In this essay, the author will discuss the importance of Huey Long and Father Coughlin in shaping the course of the New Deal. Since Brinkley also mentions Charles Townsend's social security ideas, it will also be necessary to consider them as well. It is the author's position that Alan Brinkley is largely correct that these individuals forced the president Franklin Delano Roosevelt to move left in 1935. Evidence will be presented to support this position. The urbane, pragmatic president looked with fear upon the above extremist figures and found it necessary to craft a third way between the extremes and a leftward drift was necessary to achieve this.
While this essay comprises principally a comparison of Brinkley and Rauchway, it is necessary to consider Long's writings themselves and the impact that they had upon the American political landscape. In 1934 Huey Long created "Share Our Wealth," a national challenger that sought economic redistribution. Our study explores the outcomes of this insurgency and the reasons for its successes and failures. We first review perspectives on success for social protest movements and provide a new definition of success, based on securing collective goods for a beneficiary group through movement organization efforts. Next we elaborate a "political mediation" theory of movement success. This theory holds that to be successful a movement organization must do more than just mobilize supporters and engage in collective action. Political conditions must also be favorable to winning new advantages. We then examine historical information about national policymaking in Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and quantitative data on spending by the Works Progress Administration. To assess the influence of Share Our Wealth, we analyze a secret poll undertaken by the Roosevelt Administration. The historical and quantitative analyses indicate that Share Our Wealth achieved partial success in ways that support the political mediation theory (Amenta, Dunleavy and Bernstein 1994, 698-699).
To give more ammunition to Brinkley's treatment of dissident voices such as Long and Coughlin, one must not ignore William Dudley Pelley of the Silver Shirts and the more extreme reaction that it prompted from FDR. Pelley was also a committed Protestant and opponent of FDR and the New Deal. Pelley later founded the American Christian Party and ran for president in 1936. His pro-fascist stance and advocacy for Nazi Germany angered Roosevelt and his administration. The Justice Departmentc drew up charges were against the Silver Shirts in 1940. His headquarters were raided by federal marshals, his followers there arrested, and his property seized. Pelley was called to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) regarding his pro-fascist activities. Like British Fascist Sir Oswald Moseley, the reactions he prompted eclipsed his minuscule attempts to overturn the American system . Certainly in this author's opinion, it is logical to assume that FDR "got his legs" so to speak in his earlier battles with Long and Coughlin. The Long and Coughlin experiences likely provided a blueprint for the later duel with Pelley (Beekman 2006, vi-iv).
Despite various programs administered by FDR's administration, the Depression slump stubbornly persisted every year thereafter until the beginning of World War II provided jobs for millions of unemployed Americans and completely ended the Great Depression (Guisepi 2001). Roosevelt and his cabinet advisors were not the only ones trying to cure the country of its economic ills and problems. During the early through mid 1930s, there were several dissident social movements that exploded onto the American scene, all promising an end to the Great Depression. In addition to populist demagoguery, Long and Coughlin also proposed radical economic reforms that put the modest proposals of the New Deal to shame in terms of scope and magnitude. Both individuals saw the need to adopt extremist measures to ail extreme ills. (Amenta, Dunleavy and Bernstein 1994, 678-681).
Long was not simply a Louisiana or a purely southern personality. By1936, he had more than a mathematical shot at the presidency. He had created a national organization and had every intention of making a serious bid for the office of President of the United States. FDR commissioned a poll conducted by the Democratic National Committee DNC) that showed Long pulling as large a percentage of the vote as George Wallace or Ross Perot did in our more recent Presidential election returns. The support was not limited to states of the South. For example, the DNC poll showed Long in Massachusetts getting more than 13% of the vote (Brinkley 1983, 284-286).
In many ways the Great Depression marked a watershed event for the American society. FDR's New Deal policies significantly changed the function and magnitude of the federal government via a host of social programs that were designed to revive and stimulate America's ailing economy. The administration engaged in a restructuring of the banking system complete with restrictions on the stock markets via the enactment Glass-Steagall Act. Additionally, it increased the size and scope of the federal bureaucracy and engaged in the creation of a nascent social welfare system via the Social Security Act. (Guisepi 2001).
Brinkley discusses Long's early life in his native Winn Parish, a Louisiana county with an extremely long history of radical dissent dating back to the Populist Era. He further maintains that this background filled Long with a fondness for the common man, Brinkley then outlines the Kingfish's rise to power via the governorship of Louisiana and his eventual advance into the United States Senate. Long was a corrupt machine politician that ran his state like his own personal fiefdom, even after he went to Washington. Long's political machine controlled all government jobs in the state and he made ample use of this consummate power to pack the Louisiana state government with cronies who would do his bidding. By the time Senator Long proposed his "Share Our Wealth" snake oil, he had his eager eyes on the Oval Office. His plans for America died with him at the time an assassin's bullet felled the Kingfish in the Louisiana Statehouse in 1935 (Brinkley 1983, 70).
Charles Coughlin spent his youth in Canada and eventually gravitated to the priesthood, moving to Royal Oak, Michigan in the 1920s. When his new church needed to raise money to pay off a Roman Cathoic diocesan loan, he started a program on radio station WJR in Detroit. In beginning, the program was made up of short, harmless sermons. With the start of the Great Depression, Father Coughlin's broadcasts quickly assumed immense political dimensions. The tenor of his voice, described by many in the audience as one of the most arresting sounds ever heard on the airwaves, rapidly expanded the size of his audience. As donations of money poured in, Father Coughlin expanded his radio network into a large personal empire. By the mid 1930s, he was one of the most prominent public figures in America, a man who was looked up to by millions and was a frequent guest at FDR's White House. The priest and the president soon fell out over several issues. Coughlin then took out his revenge on Roosevelt by his formation the National Union for Social Justice and the Union Party to unseat FDR in the 1936 elections. Coughlin failed in 1936 and in a sign of decreasing popularity, he bitterly and wholeheartedly embraced anti-Semitism and pro-German sympathies before the Catholic Church forced his retirement from public life in the early 1940s. Coughlin died in virtual obscurity in 1979 (Brinkley 1983, 269-283).
Brinkley adroitly and convincingly analyzes both the Long and Coughlin movements thereby explaining how the two men amassed such huge audiences with their populist rhetoric. The Great Depression according to Brinkley exposed the inherent flaws in a fundamental economic and social shift that had been going on in America for decades. The centralization and bureaucratization of both business and government threatened the traditional American ideas about the importance of local and state control. Long and Coughlin adroitly played on America's economically induced fears by proposing programs that would restore substantial power to local communities and to individuals. These programs ultimately failed because the economic move towards centralization had already gone on for too long. Also, the two men's ideas contained many seeds of contradiction. Long and Coughlin proposed big government schemes as a means of achieving their goals to help the little man. The attempt to turn Share Our Wealth and the National Union for Social Justice into nationwide political parties failed precisely because of this focus on localization and the inability on the part of the two demagogues to address core issues of the problems that they attacked (that is, economic centralization) (Brinkley 1983144-145).
What Brinkley barely mentions but that also bolsters his argument considerably was that these movements empowered millions of Americans into the political life of the country at a time when political participation was enormously important. Also, the dissident movements in the United States pushed FDR further than he would have normally done to create important pieces of legislation during his second term as president. For example, Social Security,…