. Your tears in this country, around this oak, have lasted for generations.
Give me the chance to dry the eyes of those who still weep here.”
And dry them he did. In 1928, Louisiana had just 300 miles of paved roads, only half of which were publicly owned and free to use. By 1936, it had 10,000, relieving the rural population from the burden of paying private tolls to move about the state. The government also began providing free textbooks to schoolchildren; previously, their families were required to buy them from the state’s one authorized publisher. Rates for telephone and energy services plummeted as the power of utility monopolies to engage in price gouging was curtailed. Free hospitals and schools sprang up across Louisiana, and investment poured into higher education and workforce development.
Now the rich knew what it was like to stand beneath the Evangeline Oak and weep.
Long financed these projects by taxing the rich and big business - especially the Standard Oil Company, the world’s most profitable corporation - and permitting the state to issue public debt for the first time. Naturally, all this provoked ferocious reprisal from Louisiana’s ruling class: a joint partnership between a semi-feudal planter aristocracy and an emerging industrial bourgeoisie. Just 11 months into his term, their allies in the State House brought eight articles of impeachment against Long in bid to remove him from office. Though he managed to rally enough support to hang on to the governorship, the battle stymied progress on his initiatives.
To revitalize his mandate, Long announced a run for US Senate in 1930. If he lost, he pledged to resign. If he won, he’d take it as a sign that the people were still behind him and make a renewed push for his agenda. And indeed, the people were. Long won in a landslide, but he left his Senate seat vacant until 1932, when he could install a pliant successor in that year’s gubernatorial election. The incumbent lieutenant governor was aligned with the establishment, and had Long decamped to Washington immediately, his enemies would have returned to power. So in 1932, Long tapped an ally to keep his seat warm in Baton Rouge, but continued to act as Louisiana’s chief executive.
It’s at this point that his legacy becomes somewhat complicated. Up until now, Long had accumulated power by maximizing his advantage under the institutional status quo: electing slates of allies to the legislature and the judiciary, dispensing patronage to capture the bureaucracy, and expanding his appointment powers. But once every branch of state government was under Long’s control, he began to radically transform Louisiana’s political institutions:
“First, there was his creation of…a state police force that was controlled by the Governor and authorized to make arrests without warrants. Second, Long sent the National Guard into New Orleans to smash gambling establishments, even though state law prohibited the use of troops as a police force. Third, there was his infuriating habit of appearing…on the floor of the legislature to bark orders at his supporters and browbeat his foes.
Starting in 1934, all bills went through the same legislative committee in each house. At this committee’s hearings, the only witness was usually Huey Long, who would summarize the legislation before calling an immediate vote. The bill would then race to the floor of each chamber…Lastly, Long would stand near the rostrum and order the speaker to call the question on each bill in rapid succession.
[Long also] backed judicial candidates that would support his policies without hesitation [and] added new restrictions on the formal scope of judicial review…Perhaps the most notable of these was a statute that barred courts from issuing a remedy in cases involving the use of the National Guard, which allowed the Governor to invoke martial law at his discretion. Furthermore, courts were barred from examining the actions of voters’ registrars, which gave the machine free reign to engage in fraud.
Custody of ballot boxes was taken from local sheriffs and given to election supervisors appointed by the Governor. Likewise, the selection of poll watchers was taken from the parishes (counties) and turned into patronage.
The legislature created a new bar association that was controlled by the executive branch. Because attorneys could not practice in Louisiana without being a member, Long could blackball any lawyer who took a case he did not like.
Given this track record, Long’s critics at the time and in the decades after his death grew fond of calling him the first true dictator in American history - and for what it’s worth, that’s basically true. But given the resistance of the state’s elite, it’s hard to see how Long could have pushed through his reforms without at least some recourse to bare-knuckle tactics. Not only did he face impeachment less than a year into his term for antagonizing the rich, but after he won election to the US Senate, his lieutenant governor leaned on some dubious legal reasoning to declare himself governor in an attempted coup d’état; Long had to call in the National Guard to reassert control.
