Seventy-three years after a white-suited Huey Long was assassinated in Baton Rouge, the iron-fisted Louisiana governor is all the rage in Barack Obama's Washington. At a time when a crash course in the New Deal has supplanted Watergate studies as the capital's requisite history lesson, attention is suddenly being paid to the Kingfish, as well as radio priest Father Charles Coughlin, the two leading 1930s tribunes of little-man economic anger. When you sit down with Obama insiders, Long's name pops up in one conversation, Coughlin's in the next. "You have to remember," says one Obama adviser, "Huey Long and left-wing populism were a much bigger problem for Franklin Roosevelt than the Republicans."
Comments like this underscore the historical reality that tough times can create irrational politics. Obama is obviously not graying or praying over the threat of a third-party challenge like the one that Long was preparing to mount against FDR in 1936. In fact, the real threat to the Obama administration may come from a corrosive anti-establishment rage that does not fit into any pre- existing political category.
Long--who dabbled at being a United States senator when he wasn't home running Louisiana from the floor of the state legislature--was the Pied Piper of class-based resentment, Hugo Chavez with a Southern accent. A large part of it was the easy-money allure of his "Share Our Wealth" plan. Long called for confiscatory taxation of all personal wealth over $8 million and outlandishly claimed that this swag from the Mellons and Rockefellers would finance a generous $5,000 grant to every U.S. household augmented by annual payments of at least $2,000. Father Coughlin (whose anti-Semitism was still muted during the early New Deal period) represented something even more potent--anti-banker, anti-Wall Street, conspiracy-theory-driven anger. Breaking with FDR in late 1934, Coughlin's radio-broadcast sermons from the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan, offered little in the way of coherent economic theory (his anti-capitalist ideal was vaguely akin to Mussolini's Italy), but was masterful at channeling the rage of his listeners at the shadowy international bankers.
This time around, demagoguery does not have to be particularly creative in concocting economic villains, since Central Casting has obligingly provided a rogue's gallery from the executive suites at Citigroup, AIG, Merrill Lynch and Bank of America. The kindling is there for a bonfire (or is it a bond fire?) of Wall Street's vanities. All it takes is a match. As Bob Borosage, the co-director of the left-of-center Campaign for America's Future, points out, "If the Roosevelt era is any parallel, you'll get both a left-wing populism and a right-wing populism. It was not just Huey Long, it was also Father Coughlin. There is an anger out there that is populist and will take right-wing and left-wing forms. And politicians on each end of the political parties--aided by populist rabble-rousers--will start to stoke this anger and move it."
Normally, the party out of power would be poised to exploit the undertone of uneasiness in the public mood. But, as Democratic pollster Mark Mellman points out with audible satisfaction, "When you have a populism that is anti-bank, anti-Republican and anti-business, it is hard to see what the right-wing component of that is." The punch-drunk Republicans (who only command the allegiance of 26 percent of the voters in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll) may prove as irrelevant to the national debate over the next few years as Alf Landon and company were during FDR's first term.
At the same time, unlike Democratic predecessors like Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter, Obama does not have to brood about a political threat from his left flank. Even Vermont's independent socialist Senator Bernie Sanders offers praise for the new president: "I think, in general, Barack Obama is doing a very good job." For Capitol Hill left-wingers like Sanders, the emphasis is less on pressuring Obama and more on shining a spotlight on Wall Street for its rule of ruin. "We need a real investigation--not a sham investigation--about how this crisis did occur and who were the people pushing subprime loans and who were the people who fought for deregulation," Sanders says. "We need a real investigation and we need to hold people accountable."
Still, while it is a safe bet that neither Michael Steele's hip-hop Republicanism nor far-left anti-capitalist demagoguery is the wave of the future, that is about all we know with confidence about voter attitudes. The lasting psychological ramifications of the economic collapse cannot yet fully be understood because the loss of traditional financial cushions (retirement savings, the appreciated value of a home, the time-honored annual raise) is simply too raw and recent. Republican pollster David Winston, who has watched more than his share of focus groups from behind one-way glass walls, captures the way that the political world has tilted off its axis: "What you're seeing in the public right now is not anger but terror. They don't know who to believe. They just know it's bad." Winston adds, "The political system is still learning how to respond to an electorate that is terrified."
But terror may be turning gradually into fury. A sense of the growing ire of voters toward Wall Street comes from the Harris Poll, which has been charting public attitudes toward the financial community for more than a decade. Asked in late February whether "most successful people on Wall Street deserve to make the kind of money they earn," only 30 percent of those surveyed said yes, as opposed to 51 percent in 1997. Moreover, only 26 percent of Americans in the February 2009 Harris Poll believed that "people on Wall Street are as honest and moral as other people." (In the 1997 survey, that figure was 51 percent.)
That other 74 percent are the Americans to whom Obama spoke when he warned in his address to Congress, "We cannot afford to govern out of anger" and pledged, "I will not spend a single penny for the purpose of rewarding a single Wall Street executive." The public view in the Obama camp is that the voters--with the help of a little inspirational leadership from the president--recognize that the twin lions of patience and fortitude are required at this time of national testing. As Obama pollster Joel Benenson says, "Every piece of polling data I've seen--public or internal--shows that the American people understand the complexity of the problem and how it will take a longer time to fix than we're used to."
But the reality is that apolitical populism--a spasmodic outpouring of ideologically incoherent rage--could easily drown Obama's inevitable request for more bank bailout funds. The White House, according to insiders, is very concerned that pitchfork-wielding voters are already raging against any future bailouts of the banking industry or even Detroit. Mellman, whose polling clients are on Capitol Hill, says, "People are angry. And the angrier they get, the greater are the limits to political action on behalf of the banks." As a result, the contours of Tim Geithner's rescue scheme may not matter, though recent history suggests that the details will only be comprehensible to those with Ph.D.s in Rube Goldberg Studies. Rahm Emanuel's ability to browbeat recalcitrant House Democrats may not matter. Nor will Harry Reid's likely fecklessness in the face of a Republican filibuster.
None of this, of course, is inevitable. But conventional political metrics like Obama's approval rate can blind us to how easily anxiety can be transformed into anger and apoplexy. Faced with the parched economic landscape and the ruins of the once proud towers of personal financial security, many voters are as bewildered as the character Muley in the movie version of The Grapes of Wrath who cannot figure out who to blame for being forced off the land by the foreclosure of his farm. He's told that it is not really the sheriff, the land agent, or even the bank in Tulsa. "Then," Muley asks, "who do we shoot?"
Walter Shapiro has covered the last eight presidential elections.
By Walter Shapiro