The following is an excellent excerpt from the book “THE RICH DON’T ALWAYS WIN: The Forgotten Triumph Over Plutocracy That Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970” by Sam Pizzigati from Chapter Six titled “A Tidal Wave of Popular Protest” on page 159 and I quote: “Later that same year, a farmer from [Hardy] Brian’s north central Louisiana parish would make one of the final state legislative bids on a Populist-sounding platform. H.P. Long Sr. lost, of course, but his young son Huey would grow up listening to his father’s stories. The father would still be telling them, as an old man, in 1935.
“I seen this domination of capital, seen it for seventy years,” H.P. Long Sr. would tell the world. “What do these rich folks care for the poor man? They care nothing—not for his pain, his sickness, nor his death. Maybe you’re surprised to hear me talk like that. Well, it was just such talk that my boy was raised under.”
By 1935, his boy Huey had been battling plutocracy for twenty years, and he never shied from employing “unchristian methods” along the way. His critics would call him the “dictator” of Louisiana. In 1934, the FBI and Justice Department officials even prepared memoranda on the case for sending federal troops into Louisiana to “restore republican government.”
As governor of Louisiana, Huey Long did not pay much attention to republican procedural niceties. He shoved his bills through state legislative committees and subjected state employee paychecks to automatic deductions that pumped up a huge cash slush fund that Long could use to buy and reward political support. Elected in 1928, Long could not constitutionally run for reelection. He ran for the US Senate, won, and continued to rule Louisiana as a de facto governor.
But Long never bought votes or kept people from voting. He never had to. He had a political mission that his fellow Louisianans supported. Huey Long would free his neighbors from the rule of the rich. That would be Long’s goal right from the start of his political career. Only 2 percent of the American people, as the twenty-four-year-old Long wrote in 1918, owned “about sixty-five or seventy percent of the entire wealth of the United States.” With “wealth concentrating, classes become defined,” he went on, and “there is not the opportunity for Christian uplift and education and cannot be until there is more economic reform.”
Longs’ first electoral victory made him a member of the state Railroad Commission, a do-nothing agency that held nominal regulatory authority over railroads and utility companies in Louisiana. The agency, with Long’s prodding, would do plenty. The commission rolled back unjustifiable telephone rate hikes, broke up oil company pipeline monopolies, and improved utility services. Long’s principled advocacy for Louisiana’s working people would soon earn him support statewide, not quite enough to win a 1924 bid for governor, but well more than enough to triumph in 1928, with the biggest victory margin in state primary history.
Just thirty-five years old, Long became governor of one of the most troubled states in the country, a plutocratic haven where over a quarter of adults could not read, incomes ran half the national average, and poll taxes kept half the state disenfranchised. The long reform whirlwind began almost immediately: night schools for illiterate adults, free textbooks and school buses for children, paved roads for motorists. The entire state had less then three hundred miles of highway when Long took power. Six years later, the state boasted 3,754 miles of real roads. Funding for health care in Louisiana tripled. A new state medical school arose in six months.
What Long didn’t do sometimes cheered state residents as much as what he did do. He did not engage in race-baiting politics. The NAACP Crisis magazine would rate him “the only southern politician in recent decades to achieve the national spotlight without the use of racial and color hatred as campaign material.”
But Long would be no miracle worker. In a desperately undeveloped state, in the middle of the terrible national economic catastrophe, he could only do so much. Lasting relief for Louisiana’s poor demanded change at the national level, and Long had no doubt he could deliver that change. He had originally come into office, notes historian Alan Brinkley, battling the corporations and problems that plagued Louisiana. In the early 1930s, he would expand his focus to the nation’s staggering “concentration of wealth”–and bring that focus to the nation’s capital.
“I had come to the United States Senate with only one project in mind, which was that by every means of action and persuasion I might do something to spread the wealth of the land among all of the people, “ Long would later write in his autobiography. “The wealth of the land was being tied up in the hands of a very few men. The people were not buying because they had nothing with which to buy.”
Long came from a deeply religious household and would almost always express his egalitarian mission in biblical terms. “No, I never read a line of Marx or Henry George or any of them economists,“ he would note early in his senate career. “It’s all the law of God.”
“Now as long as the Government permits the pilin’ up of huge individual fortunes, which is expressly forbidden in Leviticus,” he told a 1932 interviewer in New York, “we are goin’ to have crime and spoilin’ and trouble.”
