Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the Great Depression - Book Review

Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the Great Depression by Alan Brinkley

This article was originally published on Videri.org and is republished here with their permission.

After visiting the United States in 1952, the Egyptian bacteriologist Zaki Khalid recalled an observation about the Great Depression he had read in a Parisian newspaper several years before. “If the same depression had taken place in France it would have reached catastrophic proportions,” he wrote. “Sheer terror everywhere, suicides, massive street demonstrations, strikes, government collapse, and all this would have taken place on the same day. But in America everything was calm.” The United States witnessed a good deal of unrest during the Depression, of course, and Khalid might have misunderstood how much other nations suffered economic crisis during the same period. Nonetheless, his observations point to a common counterfactual question about the American experience of the 1930s: why did profound economic depression and political dissent fail to shake the foundations of government, producing reform rather than revolution? Where was the American Hitler or Mussolini?

To many contemporary observers, no people seemed more capable of mounting just such a fundamental challenge to the political establishment than Father Charles E. Coughlin and Louisiana Senator Huey P. Long. In Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression, Alan Brinkley searched the rise and fall of these widely popular dissidents for clues about both the limitations of political dissent in the United States and the resilience of American institutions during a time of national disaster. Brinkley’s work goes a long way toward humanizing two leaders who have often been tarred with a brush of incipient fascism; he rendered their movements more intelligible by placing them, with considerable success, in a tradition of fitful responses to industrialization and modernity.

There is a fine line between biography and history, and Alan Brinkley walked it well in Voices of Protest. Noting the difficulties in joining the story of human life with broader analysis, Brinkley called the book “comparative biography as political history,” an attempt to use the lives of several people to illuminate larger trends of society and power. Following this formula, he devoted the first half of Voices of Protest to the origins first of Huey Long and then of Charles Coughlin. The reader sees a bossy and dominating young boy emerge from a middling home in Winn Parish, a county on the outer fringe of both Louisiana and the state’s politics. The outlines of a vague populism become discernible in Huey Long’s early crusades as a lawyer, an outlook he eventually hammered into a rhetorical steamroller that took him from the state Railroad Commission to the Senate and, he hoped, the White House. One soon meets “The Radio Priest,” a boy groomed for the clergy since infancy and trained in a school of Catholic thought that emphasized social activism. Brinkley highlighted politically relevant details along the way but held a more thoroughgoing analysis at bay until the stage was fully set and both of his characters had been introduced.

Father Charles Coughlin, 1933

All this accomplished, Brinkley then treated Coughlin and Long as a pair, examining their ideology, such as it was, and the mechanics of their movements. For targets of populist wrath and reform, Long emphasized maldistribution of wealth and Coughlin focused on the international banking system, but Brinkley found a common thread between the two in hostility toward distant, centralizing institutions. He characterized their ideology as a preference for the small-scale and familiar, which would favor the local merchant over the impersonal chain stores spawned by corporate capitalism. Brinkley aligned Long and Coughlin with the agrarian radicals of the late nineteenth century, who also saw the remote powers of finance and industry as enemies.

The remainder of Voices of Protest primarily focuses on four things: First, the tactics Long and Coughlin used to build national movements. Second, the people who followed them. Third, the difficulties of forging effective political alliances and finally the eventual decline of both men. Long's career and life came to a sudden end when he was assassinated. On the other hand, Coughlin slid into obscurity and hysteria after 1936.

This picture of Huey Long and Charles Coughlin is not the sort of fascist, virulent irrationality some have remembered, but a quixotic irrationality. Brinkley duly noted that, demagogue or not, Huey Long did not use race to scare up support like so many other Southern spitfires. The author also took pains to point out that, although Coughlin did turn bitterly anti-Semitic after he left the spotlight, only the faintest undercurrent of religious prejudice can be found in the rhetoric of his prime political years. The central problem of these aspiring dissidents, according to Brinkley, is that they sought to overturn changes long fixed into place. Long and Coughlin railed against a consolidation of economic and political power that is essential to modern, industrial capitalism.

The Populists had sought to curb such trends in the 1890s, but even they had failed when the work of centralization was considerably less complete than in Long and Coughlin’s time. “The modern corporate system based on large-scale bureaucracies had been in its first uncertain stages in the 1890s,” Brinkley wrote. “Now it was so entrenched that even the Great Depression did little to challenge it.” Although Huey Long and Charles Coughlin had to face many political and strategic difficulties in realizing their visions, none would be so severe as this: the delusion that they could undo decades of capitalism’s doing.

Alan Brinkley knows a thing or two about people tilting at windmills. He has written several books on the difficulties of that long-suffering institution of American political culture, liberalism, and his work on Coughlin and Long has earned him a reputation as an expert on populism. During the 1996 presidential campaign, for instance, Brinkley was often consulted by the media for his insights into the phenomenon of Patrick Buchanan, the fiery Republican who railed against free trade and cultural decadence.

