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One of the inspirations for Huey Long was William Jennings Bryan, of Scopes Monkey Trial fame. A dynamic speaker, Bryan earned the nickname "the boy orator of the Platte." But as his political opponents enjoyed pointing out, the Platte River was only six inches deep and a mile wide at the mouth (source).
In 1896, WJB made a show-stopping speech at the Democratic National Convention (he also wanted to be President) that drew sharp contrasts between the rural poor and the city slicker elites. His famous "Cross of Gold" speech was about the monetary system of the U.S. and whether or not it should be strictly backed by gold or by both gold and silver, which would expand the money supply. WJB believed abandoning the gold standard could alleviate the severe economic problems of the late 19th century, especially in the wake of the Panic of 1893 (a sort of mini-Great Depression).
Check out some of the lines from Bryan's speech; We'll put Huey's words right after them.
Just shy of 40 years later, Long's speech drew upon Bryan's ideas in the wake of the Great Depression. WJB's "bimetallism" was highly controversial in his day, but compared to Long's Share Our Wealth Plan, that controversy was small potatoes.
Two great orators, two famous speeches. Somehow, we'd rather listen to Huey Long; his down-home style beats Bryan's elevated language hands down.
Born into wealth and a lifelong member of the 1%, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was tasked with bringing the U.S. out of the Depression, putting America back to work, and acting as the Reassurer-in-Chief to a worried and despairing country. Roosevelt's New Deal promised to attack the Depression on three fronts: relief, recovery, and reform. In Long's "Every Man a King" speech, he ridiculed the alphabet soup of programs that Roosevelt put in place to fix the economy.
Roosevelt was no slouch in oration himself—remember his first inaugural address in 1933 where he told the nation that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself"? But he knew he needed a way to communicate with Americans that would create support for his New Deal programs and reassure them that their president was on the case. Almost every American home owned a radio in 1933, and Roosevelt gave a regular series of radio broadcasts that he called "Fireside Chats," informal, informative, person-to-person talks about his plans and programs.
In 1933, he gave a radio talk about the National Recovery Administration, an agency formed to bring business and labor together to set up fair business and labor policies, like abolishing child labor, setting minimum wages and maximum work week hours, and establishing fair competitive practices for businesses. He explained the purpose of the agency—to alleviate unemployment and spur economic growth—and gave examples of unfair labor practices that he hoped to change. He said he knew there would be challenges:
I do not deny that we may make mistakes of procedure as we carry out the policy. I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat. What I seek is the highest possible batting average, not only for myself but for the team. (Source)
Even though the aristocratic FDR couldn't come off like the folksy, jokey Long, you can see him trying to come down off his presidential pedestal and use baseball metaphors that anyone can relate to. Unlike Long's fiery, bombastic "Every Man a King" speech that was aimed at whipping the people into righteous indignation, FDR's intimate chat was aimed at making people feel calm and reassured that their president was doing more than making promises: he was implementing plans and policies that would make their lives better.
In a way that's the difference between campaigning (which lots of people believed was the real purpose of Long's "King" speech) and governing, where you actually have to get stuff done. FDR's Fireside Chats were totally different in tone than Long's speeches, even if the purpose was the same: to show the people that he understood their financial struggles and was going to make things more fair for the little guy.
Initially little more than a bunch of poor, angry farmers, the People's Party, or the Populist Party as some called it, would come to have a pretty significant impact on the political scene of mid- and late-19th-century America. The People's Party was calling out big banks and major corporations such as the railroads way before it was cool. As crop failures and falling cotton prices were impoverishing farmers in the south and plains states, they directed their anger at elites in both the Democratic and Republican parties whom they thought were ignoring their interests (source).
The party had a hand in some of the bigger labor movements of the period and were closely allied with the unions. In the 1892 presidential election their ticket would take almost 10% of the vote, which isn't bad compared to the efforts of most third parties in American history. In the next election they threw their weight behind William Jennings Bryant and were simply absorbed into the Democratic Party. The party died, but the sentiments lived on and would find outlet in the form of Huey Long.
Huey Long drew a lot of comparisons to the famed Dictator for Life of Rome.
Well, he didn't. But others certainly did it for him—mostly his detractors.
These comparisons weren't entirely unfair. Long didn't lead any empire-splitting civil wars or conquer most of the civilized world, but he did grow from the same tree as Julius Caesar. A young up-and-comer with explosive mass appeal who preyed on a corrupt and bloated political machine despite being as (or more) corrupt himself, who quashed civil liberties for the good of the Republic/Louisiana and established a virtual monopoly on power in order to drag the state into modernity and amass as much personal power as possible. They both even had sophisticated propaganda machines that were revolutionary for their times.
As far as comparisons go, we guess you could do worse than Julius Caesar. Unfortunately for Long, the comparison continued to the end, with an assassination in the halls of power.
Let's see: a popular candidate who champions the 99%, who's seen as outside the establishment, who has a passionate following, who thrives in crowd settings and debates, and whose main arsenal is political invective, hyperbole, insults, and populist demagoguery?
Shmoop has discovered the shocking truth: Huey Long is the love-child of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
Want proof? Let's check out the DNA.
Take away Long's pomposity, self- promotion, and Bible-thumping, and you're left with Democratic Socialist, Vermont senator, and 2016 presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, the champion of the 99% and the ultimate "share the wealth" enthusiast. Sanders has always blasted the wealthy corporations and Wall Street big-shots who seem to be the beneficiaries of tax laws and government financial policies. Like Long, he wants to make the wealthy pay more of their fair share and he's advocated policies that offer free college tuition to needy students, expand social Security benefits, and raise the minimum wage. He's Wall Street's worst nightmare.
In the Democratic primaries, Sanders was seen as the outsider candidate who'd bring radical change and make sure that everyone got the resources they deserved. He claimed that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, was in the pocket of the Wall Street bankers. Young voters were "feeling the Bern," inspired and passionate about joining with Sanders to reform the system. Like Long, Sanders had to convince Americans that he wasn't that kind of socialist, wanting to nationalize everything and make everyone the same.
Add back in the self-promoting showmanship and interesting relationship with the facts and you've got Donald Trump. One major difference between Trump and Long is their backgrounds: Long came from nothing, and Trump inherited a fortune from his wealthy father. And while Trump has sought the support of evangelical Christians, he hasn't been the Bible-quoting, holier-than-thou guy that Long was.
Still, despite being a billionaire businessman with zero political experience, Trump defeated 16 career politicians in the Republican primary battles and managed to become the champion of many working-class folks. He understood that they felt left behind in the new global, tech-driven economy, and believed that the U.S. was rapidly losing its international status and prestige. Like Long, he was able to take advantage of a bad economic situation with populist views and an over-the-top rhetorical style. Also like Long, he's been accused of being a bully because of his aggressive speeches, name-calling, and lots of made-up accusations about his opponents.
In tough economic times, it's easy for a challenger to declare war on the existing system. Just like Long could take on FDR and claim that his New Deal programs weren't working, Trump and Sanders, although as different as two men could possibly be, could point to an economy that was only working for the rich and leaving lots of working Americans behind.
Populism sure comes in different flavors.