Moreover, for all the handwringing over Long’s purported dictatorship, the state government prior to 1928 wasn’t exactly a model democracy either. To begin with the obvious, Jim Crow Louisiana was a racial apartheid regime where a full quarter of the population lacked basic citizenship rights. Poll taxes and literacy tests also excluded a huge share of the white population from political participation, almost exclusively the rural poor. Those who retained the franchise were often disciplined into backing the establishment by machine enforcers - typically the county sheriffs.
Finally, Long’s enemies weren’t limited to Baton Rouge and New Orleans. In 1935, Congress opened an inquiry into whether Louisiana was in violation of Guarantee Clause of the US Constitution, which obligates states to maintain “a republican form of government.” With Long’s growing national profile and vocal threats to mount a primary challenge in 1936, FDR felt so politically threatened that he contemplated invoking the clause, dissolving the state government by executive order, and bringing Louisiana under federal receivership. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not really out to get you.
If Democrats in Washington were inclined to exercise power, the legacy of Huey Long would have important lessons for them today: universal, easily accessible programs are the ones that work the best, endure the longest, and enjoy the greatest popularity; structural disadvantages don’t have to be forever - institutions can bend, electorates can change, the rules of the game can be rewritten entirely; if you can drum up a mass movement to support you, those things can happen all the more easily; it’s always better to talk like the people you represent than to talk about how much you represent them; and if troublemakers in your own party are obstructing your agenda, there are all sorts of creative ways to deal with them.
But Democrats today aren’t interested in exercising power; they’re interested in preserving the status quo. The great irony, of course, is that it’s exactly this attitude that’s going to destroy it. So maybe the national party is hopeless, but that doesn’t mean no one has anything to learn from Huey Long. If the federal government won’t invest in improving people’s lives, then it’s up to the states to make up the shortfall. Here are a few ideas from the Kingfish himself on how we could do that in New York.
Transit infrastructure: improve it, expand it, make it free. A century ago, that meant paving roads and building bridges. Today, it means fixing the subway and eliminating fares. We could afford to make the trains free overnight by ending a single tax rebate for stock traders. Physical upgrades are trickier since the biggest obstacle to them is a touchy subject: union corruption. When Cynthia Nixon alluded to this early in her gubernatorial campaign, she was forced to apologize after taking fire from the left.
This dilemma is one that the left will have to keep grappling with in an age of federal abdication: if state budgets are the only means of effecting real improvement in the lives of the working class, we can’t afford to maintain certain costly pieties. When the cost of subway construction here is many times greater than in the most enlightened social democracies of Europe, pouring taxpayer dollars into no-show jobs on the Second Avenue subway is one of them.
Utilities: take them over, lower rates. New York allows private energy companies to enjoy government-enforced monopolies on the provision of gas and electricity. They take advantage of this position to hike rates on their captive customers while delivering increasingly substandard service every year, all while dragging their feet on winding down their fossil fuel infrastructure and transitioning to renewable energy. NYC-DSA’s Ecosocialist Working Group’s package of public power legislation would remedy this injustice by enabling the state to take over utility provision and establish a democratically elected board to set new rates.
Public education: you know where this is going. This one should be easy, considering the CUNY system already charged no tuition between 1847 and 1976. Making CUNY free once again would cost less than $1 billion over five years, and investments to restore its crumbling physical infrastructure just over $5 billion.
What these initiatives have in common is that they deal with critical services that New Yorkers rely on every day, and that would bring immediate relief to the working class if their user fees were eliminated. Taken together, Huey Long’s reforms saved the average Louisiana family $425 every year - over $5,000 annually in today’s dollars. How much would the average New York family save every year if they didn’t have to worry about education, utility, or transit costs? We could relieve an immense level of pain for working people without having to build out new services from scratch, or rely on politically contentious cash transfers. All we’d need is the will to tax the rich, confront monopoly power, and improve the services New York already provides. Oh, and one more thing: a commitment to doing whatever it takes to get it done.