Huey P. Long

Although Buchanan sometimes compared himself to Huey Long – which his critics were also happy to do – Brinkley pointed out that Buchanan may have had more in common with a fellow Catholic dissident, Father Coughlin. Much of the coverage on Buchanan characterized him as a reactionary in the fullest sense – someone who pined for a bygone era not just in culture and politics, but also in economics. Buchanan decried the human cost of the American manufacturing sector’s decline in an age of globalization and “Third World” industrialization, and observers grouped this critique with the original Populists’ crusade for the American farmer as well as Long and Coughlin’s movements against centralized power. In short, the media called upon Alan Brinkley to analyze a man whose ideology was considered at best irrelevant, at worst delusional – largely by the book he wrote about Huey Long and Father Coughlin.

Such a picture suggests that the two men were a day late, a dollar short or worse. Brinkley convincingly portrayed the Long and Coughlin movements as a response to modern capitalism, but he may have over-emphasized the influence of localism in their ideologies. They certainly railed against remote forces of centralized power – especially Coughlin, whose chief bogeymen were international financiers even farther removed from ordinary Americans than Huey Long’s “bloated plutocrats.”

However, such talk did not mean that they carried forward a flag of decentralization. Both men’s proposals for economic reform suggested new uses of centralized power by the federal government, such as Long’s idea for a “Share Our Wealth Corporation” that would confiscate the excess income of the wealthy and redistribute it to all Americans. Brinkley interpreted these plans as paradoxical given the way Long and Coughlin criticized concentrated wealth and power. The paradox, he argued, resulted from the inability of the two thinkers to confront the reality of a centralized society while championing a devolution of power to the local level.

Alternately, such a contradiction could be interpreted simply as a disjunct between rhetoric and program, or as a faith in the creative uses of government. After all, Long and Coughlin’s most frequent was concentrated wealth and the power that results from it, not power in itself.

The frequent comparisons with Populism in Voices of Protest invite ways that our picture of 1930s dissent as a response to modern capitalism could be enriched and clarified. Brinkley showed how both the Long-style populists and the earlier, agrarian Populists criticized institutions of distant power, the latter blasting targets like railroad companies and the banking industry. Just like their rhetorical descendants in the 1930s, though, the agrarian radicals also pushed for dramatic expansions of government power, such as a “subtreasury” scheme that would provide reasonable credit to farmers. Few policies would be more centralizing than the Populist proposal for government ownership of the nation’s transportation and communication systems.

Moreover, while the Populists merit attention at several key points, nowhere in Voices of Protest does the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century come up for comparison or contrast to Huey Long and Father Coughlin’s programs. To some extent, the exclusion seems natural. Both the Populism of the 1890s and the 1930s movements occurred during times of severe economic distress, while Progressivism developed during a most prosperous period. Additionally, agrarian radicalism shared with Long and Coughlin a certain angry tone that Progressivism often lacked.

However, there are several reasons why a comparison could have proved fruitful for Brinkley’s study. Progressivism, like Long and Coughlin, enjoyed an urban base of support to a much greater extent than Populism. Progressivism also drew large middle-class support, while Brinkley found that both 1930s movements had an “essentially middle-class nature.” Any continuities between Progressivism and the Long and Coughlin phenomena regarding supporters or program would probably have been instructive. Most importantly, though, Progressivism represents the most significant attempt to reform American politics and economy in the time between Populism and Huey Long – that crucial period when, according to Brinkley, modern corporate capitalism was consolidating its centralized grip on American society. If we are to understand Long and Coughlin as voices crying out in a wilderness of centralization, then a comparison with activism and dissent in the time when such a condition taking shape would have strengthened Brinkley’s argument.

Judging from Voices of Protest, the more significant obstacle to either Huey Long or Charles Coughlin achieving revolutionary success in Depression America looks like Franklin D. Roosevelt. Brinkley showed the famously shrewd President coopting all of the best ideas of the most popular dissidents of the 1930s – well enough, at least, to assure reelection and ward off a revolution. Coughlin had urged the United States government to abandon the gold standard and thoroughly revamp the financial system; Roosevelt took America off the gold standard. Long had argued for confiscatory tax policies that would transfer wealth from the nation’s millionaires to the poor and middle classes; Roosevelt backed a much less extreme, but still progressive tax system in early 1936. When Francis E. Townsend’s idea of pensions for elderly Americans captured the public imagination, Roosevelt reluctantly endorsed the Social Security plan.

Men like Long, Coughlin, and Townsend cannot be fully credited with moving the President toward these measures, but many of them appeared as the 1936 election loomed and some observers fretted over the potential impact of the Louisiana Senator and the radio priest on the poll. Alan Brinkley surely credited Roosevelt’s dexterity in responding to radical demands with helping nix the hopes of Coughlin and company, but this factor does not play so crucial a role in his argument as the hopelessness of decentralization politics in a centralized society does.

All the same, the achievements of Voices of Protest far outweigh the shortcomings. A viable revolutionary challenge to American institutions never materialized during the Depression, and seeing Father Coughlin and Huey Long as men who struggled against economic changes too advanced to be reversed helps us understand why two of the most promising would-be demagogues ultimately were not. What Zaki Khalid saw as relative tranquility, Alan Brinkley understood to be struggle and futility. He may have overemphasized some aspects of their thinking to the exclusion of others, but Brinkley deserves credit for the more fundamental work of rescuing two figures from being misunderstood as eccentrics or, worse, fanatics of a fascist stripe. Brinkley moved Long and Coughlin from the margins of political discourse nearer to the center, revealing a meaningful place for their politics in the long-term development of American society.

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