In the South, the politics of culture still show ‘Huey Long’ gap

Huey LongI’ve always found the story of the late Louisiana Gov. and U.S. Sen. Huey P. Long to be a fascinating tale of the shifting power and potential of America in the early half of the 20th Century. My favorite book is “All the King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren and, while I agree with Warren that the story is *not* a veiled biography of Long, as some suggested, it is certainly a political tale set in Long’s world.

I don’t claim to know much about Louisiana politics beyond what I’ve learned in studying Long or gleaned from listening to James Carville spout off on cable TV. Like most of the Deep South, the conversion of the state from overwhelmingly Democratic to overwhelmingly Republican is nearly complete. Long’s brand of populist wealth redistribution would have no place in today’s Republican party. That change seems, thus, to be purely cultural. Rural, working poor, especially whites, were comfortable with Long. He spoke their language. And even though he eliminated the poll tax and tried to include African Americans in his “Share Our Wealth” message, they didn’t yet feel threatened by that fact, because segregation was still de facto law.

This is something friend-of-the-blog Chris Saunders shows quite clearly in a pair of election map graphics.

GRAPHIC: Chris Saunders

GRAPHIC: Chris Saunders

In 1930, Gov. Huey Long defied his critics by saying he’d put himself on the Democratic primary ballot against incumbent Sen. Joseph E. Ransdell, a longtime foe, as a referendum on his policies. Long clocked the political veteran Ransdell, with huge margins from the large working class of the bayou state shown here. After winning, Long didn’t even go to Washington to serve for more than a year, tending to his state agenda and arguing that even an empty seat was better than Ransdell. See the map. Those are poor, rural places where Long wins by the most.

Here we see the same map, only featuring the 2014 race between incumbent Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu and the man who would win the election, GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy.

GRAPHIC: Chris Saunders

GRAPHIC: Chris Saunders

The map is striking, mostly for being an inversion of the first map. To be clear, there probably isn’t a soul alive who voted in both elections. So it’s not that people “left” one party. It’s that culture and demographics shifted.

In Long’s time, when you were working hard but never getting ahead, you petitioned the government to give you schools, roads and services — jobs and training for the kids. Because of segregation, white people had no problem with this because black people were simply excluded from the whole situation. Now, it’s the opposite. If you’re down and out when you’re white, you’re told it’s the government’s fault. You put your faith and confidence in your employer, if you have one. Six of this, half a dozen of the other. The policy differences inherent in these two world views are stark, but they happened because the white working class became uncomfortable with the social policies and multiculturalism of the post 1964 Democratic Party.

If you want to know how politics and ambition can create prosperity and corruption all at once, read “All the King’s Men.” It’s read well at every stage of my life so far. Meantime, folks are still poor in the Huey Long strongholds of Louisiana, never mind their color. I doubt that gets better until people realize that it isn’t about color. If a person doesn’t have money, the only true power he or she has is the vote.

That’s true everywhere. And you don’t need Huey to tell you that.

A republic, if you can keep it.

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