“Longism” Huey Long's Legacy
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.
Legacy – A New Louisiana
Huey Long transformed politics in Louisiana from a virtual aristocracy to a true democracy. He broke the wealthy elite's stranglehold on Louisiana's government, which had effectively disenfranchised the poor majority for centuries. Armed with education, transportation and the vote, Louisiana's masses gained unprecedented opportunity to better their lives and would never again be subdued.
Long's ousted foes tried to label him “a threat to democracy,” because he amassed such personal power in his quest to “share the wealth.” In actuality, a grateful public credited Huey Long with bringing true democracy to Louisiana.
After Huey abolished the poll tax, hundreds of thousands of new voters flocked to the polls to take control of their destiny. The number of people voting nearly doubled in the first election after the poll tax was repealed. Within ten years, the number of registered voters doubled again. Finally, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” as mandated by America's founding fathers, had come to Louisiana.
It was a novel concept in Huey Long's era that government should give the disadvantaged a helping hand. In Louisiana, this new philosophy of government became known as “Longism,” and it is a vision of governmental responsibility that split Louisiana politics right down the middle.
For decades after Long’s death, Louisiana remained divided between two distinct political factions, the Pro-Longs and Anti-Longs, mirroring today’s Democratic and Republican parties. Like a seesaw, the two sides perennially came in and out of power, resulting in a workable balancing act between social responsibility and fiscal restraint.
In 1940, following the administration of Gov. Richard Leche, the people elected their first Anti-Long governor, Sam Jones. He kept the welfare services begun by Huey Long but reduced the size and power of state government. Jones instituted a civil service program to replace the political patronage system and left office with a $15 million surplus.
In 1948, Huey's brother, Earl K. Long, was elected governor. Huey's wife, Rose, and son, Russell campaigned for Earl’s election. Thoroughly Pro-Long, Earl's slogan was “Service to the People,” referring to his predecessor's philosophy as “do-nothingism.” While continuing to build roads, Earl focused on employment, job training, higher salaries, education, hot school lunches, trade schools, charity hospitals, old age pensions, and veterans' bonuses.
After Huey Long liberated Louisiana politics, a healthy trend developed of high voter turnouts alternately electing Pro-Long and Anti-Long candidates. Louisiana's people truly own their politics and government, with one of the most inclusive, participatory, and colorful political traditions in the United States.