Alan Brinkley: Railing Against the Rich ... A Great American Tradition





[Alan Brinkley is the Allan Nevins professor of history and the provost at Columbia University.]

The Great Depression of the 1930s created hardship and suffering among millions of Americans. It also created populist resentment of elites. Among the many signs of this anger was the astonishing popularity of Huey P. Long, governor of Louisiana and then U.S. senator, a figure so dominant in his own state that his enemies called him a dictator. But to the ordinary people of Louisiana -- and later to millions of ordinary people across the U.S. -- Mr. Long was a heroic figure, fighting for the "common man" and challenging the right of elites to monopolize power and wealth.

Starting in 1933, Mr. Long created a national organization called the "Share Our Wealth Society." He publicized it through his frequent national radio broadcasts (with time provided free by timid network executives), and through his many speeches before many audiences. His goal, he claimed, was a radical redistribution of wealth. Every needy American would receive a "household estate" of $5,000 (almost $80,000 in 2008 dollars), an annual wage of $2,500 ($40,000 in 2008 dollars), and other benefits. This great boon would be financed by high taxes on people making over $1 million. There would be an $8 million cap, with everything above that confiscated for redistribution. The plan was economically, and probably politically, impossible. But the inability of a wealthy nation to provide jobs and support to millions of citizens made Mr. Long's proposal appealing and persuasive. "Let no one tell you that it is difficult to redistribute the wealth of this land," he told a radio audience in 1934. "It is simple."

Whether or not we are now entering a new Great Depression, we are almost certainly entering a period in which resentment of financial and corporate titans will increase, and in which many politicians will feel they have no choice but to join the chorus of denunciation -- perhaps even a president with almost unprecedented approval ratings as he begins his term. In the 1930s, the popularity of "big business" -- high in the prosperous 1920s -- dropped dramatically, even catastrophically, and did not revive until the corporate world recovered its wealth in World War II. In the meantime, the wealthy and powerful encountered challenges that make President Barack Obama's $500,000 salary cap on companies seeking federal assistance seem pale by comparison....

But the longer the crisis goes on and the deeper it grows, the more Huey Long-like challenges to those in power will arise, and the more pressure there will be for national leaders to launch populist battles of their own.

Whether that would help or hurt the Obama administration is hard to predict. In 1896, in the midst of another great depression, the Democratic party chose as its candidate the great populist hero William Jennings Bryan. His crushing defeat ushered in 36 years of almost unbroken Republican rule. In 1936, at the height of Franklin Roosevelt's populist rhetoric, his landslide re-election helped solidify a comparable period of Democratic dominance. Cultural populism has been a staple of the right since at least 1968, and it has alternately helped, and badly hurt, conservative candidates and causes. Economic populism has the same capacity either to bring down the president's ambitious agenda or, if handled skillfully, to open up opportunities for greater change than he may yet have imagined.


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Arnold A Offner - 2/14/2009

I understand Alan Brinkley's concern that Americans try to avoid engaging in misguided economic populism because that might prove harmful to President Barack Obama's administration and negate the best chance for liberal reform we have seen in decades. But it would be shortsighted not to engage directly the "malefactors of wealth," to wit the leaders of the U.S. financial institutions who have exploited (plundered?) the system and nation for their own benefit and left a trail of national (and human) devastation. Surely there must be some way of making those who packaged and those collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps--knowing full well it was all illusory, if not just financial garbage--while paying themselves enormous salaries and bonuses, including secretly and ahead of schedule as per the Merrill Lynch executives. In short, waltzing around the crimes they have committed and saying we need them to run our system hardly offers justice or recompense to the people of this nation who have seen their country and lives despioled by the greed of entrenched bankers and others who mistook themselves for privileged barons.

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