You hear it every day. It’s common knowledge. America is currently in one of the worst financial and social depressions of its modern era; unemployment in October 2011 was 13.897 million and the current total debt is estimated at over $15 Trillion. To be blunt, America is in tough financial times. Very tough times. But you knew that.
The more important issue is what will be done to solve the crisis and finally help America recover to at least pre-2008 levels of prosperity and employment. Will it be 4 more years of Obama? Or, the Mormon Mitt Romney? Perhaps, America will ride the Cain Train back to the Promised Lands? Only the Presidential Election of 2012 will answer this question.
Let’s be honest though, is there really that much of an ideological difference between these candidates? Does the electorate truly have a real sense of political choice, a representation of the whole political spectrum or are they simply being offered different personalities who represent a similar type of reactive politics, devoid of any real fundamental policies and envisions of radically different American society? Policies which would cause real change? Has the American political spectrum been shrunk, concerned more with pragmatism then policy implementation? I would contend that the American political spectrum has been shrunk and furthermore I will suggest that America has already seen this type of radically different and component leader and that unfortunately he was killed before he could actually change and alter the American political landscape. No, I’m not talking about JFK. I’m talking about Huey Long.
Who was Huey Long? Long was a prominent American politician in the 1920s and 1930s (coincidentally one of the last times America was in a serious financial and social depression – the so called ‘Great Depression’) in the state of Louisiana. He served as Governor of Louisiana for 4 years (1928 to 1932) and then as Senator from 1932 to 1935, when he was assassinated in his own State Capitol building. It was strongly believed that Long would have ran for the Presidency in 1936 and there is also a book attributed to him, titled “My First Days in the White House”.
What made Long so different to other politicians of his era and yet still so relevant to contemporary American politics? Firstly, it must be acknowledged that Long would be considered a poster boy for the ‘Occupy Wall Street Movement’ and a real protector of the 99%. How so? Firstly, there were Long’s populist policies which in true Rawlinson style were aimed at helping the worst affected; a PBS historian claims that “Huey Long made certain needed changes in his state that were beneficial to the “poorest of the poor”. Long’s Populist policies, his most famous being the ‘Share Our Wealth’ campaign, were centered around a reevaluation of wealth distribution and an attempt to lessen wealth inequalities, through a system of net asset taxation and earning ceilings on wealth. Sound familiar? Please note also that this was the 1930s, a time where the top 10% of American society controlled a very similar amount of the wealth as in contemporary American society (pages 2 and 7 illustrate the similarity compared to the majority of the 20th Century). Now, although not all of Long’s policies were practical or would be endorsed by the majority of contemporary American voters (an example would be the 30 working week, which is possibly a little too generous), his political agenda and intentions pertaining to social welfare and equality in American society would seemingly be wholeheartedly endorsed by a large proportion of Americans. Long was not a necessary a Socialist per say, yet it could be argued he encouraged restrictions and guidelines to be placed on America’s Capitalism, through the framework of Marxist warning concerning the evils of capitalistic inequality.
Take for example:
“To share our wealth by providing for every deserving family to have one third of the average wealth would mean that, at the worst, such a family could have a fairly comfortable home, an automobile, and a radio, with other reasonable home conveniences, and a place to educate their children. Through sharing the work, that is, by limiting the hours of toil so that all would share in what is made and produced in the land, every family would have enough coming in every year to feed, clothe, and provide a fair share of the luxuries of life to its members.” (Long, 1934)
As a politician, Long was an incredibly talented political force; a great demagogue, highly intelligent and famously acclaimed as a ‘man of the people’, yet he was also a walking catalogue of contradictions. For all his Marxist inspired policies of equality and ‘everyman being a kind but none wearing a crown’, Long was undoubtedly the King, the undisputed Prince of Louisiana; an Machiavellian Prince? He was, as Orwell would say, the ‘most equal of the equal’.
Long was Machiavellian due to his ‘enthusiasm’ for trying to implement changes at any cost to his own reputation and more cynically the state budget. Examples of this would be payoffs or bribes to other politicians or businessmen in order for construction of new state facilities (predominantly healthcare or education) to be started with minimal opposition and be completed quickly. Long is infamous for over paying for these facilities and it is widely known that much of his expenditure was spent in backhand deals, which many could consider to be corrupt. To be generous to Long, he worked on the principle that ‘ends justified the means’ and that end-independent normative constraints should be ignored and considered irrelevant. An example of this would be that in 1929, Long was impeached on charges of bribery and gross misconduct, hence evidences his over-excitement for implementation of his policies.
Long, probably more than any American politician of the 20th Century, was frequently willing to confront the dirty hands problem for the greater good of the poorest in his state. In his 1935 article for ‘The Nation’ magazine Raymond Swing claimed that “I do not know any man who has accomplished so much that I approve of in one state in four years, at the same time that he has done so much that I dislike”, this was essence of Huey Long. In effect, Long can be judged to justify his confronting of the dirty hands problem with Rawls’ principles of “the greatest good for the greatest number” (‘A Theory of Justice) coupled with his tendency to act as a Machiavellian Prince. In this respect, Long can also be seen to use the principles of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, in his attempts at implementing utilitarianism through his policy choice and seeming attempts at social engineering in Louisiana.
Yet, there is also one major difference between Huey Long and the fabled Machiavellian Prince, which concerns the nature of obtaining political mandates. Whilst Machiavelli stated that;
“Whether it is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved. It might be answered that we should wish to be both; but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.” (pg120)
Long rejected this and did not resort to ruling by fear, he wholeheartedly intended to rule by being loved by his people. I would argue that corruption for the good of the majority of the people and your own personal, political pragmatism is more moral then ruling by fear and suppression. Do you agree? Hence, in my eyes, Long could almost be observed as a Machiavellian King, rather than a Machiavellian Prince.
In conclusion, in my opinion, Long fully justifies Voltaire’s notion that “the best is the enemy of the good”; he was one of the most efficient and successful policy implementers of American political history, had periods of near uniramous popular support in Louisiana and could arguably have changed the face of the American political landscape if elected to the Oval Office. Yet, simultaneously Long was undoubtedly corrupt (to an extent), willing to sacrifice morality to broker a deal and moreover he was power thirsty and seemingly not the purist democrat that his rhetoric so often boasted. Long was unique, for better or for worse, a radically different political force then the candidates of 2012 and a true political visionary, who rejected the notion of reactive politics and tried to sculpt his own society through intentions and ideology.
In my opinion, it was a great tragedy that Huey Long’s political and social experiment was not witnessed at the national level. To me, Machiavelli’s claim that “in the actions of all men, and most of all of Princes, where there is no tribunal to which we can appeal, we look to results” (p.129), really justifies Long and his political methodology. Perhaps he was amoral, perhaps he was corrupt and perhaps he was hypocritical, regarding his own personal wealth, but Huey Long was not Joseph Stalin. He was a man who intended to look after the poor, in one of the poorest states in the Union, and I certainly believe that with more politicians like Huey Long, America would not be in the kind of economic and social depression which it faces entering 2012. What do you think? Would you vote for a candidate like Huey Long? Can corruption be justified by good intentions and end results which benefit the majority of the people? Is Huey Long the Machiavellian King?