The Long Way Left…

“Ev’ry man a king ev’ry man a king
For you can be a millionaire
But there’s something belonging to others
There’s enough for all people to share
When it’s sunny June and December too
Or in the winter time or spring
There’ll be peace without end
Ev’ry neighbor a friend
With ev’ry man a king”- Every Man a King

On April 8th, Sen. Bernie Sanders officially suspended his presidential campaign and effectively ceded the Democratic presidential nomination to former vice president Joe Biden. This was the senator’s second unsuccessful attempt to secure the nomination. After a strong showing in Iowa and New Hampshire, the Sanders campaign met with a series of devastating defeats starting in South Carolina on February 29th.

Many political pundits attribute the campaign’s derailment to the senator’s embrace of the title ‘democratic socialist’. Sanders’ brand of democratic socialism included housing for all, universal child care, the Green New Deal, and Medicare for all. But, to many Americans, the word socialist invokes images of the former Soviet Union, brutal dictators, and impoverished masses.

The words socialist and socialism may be seen as pejoratives today, but there was a time when American politicians openly used left-wing populist rhetoric and advocated political agendas that many would define as socialist. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said “the Social Security Act offers to all citizens a workable and working method of meeting urgent present needs and of forestalling future need. And utilizes the familiar machinery of our Federal-state government to promote the common welfare and the economic stability of the nation.”

When Roosevelt took office in 1933, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. His New Deal sought to create policies that provided a social safety net for many Americans and, in the political context of their time, appear much more aggressive than anything Sanders has proposed. The National Industrial Recovery Act guaranteed collective bargaining and unionization for American workers. The National Labor Relations Act prevented businesses from treating their workers unfairly and the Social Security Act guaranteed pensions, unemployment insurance, and child care assistance for the disabled.

Roosevelt also created the Works Progress Administration, which provided jobs to the unemployed to build government buildings, infrastructure, schools and provided work for artists & writers. Roosevelt said “the forces of organized money are unanimous in their hate for me and I welcome their hatred…I should like to have it said of my first Administration, that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration, that in it these forces have met their master.” Many of Roosevelt’s policies were described, by his opponents, as socialist, a term he fiercely rejected. However, one man felt that Roosevelt’s New Deal had not gone far enough.

“I was elected railroad commissioner of Louisiana in 1918 and they tried to impeach me in 1920. When they failed to impeach me in 1920, they indicted me in 1921. And when I wiggled through that I managed to become governor in 1928 and they impeached me in 1929” — Huey P. Long

Huey P. Long was a fiery, flamboyant, and brilliant political force from Louisiana. Long was an absolutely remarkable man. He, for nearly two years, was both Louisiana’s elected governor and senator. He completed only one year of law school at Tulane University but managed to convince the state to allow him to sit for the Bar Exam. He passed. In a time when southern white politicians sought to participate in racial politics, Long openly rejected the notion. “I’m for the poor man- all poor men, black and white, they all gotta have a chance. They got to have a home, a job, and a decent education for their children. “Every Man a King”- that’s my slogan.”

If any American politician could be accused of espousing socialist ideas, it would be Long. What Roosevelt’s New Deal sought to do for the country, Long’s “Every Man a King” platform, had done for Louisiana years prior. As governor, Long provided free textbooks for school children in Louisiana and opened night schools for adults, to increase the literacy rate. He increased taxes on industry and reduced taxes on poor farmers.

When scaled, Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration paled in comparison to Long’s ability to create employment through infrastructure improvements. He commissioned the paving of over 2,300 miles of streets and nearly 3,000 miles of gravel road. He also commissioned the building of 111 bridges.

He positioned himself as the poor man’s friend and proved this by taking on big business mainly the Standard Oil Company. When the corporations attempted to sue, Long acted as the attorney and argued on behalf of state. He won. He stated his goal was to make the wealthy oil industry pay for the improvements in education and infrastructure that the state desperately needed.

“The Democratic Party and the Republican Party are just like the old patent medicine drummer…He had two bottles of medicine. He would play a banjo and he would sell two bottles of medicine. One of those bottles of medicine was called “high popalowrum” and another one of those bottles of medicine was called “low popahighrum”. Finally somebody around there said ‘is there any difference in these medicines?’ He said, ‘that high popalowrum is made from the bark off the tree that we take from the top down. And that low popahighrum is made from the bark that we take from the root up.’ And the only difference that I have found between the Democratic leadership and the Republican leadership was that one of them was skinning from the ankle up and the other one from the ear down”- Huey P. Long

When Long finally made it to Congress, he initially supported Roosevelt and the New Deal. But soon his discontent began to grow. Long viewed Roosevelt as far too moderate and felt that he should embrace economic policies that forced a redistribution of wealth. Long called this idea his “Share the Wealth” program.

“According to the tables which we have assembled, it is our estimate that 4% of the American people own 85% of the wealth of America and that over 70% of the people of America, don’t own enough to pay the debts that they owe” Long said. Long viewed the nation as having an abundance of wealth but believed it was being hoarded by the hands of the rich. He railed against the likes of J.P. Morgan and John Rockefeller. He described the wealth of America as a great feast but argued that the rich had taken 85% of the food. Long said, “Now how are you going to feed the balance of the people?… We got to call Mr. Morgan and Mr. Mellon and Mr. Rockefeller…and say…put that stuff back on the table here…leave something else for the American people to consume.”

Before the federal government ever introduced a minimum wage, Long argued for a maximum wage. He wanted to cap the amount of wealth that individuals could accumulate. He believed this number to be 10 million dollars. He described his Share the Wealth program, as a way of providing every man with a home, food, education for his children and a job. Long is quoted as saying “if you allow the big man to have billions then all of us can’t have anything else. So we propose that none should be bigger than a 10 millionaire.”

Long had no party loyalty and many suspected that he would enter the 1936 presidential campaign as a third-party candidate. He argued that the Republican and Democratic Party leadership both disregarded the poor in favor of corporations. He called Democrat Franklin Roosevelt and Republican Herbert Hoover “the twin bed mates of disaster”.

Long was widely popular throughout the United States, especially with poor people who were struggling through the Great Depression. He had a team of thirty-two typist just to answer his fan mail. When he would speak on the radio, the station would be flooded with mail and calls. He used his considerable sway to get the first woman senator elected to serve a full term. His Democratic colleagues may have hated him but their constituents loved him. With his popularity and impassioned speeches, he managed to push Roosevelt more to the left of center. An assassin’s bullet ended Huey Long’s life in 1935 and with his death ended the last great movement of American socialism dressed as leftist populism.

This article was originally published on Medium

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