"Longism" refers to both the political machine and the radical populist doctrine established by Huey Long in Louisiana in 1928.
The term “Longism” refers to both the political machine and the radical populist doctrine established by Huey P. Long in Louisiana from the time he was elected governor in 1928 and continuing until about 1960, decades after his assassination in 1935—a lengthy episode that testifies to Long’s influence in a state where he achieved near-mythic status during his mere forty-two years of life. As both the governor of Louisiana and a US senator, Long identified himself as an advocate for the poor and developed policies to improve their situation and ensure their continued political support. In the process, he constructed a powerful and corrupt political legacy that shaped the history of Louisiana for years after his death. Some would argue that vestiges of Longism continue to influence politics in the state today.
The Development of Longism
After Reconstruction, a corrupt alliance of the conservative Democrats called “Bourbons” and a group of New Orleans political bosses had ruled state government. The grinding poverty that most Louisianans experienced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a direct result of Bourbon neglect and the exploitation championed by distant capitalists. Although some reforms had been enacted beginning in 1900, Louisiana lagged behind the populist movements sweeping other Southern states. Meanwhile, Winn Parish, Long’s home territory, served as a nurturing ground for a radical challenge to the status quo—a majority of Winn residents even voted Socialist in the 1912 presidential election. Long and the political machine he built challenged the Bourbons’ exploitative system, knowing that whoever could motivate the masses held real power.
Long began his political career in 1918, when he was elected railroad commissioner with the campaign promise to lower freight rates for farmers. He used this position to enhance his reputation as a champion of the poor and an opponent of large oil and utility companies. Two years after taking office as governor, Long ascended to the US Senate. With his fiery rhetoric and captivating charisma, he amassed unprecedented political power over the state. Long promised thousands of impoverished Louisianans a better life, assuring them that under his rule he would make “every man a king.”
In the midst of the Great Depression, Long implemented policies intended to improve the state infrastructure and the lives of his constituents, who were, largely, rural and poor. He authorized the construction of nine thousand miles of new roads and more than a hundred bridges. In addition, his administration established public schools statewide, with free busing and textbooks, allowing thousands of children to attend school; approximately 175,000 illiterate Louisianans entered adult night schools developed during Long’s reign. The number of beds in the state’s charity hospitals doubled, and the state university gained national stature in both size and scholarship. Long also advocated a homestead property tax exemption to lessen the burden on poor farmers, and he abolished the poll tax so that thousands of Louisianans could vote. Not surprisingly, these newly enfranchised citizens cast their ballots in favor of the candidate who had granted them the opportunity to do so.
Huey Long’s Failures
Although Long arguably did more good for Louisiana than had any politician before or since, his critics felt that his iron-fisted dictatorial machinations also bruised the body politic. By the time of his death in 1935, he had seized more control over an American state than had any politician in history. Giving state jobs and government contracts to loyalists while firing civil servants who opposed him (for “political halitosis,” as Long said), the “Kingfish,” as he came to be known, built a corrupt, spoils-ridden, and unstoppable political machine. He orchestrated elections, padded voting lists, and directed the counting of ballots. He assaulted freedom of the press by proposing a gag law prohibiting newspapers from criticizing him and by founding his own newspaper, the Louisiana Progress. In addition, Long deployed the state militia as his personal police force, declaring martial law in cities that refused to submit to his mastery. By packing the courts with his cronies, Long attempted to ensure that his increasing power would go unchecked. Most blatantly, he dominated the state legislature, ordering it to pass hundreds of bills that increased his power, destroyed his enemies, and stretched the very limits of constitutionalism. Despite Long’s political demagoguery, Louisiana’s poor continued to support him staunchly—likely because Long was a marked contrast to the neglect they had suffered under Bourbon politics. These residents were either unaware of or unconcerned about the ruthless political machine Long had constructed and the level of corruption in state government; some even looked the other way when Long pocketed money for himself.
Because Louisiana was a one-party state at the time, the conflict between those who supported Long and those who opposed him split the Democratic Party in half. Long allowed no compromises, demanding absolute loyalty from his followers. If they opposed him, even in part, they became enemies, and he crushed them relentlessly. After foiling a 1929 impeachment attempt in the Louisiana legislature, Long boasted, “I used to try to get things done by saying ‘please.’ Now I’m a dynamiter. I dynamite ‘em out of my path.” When Long was elected to the US Senate, he opted to leave the seat in Washington empty and serve the remaining months of his term as governor in order to block Lt. Gov. Paul Cyr from assuming the office, since Cyr was by that time a bitter enemy. Cyr declared himself governor, on the grounds that Long had vacated the office upon election to the Senate. Long responded by deploying the state’s National Guard around the capitol building in Baton Rouge and used the state supreme court to oust Cyr. Long replaced him with his friend from childhood, Oscar K. Allen, dubbed “O. K.” Allen for his willingness to approve any measures Long proposed. For the three decades following Long’s rise to power, the Louisiana political arena was a battle between Longism and anti-Longism.
With millions of followers, Long declared himself a candidate for president. In 1934 he organized the Share Our Wealth Society, dedicated to the redistribution of the nation’s wealth. He promised for every American family a minimum annual income that would be funded by a progressive income tax. By capping the income of millionaires, Long planned to provide for the poor. Long claimed that a year after its founding, the Share Our Wealth Society had attracted eight million members in twenty-seven thousand clubs across the nation. Many historians have argued that this surge of enthusiasm for a rival presidential candidate drove Franklin D. Roosevelt to respond with the Second New Deal. This array of programs—including the Social Security Act, the Works Progress Administration, Aid to Dependent Children, and the Wealth Tax Act of 1935—was designed to ease the suffering of the millions of Americans affected by the Great Depression.
