It’ll be nineteen years this fall since I published my review of T. Harry Williams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Huey Long in the first issue of Plant’s Review of Books. The country at that time was in the grips of an economic downturn that had cast a pall on the off-the-chart job approval ratings then-President George H.W. Bush had in the aftermath of the Gulf War. Rumblings of populism were shaking Washington DC, with a down-South governor from Arkansas named Bill Clinton and the seemingly-too-caffineated Ross Perot chipping away at the adminstration. It’s just that simple, as Perot said many a time.
Times then seemed a bit tough, but they don’t compare to the situation now. Even endless wars in the Middle East and Southwest Asia can’t distract the public from nearly two more decades of decline in the health of American households. Everyone’s a man (or woman) of the people during election season: MIchelle Bachmann and the couple dozen foster kids she maintained (she must have gotten to know them real well); Rick Perry, shootin’ coyotes while he’s out for a run; even Barack Obama, who starts talking in his “aw, shucks” voice and rolling up his sleeves out on the hustings. I think that deep down Rick Santorum is probably trying to be a populist, but he’s so alien that he just can’t pull it off. Ron Paul’s basically channeling Perot’s wired demeanor. Not so much a man of the people as the crazy uncle you can’t get away from at Thanksgiving.
Every year at this time since 2005, I’ve marked the passing of a real populist: Huey Long. Long died on 10 September 1935 after being shot two days earlier. My review of the Williams biography has been on the web for so long that it’s on the first page of results of a Google search for “huey long”. This year, as in most, I’d like to invoke his “Share Our Wealth” plan that riled up even the “job-creators” willing to go along with FDR’s economic agenda.
From Every Man a King: The Autobiography of Huey P. Long by Huey P. Long, 1933
THE MADDENED FORTUNE HOLDERS AND THEIR
INFURIATED PUBLIC PRESS!
The increasing fury with which I have been and am to be, assailed by reason of the fight and growth of support for limiting the size of fortunes can only be explained by the madness which human nature attaches to the holders of accumulated wealth.
What I have proposed is:—
THE LONG PLAN
1. A capital levy tax on the property owned by any one person of 1% of all over $1,000,000 [dp: $14,275,000 in 2005 dollars]; 2% of all over $2,000,000 [$28,550,000] etc., until, when it reaches fortunes of over $10,000,000 [$145,750,000], the government takes all above that figure; which means a limit on the size of any one man’s fortune to something like $50,000,000 [$728,750,000]—the balance to go to the government to spread out in its work among all the people.
2. An inheritance tax which does not allow one man to make more than $5,000,000 [$78,582,000] in a lifetime without working for it, all over that amount to go to the government to be spread among the people for its work.
3. An income tax which does not allow any one man to make more than $1,000,000 [$15,716,000] in one year, exclusive of taxes, the balance to go to the United States for general work among the people.
The forgoing program means all taxes paid by the fortune holders at the top and none by the people at the bottom; the spreading of wealth among all the people and the breaking up of a system of Lords and Slaves in our economic life. It allows the millionaires to have, however, more than they can use for any luxury they can enjoy on earth. But, with such limits, all else can survive.
That the public press should regard my plan and effort as a calamity and me as a menace is no more than should be expected, gauged in the light of past events. According to Ridpath, the eminent historian:
“The ruling classes always possess the means of information and the processes by which it is distributed. The newspaper of modern times belongs to the upper man. The under man has no voice; or if, having a voice, his cry is lost like a shout in the desert. Capital, in the places of power, seizes upon the organs of public utterance, and howls the humble down the wind. Lying and misrepresentation are the natural weapons of those who maintain an existing vice and gather the usufruct of crime.”
—Ridpath’s History of the World, Page 410.
In 1932, the vote for my resolution showed possibly a half dozen other Senators back of it. It grew in the last Congress to nearly twenty Senators. Such growth through one other year will mean the success of a venture, the completion of everything I have undertaken,—the time when I can and will retire from the stress and fury of public life, maybe as my forties begin,—a contemplation so serene as to appear impossible.
That day will reflect credit on the States whose Senators took the early lead to spread the wealth of the land among all the people.
Then no tear dimmed eyes of a small child will be lifted into the saddened face of a father or mother unable to give it the necessities required by its soul and body for life; then the powerful will be rebuked in the sight of man for holding what they cannot consume, but which is craved to sustain humanity; the food of the land will feed, the raiment clothe, and the houses shelter all the people; the powerful will be elated by the well being of all, rather than through their greed.
Then those of us who have pursued that phantom of Jefferson, Jackson, Webster, Theodore Roosevelt and Bryan may hear wafted from their lips in Valhalla:
EVERY MAN A KING