huey long

Last week, I wrote that populism does not have the money, power or infrastructure that libertarianism does. Still, populism presents a significant enough threat that, on Tuesday, the New York Times thought to publish Mr. Curtis Wilkie’s attack on historical and contemporary Southern populism. His charges deserve a response, and I’m going to have to do that here, because I notice that his Times column (unlike most Times columns) was closed to any commenters. Hmm, I wonder why?

Wilkie warns darkly that recent electoral successes and near-successes by the Tea Party raise

an important question for Southern voters: Will they remember their history well enough to reject the siren song of nativism and populism that has won over the region so often before?

We often think of the typical segregationist politician of yore as a genteel member of the white upper crust. But the more common mode was the fiery populist. Names like Thomas E. Watson of Georgia, “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of South Carolina and James K. Vardaman and Theodore G. Bilbo of Mississippi may be obscure outside the South, but for most anyone brought up here, they loom large.

Interesting that Wilkie omits the name Huey P. Long…throughout his article. To exclude Governor Long from a list of fiery populists is like making a list of 1960s civil rights leaders that includes Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael but forgets about Martin Luther King. When it comes to Southern populist crusaders, to carry forward the analogy that the Times was peddling in last week’s magazine cover story, Long was Nirvana, and Vardaman and Bilbo were Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins, at best. Teaching the history means teaching that most Southern populists tried to be Long; they often fell short.

Wilkie’s exclusion is very deliberate, a conscious strategy to avoid counter-arguments from Long’s many admirers…including anyone who’s seen the Best Picture Oscar-winning All the King’s Men (1949). Wilkie names people who can’t defend themselves, who don’t have active websites…unlike Huey Long, whose site’s popularity is proven by the fact that it comes up first on a google search (before the Wikipedia entry). Check it out! Huey Long was the hallowed voice of the common man, of the people, against Wall Street, establishment Democrats, and Republicans. I should warn you that reading him now is a little heartbreaking; there’s no elected politician now with half of Long’s prominence confronting both parties.

The main reason Wilkie excludes Huey Long is that he doesn’t have any racist quotes on his record. Long couldn’t afford to be (publicly) racist; he was governor of Louisiana, a state where blacks were (and are) more numerous, and more enfranchised, than in most of the South. After he was murdered in 1935, preventing what some saw as an inevitable populist march to the Presidency, entrenched interests took over, not unlike what happened in California the year earlier, when progressive Upton Sinclair and his EPIC (End Poverty in California) campaign lost to Frank Merriam.

Wilkie’s main point is that populism leads to racism. He charges the Tea Party with this…though perhaps trying to be less incendiary, he writes, “Racism has been replaced with nativism in their demands for immigration restrictions, but the animosity toward the ‘other’ is the same.” He expects us, the New York Times readership, to accept this prima facie, without bothering to source it; what’s the matter, Mr. Wilkie, couldn’t find a supporting quote on even one Tea Party website?

Warning of historical populism, Wilkie writes,

In “The Mind of the South,” still in print seven decades after it was published, W. J. Cash wrote that populist forces in the region were driven by “the rage and frustration of men intolerably oppressed by conditions which they did not understand and which they could not control.” And A. D. Kirwan’s 1951 history, “Revolt of the Rednecks,” traced the political rise of the Mississippi racists Vardaman and Bilbo to the disillusionment of white farmers who felt “forgotten” and singled out by “an enemy class” of Wall Street speculators and railroad owners backed by big government. The economic struggle, Kirwan wrote, was “complicated by the Negro,” who became a victim of the politicians’ zeal to prevent blacks from holding any power.

This is supposed to warn us of something? Cash was absolutely right, and a majority of Americans today feel some of that same frustration. Kirwan’s disillusioned farmers were right about Wall Street and business owners! Yes, their party may have elevated some racists to power, but let’s be honest: how many of Vardaman and Bilbo’s opponents in Mississippi’s elections of the 1930s never said a racist thing, never treated their black servants like chattel? Wilkie seems unknowingly right to cite Kirwan’s point that the working class’s economic struggle was “complicated by the Negro” – yes indeed, if it wasn’t for the racism, it would be hard for us to find their struggle objectionable.