In September 1935 Long was assassinated in the Louisiana State Capitol by Dr. Carl Weiss, the son-in-law of state district judge Benjamin Pavy, whose district was being manipulated by Long. Longism, however, did not die with Huey Long: for the next three decades, the Louisiana political arena continued to be a battle between Longism and anti-Longism. The four governors who served immediately after Long’s death were faithful followers of his political philosophy. Long’s handpicked successor, O. K. Allen, won election to Long’s Senate seat but died in 1936 while still governor. James A. Noe, a Share Our Wealth enthusiast, then served as interim governor and appointed Long’s widow, Rose McConnell Long, to fill the vacant US Senate seat. Richard W. Leche, another Long insider, was elected governor in 1936. Across the state, other patrons of the Long machine won political office, including Robert Maestri, who served as mayor of New Orleans from 1936 to 1946.
Long’s followers saw him as a revered martyr and continued to run Louisiana with a tight grip—perhaps less ruthlessly but more corruptly. They continued his advocacy of road construction; free textbooks; and expanded hospitals, schools, and universities; but they generally abandoned his more radical campaign for wealth distribution and social programs. Making deals with Long’s former enemies, they ceased attacks on the oil industry and granted tax exemptions to business and industry. They also enacted a regressive sales tax.
Governor Leche—who once said, “When I took the oath of office, I didn’t take any vow of poverty”—resigned in 1939, when federal authorities indicted him and several of his cronies for misusing New Deal funds. A year later, he was convicted of mail fraud for accepting kickbacks in a deal involving trucks for the state highway department. Sentenced to ten years in an Atlanta penitentiary, Leche was released in 1945. Other high-ranking Longites convicted included Louisiana State University president James M. Smith, who went to prison for unlawfully investing half a million dollars of university funds in the futures market.
When Leche resigned, Lt. Gov. Earl K. Long became governor, serving until 1940, and he was later elected to two nonconsecutive terms from 1948 to 1952 and 1956 to 1960. Almost as notorious as his older brother, Earl Long imprinted his own brand of Longism on Louisiana. A wily politician, he recognized the potential voting power of disenfranchised African Americans. While not attempting to dismantle Jim Crow laws, he eased many governmental restrictions placed on African Americans, thereby allowing a considerable number of them to vote. Earl Long also convinced the legislature to equalize teacher pay between the races. In 1959, in response to legislative attempts to restrict African American suffrage, he called for full voting rights for blacks. Although his family had him committed to a state mental asylum, Long, still governor, ordered his own release.
In 1960 Earl Long was elected to the US House of Representatives but died before taking office, marking the end of a political era. Even before Earl Long’s death, Longism had already experienced several major defeats. In 1940 anti-Long reformist Sam Houston Jones defeated Earl Long for governor; four years later, popular singer Jimmie Davis defeated Lewis L. Morgan, the candidate supported by Earl Long and Robert Maestri. While Longism no longer exists as a potent political force, vestiges of its former power remain. The Long name still captures votes, especially in the rural parishes of the state. In 1948 Russell B. Long, son of Huey Long, was elected to the US Senate, where he served until 1987. From 1966 to 1981, he chaired the Senate Finance Committee. A competent and shrewd leader, Russell Long influenced the nation’s taxes, Social Security, and welfare programs. Like his father, he favored a heavier tax burden on the wealthy.
Other Longs elected to high political office include George S. Long, a dentist and Huey Long’s older brother. He represented the now-defunct Eighth Louisiana Congressional District (a mostly rural north-central area of the state) in the US House from 1953 until his death in 1958. In addition, two cousins, Gillis W. Long and Speedy O. Long, served in the US House during the 1960s and 1970s. Jimmy D. Long, another member of the dynasty, served in the Louisiana House of Representatives from 1968 until 2000, and Gerald I. Long, a third cousin of Huey and a rare Republican member of the Long family, was elected to the state Senate in 2007.
Former governor Edwin W. Edwards perhaps best exemplified the modern-day version of Longism. Through his liberal political rhetoric and charismatic personality, he cast himself as a Louisiana populist in the tradition of both Huey and Earl Long. Edwards was elected to the US House of Representatives, serving from 1965 to 1972. While in Congress, he was one of few Southern congressmen to support the extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Serving an unprecedented four terms as governor (two terms spanning 1972 to 1980 as well as reelections in 1983 and in 1991), Edwards used windfall tax revenues from the oil industry to increase health and human services programs, create vocational-technical schools, and strengthen higher education.
Like Huey and Earl, however, Edwards frequently faced charges of corruption, especially when Louisiana reintroduced legalized gambling. He survived two dozen corruption investigations and remained enormously popular. During his gubernatorial campaign against former Klansman David Duke, Edwards’s supporters printed bumper stickers saying, “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important,” and the voters did. His luck finally ran out, however, in 2001, when he was convicted of extorting money from casino boat owners seeking licenses. A federal court convicted him on seventeen counts, including racketeering, money laundering, and wire fraud. He received a ten-year prison sentence.