Long played the flamboyant showman in the Senate’s regular 1932 session. But he would return to Washington after the November elections a much more serious lawmaker. FDR’s victory, coming on the heels of Long’s stunning success on behalf of Hattie Caraway [see page 136-137] in Arkansas, had the young senator hopeful that America’s wealthy might soon see their comeuppance. Franklin Roosevelt, Long pronounced, “has assumed the leadership of this Nation in order that he might carry out the one great necessary decentralization of wealth in America.”
Roosevelt as president would quickly disappoint. Two weeks into FDR’s inaugural year, Long introduced bills to limit income and wealth. Roosevelt paid no attention. Long spent the first hundred days battling, only sometimes successfully, to give the New Deal’s initial legislation a more Populist cast. FDR was not listening. But Americans were. FDR had his “fireside chats,” a national radio dialogue with the American people. Long had his own national radio dialogue. He gave his first broadcast on NBC five days after Roosevelt’s first fireside chat. Many more Long broadcasts would follow over the next three years. Long’s theme would almost always wind back to the importance of redistributing the nation’s treasure.’”To cure all of our woes,” he told his radio audience in February 1934, “it is necessary to scale down the big fortunes, that we may scatter the wealth to be shared by all the people.”
Long didn’t depend on radio to spread the share-the-wealth word. He turned his own state newspaper, the Louisiana Progress, into a nationally circulated American Progress and mailed out free as many as 1.5 million copies of every issue. Long also boasted the largest staff in Congress. Sixty stenographers kept Long’s letters and printed matter flowing all across the country. The basic political message of all this material: outrage at the inadequacies of Roosevelt’s New Deal. “Not a single thin dime of concentrated, bloated, pompous wealth, massed in the hands of a few people, has been raked down to relieve the masses,” Long complained early in 1934.
His response: the creation of a national network of local activists dedicated to breaking the grip of great fortunes. Long called his new organization the Share Our Wealth Society. He announced the group in an early 1934 radio address and welcomed into its ranks anyone committed to redistributing the nation’s wealth. One year later, Long boasted an astonishing twenty-seven thousand local Share Our Wealth clubs. He had over eight million names on file, and his staff opened sixty thousand letters a week.
The actual Share Our Wealth plan Long’s local clubs promoted would go through evolving iterations. Share Our Wealth, at its core, limited both individual wealth and income. If the Share Our Wealth platform became the law of the land, anyone would be able to keep tax-free a fortune worth $1 million. Above that, an annual graduated tax would kick in. Over $8 million, the rate would be 100 percent. Annual income over $1 million—and inheritances over $1 million as well—would face this same 100 percent tax rate. The revenue from all these taxes on the rich would go toward bankrolling a nest egg of $5,000 for every family in need, “enough for a home, an automobile, a radio, and the ordinary conveniences.” Families would be entitled to an adequate annual income, at least $2,000 a year. Share Our Wealth would also have the federal government provide old-age pensions and veterans benefits, aid to education, and a vast array of job-creating public works.
The various dollar figures in the Long plan would change regularly, and critics charged that the numbers never added up. Long didn’t fuss with the numbers Why bother? No one knew how much wealth the wealthy held. The government kept no reliable statistics. Long would be content to hammer home what he considered an incontrovertible truth: The rich could easily afford to sacrifice huge portions of their wealth, enough to materially improve the well being of every American family in need.
Most activists in established left groups considered Long’s share-the-wealth prescription simplistic, even demagogic. Anyone who claims they can “do away with concentration of wealth without doing away with capitalism,” a Communist party analyst in New York charged, was engaging in sheer “humbug.” Norman Thomas, the former Presbyterian minister who led the 1930s remnants of the Socialist Party, considered Share Our Wealth “positively dangerous because it fools the people.”
Carleton Beals, a widely read progressive journalist, would be a bit more forgiving. Long, he acknowledged, “dared put his fingers into the real ulcer of social evil in American life.” But Long’s approach, Beals continued, could never bring adequate relief to working people in a modern industrial society.
“We need more wealth, not its dissipation or even its redistribution,” Beals argued. “We need distribution of economic power. We need the socialization of the basic means of production.”