Wilkie is right that the politicians he names were racists. And I’m not going to pretend that everything can be excused by saying it was a different time and that they were all born in the 19th century (though they were). But he makes absolutely no case that Southern populism necessarily requires racism – at best, his link is associative, not causal. In many ways, the faults in Wilkie’s essay are well-explained by Richard Hofstadter’s timeless essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics. If your speech says, “They don’t care about you! They’re not men of God, or men of freedom! They want to keep everything for themselves and leave you as little as possible!” you’re going to be right about much of the moneyed class (excepting a few Andrew Carnegies and Warren Buffetts), and wrong about blacks – but of course some of your supporters are going to miss that nuance. The truth is that for 100 years after the Civil War, the Democratic Party beat the Republican Party in the South partly by appealing to racism coded as “they want your stuff” – what today we call “dog whistles.” His criticism basically applies to all pre-World War II Democrats, not that he wants you to understand that nuance. If you did, you’d (rightly) extrapolate his argument to all current Republicans – and as with Huey Long, Wilkie is trying to avoid that blowback.

Not that Wilkie is against all Republicans; based on this essay, he probably admires Southern centrists like Bobby Jindal and Lindsey Graham. Actually, Wilkie’s essay reeks of love for the establishment. He might have had a more coherent argument if he’d said, “Granted, events of 2008 made many into skeptics of Wall Street and both major parties, but this goes beyond…” No. Wilkie doesn’t bother to defend the practices of high finance and their lapdogs, the Democrats and the Republicans; he just assumes we’ll agree with them. He claims to be so concerned about racism; if we listened to him, how might things have gone differently in Ferguson, Missouri this week? That bit of police-state-ism was the result of legislation passed by the major parties, whereby used military equipment gets sent to police, under conditions that include the requirement that it gets used within a year. One reason that wouldn’t happen in other civilized countries is that they have powerful third parties who aren’t always trying to win a zero-sum electoral game by currying favor with the Pentagon and local police departments. A populist party like that of Huey Long or William Jennings Bryan begins by asking of any policy: does it preserve our rights? Does it help 51% of Americans? Is it favored by 51% of Americans? If the answers to all three of those are yes, it’s almost certainly worth fighting for. I don’t see how the current actions of the police in Ferguson are helping, or approved by, majorities of Americans. Wilkie has some high-minded examples of historical racism, but he’s ignoring the facts on the ground.

Are there racists in the Tea Party? Sure, probably. Wise, dispassionate analysts, like Nate Silver and Ralph Nader (yes), recognize that the Tea Party is too multifaceted to be pigeonholed as any one thing, including racist. (And frankly, a lot of Tea Party supporters are getting rightfully tired of people shouting “racist” any time they open their mouths. It’s a boring way to end arguments on the internet and in real life.) Is there some danger that today’s populists will shout “they want to take everything away from you” so much that too many racists will believe it? Well, perhaps. But a group of right-wing populists can only go so far as to knock out the random Eric Cantor or two. Today, populists on the right will have to join with populists on the left and middle to make a difference. Rather than unify around paranoia, they’ll have to unify around something like this. Reading Wilkie, you wouldn’t think there’s any possibility of populism without racism.

In conclusion, Curtis Wilkie willfully misreads history. In the 1930s, an anti-authority figure like Upton Sinclair in California had almost no way of forming any kind of alliance with the anti-authority Huey Long in Louisiana; there was no television or internet to connect them or their supporters. I’ll admit that it’s disheartening to compare 1929 and 2008, the two times our economy cratered because of establishment mistakes; in the early 30s, people weren’t overly loyal to parties, but these days, too many people are bunkered and hunkered down with one of the two parties. This is mostly because of money, because each of the two parties has spent so much to get you to fear the other one. But as they keep making mistakes, as Congress and the President’s approval ratings sink, as that number of non-party-aligned continues to grow (now at 42% of Americans, per Gallup)…the possibility of some kind of modern Sinclair-Long alliance grows. But we have to make sure we don’t listen to people like Curtis Wilkie.