Other progressive groups—the state Farmer-Labor and Progressive parties in the Midwest, among them—would begin to moderate their misgivings about Long as 1934 moved along. Something fundamental, they sensed, was stirring in their rank-and-file supporters and the American people as a whole. Long had hit a nerve. He was speaking to a deep yearning for economic justice that resonated with millions upon millions of Americans. Progressives serious about social change could not afford to dismiss him. Long had to be engaged. And not just Long.
Out of Michigan had come another advocate for economic justice, a fantastically popular radio priest who didn’t fall neatly into any traditional right-left typology. Father Charles Coughlin had built a massive listening audience, initially with biblical parables and blasts at Communists and the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan and later with sermons that sought “to inject Christianity into the fabric of an economic system woven upon the loom of the greedy.” The more the Depression deepened, the more Coughlin began to sound like Huey Long. If lawmakers in Washington “refuse to legislate against the concentration of wealth,” the radio priest intoned late in 1934, “then we are perfectly justified in accusing them of playing politics with misery.”
Coughlin by then had a weekly audience that averaged ten million. No regular radio show in the world had more listeners. The mail flow to his office complex would sometimes peak at over one million pieces per week.
Like Huey Long, Coughlin would soon move to translate his massive following into a political movement. In November 1934, the priest unveiled a new “National Union for Social Justice.” Wealth comes from our natural resources and labor, the preamble to the new group’s creed declared. This wealth would belong to us all “except for the harsh, cruel and grasping ways of wicked men who first concentrated wealth into the hands of the few.”
Long and Coughlin circled warily around each other. They had no personal relationship, and the remedies they offered up would differ. Long, as Alan Brinkley notes, called “for a frontal assault upon great fortunes.” Coughlin emphasized “the somewhat less direct remedies of currency manipulation and banking reform.” But what Long and Coughlin both shared ideologically far exceeded what had them divided. They were both raising, points out Brinkley, “issues that only a few years before had seemed all but dead: issues of privilege, wealth, and centralized power, and of the failure of political institutions to deal with them.””
(I CAN SEE WHY PRESIDENT FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT DELIVERED ON THE NEW DEAL. SENATOR HUEY LONG WENT OUT AND TALKED TO THE PEOPLE AND HE DREW HUGE CROWDS WITH HIS “SHARE OUR WEALTH” PROGRAM. THE RICH PEOPLE WERE SITTING ON THEIR MONEY AND SINCE THE BILLS HAVE TO BE PAID, FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT HAD TO COME UP WITH A SYSTEM THAT WAS FAIR AND HE DID IT, BY HAVING A LOT OF DIFFERENT INCOME TAX BRACKETS,WHERE THE LOWEST TAXPAYER STARTED OUT ON THE BOTTOM RUNG OF THE LADDER AND AS HIS INCOME WENT UP, HIS INCOME TAX RATE ALSO WENT UP, SHOWING HIS BANKER THAT HE HAD THE ABILITY TO EARN MONEY, MEANING HE WAS JUST GOING TO GET HIS FARM OR HOME PAID JUST THAT MUCH FASTER. SO WHY NOT KEEP EXCELLING AND IMPROVING? IN MY CASE, A FARM, BY IMPROVING THE MILK COWS AND THE PRODUCTION IN MY CROPS. ANYTHING ANY GOOD INDUSTRY SHOULD DO. SO RATHER THAN THE BILLIONAIRE CRYING IN HIS BEER THAT HE WASN’T SUCCESSFUL IN OUR FINANCIAL SYSTEM, WHICH EVERYBODY MUST SHARE THE RESPONSIBILITY AND NOT CREATE A CLASS SYSTEM WHERE YOU DON’T HAVE A MIDDLE CLASS BY PUTTING ALL THE BURDEN OF THE TAXES ON THE MIDDLE CLASS LIKE THE ELITISTS ARE LOBBYING CONGRESS TO DO. THAT IS EXACTLY WHY FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT WAS ELECTED TO FOUR TERMS AS PRESIDENT AND HE WON THE WAR BECAUSE HE HAD THE BEST INCOME TAX SYSTEM EVER DEVISED IN THIS COUNTRY, BY TAXING ON ABILITY TO PAY. AND HUEY LONG WAS PRETTY WELL THE INSTIGATOR OF WHY FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT DEVISED THIS INCOME TAX SYSTEM.
LaVern Isely, Overtaxed Independent Middle Class Taxpayer and Public Citizen and AARP Members