November 7, 2008
Barack Obama: The Kingfish RebornBy Henry P. Wickham, Jr.
John McCain once referred to Barack Obama's upcoming presidency as the second term of Jimmy Carter. Obama has provided plenty of support for this observation. However, as this seemingly endless campaign progressed, and as domestic issues prevailed over those of foreign policy, it has become more accurate to say that Obama's election is the first term of the Huey Long administration.
Huey Long was Louisiana's wonder boy; a talented demagogue who regularly appealed to the basest instincts of voters. The Kingfish, as he was known in Louisiana, managed to be elected in 1918 to Louisiana's powerful Railroad Commission at the mere age of 25. By 1928 he was governor, and in 1932 he was elected to the United States Senate. During this time he built a formidable political machine in Louisiana, not at all unlike the Chicago machine in which Obama prospered.
Supporters of both Long and Obama were quick with allusions to and the illusions of the presence of the divine. As one Huey Long supporter put it:
However, Huey's supporters were no more enthusiastic than Oprah the Baptist, as she prepared the way for Barack "the One." And who dares to challenge the gods?
Like Obama's ascent, Long's meteoric rise was fueled to a large degree by subterfuge, the effective use of a corrupt local machine, class warfare, and the demonization of business and the successful. Huey Long had a deep animosity toward those who produce wealth and this leveling instinct pervaded his policies. Like Obama, he publically condemned Marxism while effectively applying Marxist principles.
Huey Long as a United States Senator had broken with Franklin Roosevelt because he felt that Roosevelt's confiscatory policies were not radical enough. To broaden the reach of the policies that he and his machine implemented in Louisiana, in February of 1934 he created the "Share Our Wealth Society;" its slogan being "Every Man a King." This "Society," which epitomized Long's view of the federal government as the great leveler, advocated the confiscation of an individual's wealth greater than $5,000,000. He advocated confiscation of an individual's income greater than $1,000,000.
From this revenue Long promised the following goodies: $5,000.00 cash to every family or "enough for a home, an automobile, a radio, and the ordinary conveniences; guaranteed minimal annual income; guaranteed pensions for the aged; guaranteed grants for everyone's education; and bonuses to veterans.
If the money were not available, Huey Long was not above governmental confiscation in kind. If Long felt that a favored citizen needed a car and the money wasn't there, then the government could simply take a car from someone else who had "too many." (What's a little thing like the Constitution's "taking" provision among friends?)
The unspoken and resoundingly foolish premise of the Huey Long's "Share Our Wealth" scheme was the belief that people will continue to work, invest, take risks, and produce tax revenues regardless of the tax rates and the confiscatory policies of the government. For Long, productivity just happened, and its very existence and its fruits were the servant of the right-thinking political class. Thus Long asserted that he would share our wealth, as if the state has a preemptory claim on everyone's earnings.
Certain follies are perennial and seemingly invincible, and Barack Obama's outlook on private enterprise shares with Huey Long many of the same assumptions. While living lavishly from the labor of others, both Huey Long and Barack Obama comfortably railed against the vice of greed. Yet both elevate as their overriding principle of government the vices of envy and sloth. In light of this mere reemphasis among vices, it is extraordinary that both Long and Obama and their supporters can exude such an air of moral superiority and self satisfaction. At least greed is capable of producing something useful.
Barack Obama's prosperity-killing policies echo those of Huey Long. As Obama told "Joe the Plumber," we need to "spread the wealth." (Not a word about creating wealth or rewarding those who do.) Obama has pledged to punish risk-taking and productivity, every bit as much as Huey Long did, by hiking marginal income tax rates, payroll taxes, and capital gain taxes. He even acknowledges that higher tax rates don't necessarily translate into higher revenue for the government, revenues not really being the point. Obama has been clear that he will attack those industries that he does not favor (eg. coal, oil) as relentlessly as Huey Long attacked Standard Oil.
Demonstrating a certain symmetry in his thinking, he pledges to reward the unproductive by hiking the (un)earned income tax credit. When considering the perverse effects of these paternalistic policies on the electorate, whether they be Long's or Obama's, consider the recent statement made by an Obama supporter. She gleefully asserted that Obama's election will mean that she does not have to worry any longer about her mortgage payments or gasoline for her car. This Obama supporter unwittingly celebrates both her own infantilization and the success of Obama's rhetoric as he himself would define that success.
Fortunately for America, Huey Long's agenda in the 1930s likely had little chance of implementation. The American belief in self-reliance, our distrust of an overly large government, America's strong entrepreneurial and risk-taking spirit, and our work ethic and good sense largely neutralized Long's influence (even had he not been assassinated). The damage to the American economy in the 1930s can better be attributed to the many follies of Roosevelt's New Deal.
Then came the 1960s and the long march of the radicals through America's institutions. America's best attributes that saved us from Huey Long-ism have now been undermined by the decadence so palpable in the faculty lounges, the jurrasic media, the bureaucracies, and many corporate board rooms. Barack Obama's 2008 campaign was a celebration of misery, class warfare, dependence, group and individual entitlements, and a deep animosity toward those who are productive. And Obama prevailed in this post-modern America. As the poet John Dryden observed in 1681, "Fools are more hard to conquer than persuade."
Barack Obama is clearly the beneficiary of this foolish decadence, and he now prepares to administer the sedatives to the American body politic. He calls it a "fundamental transformation" of America; one that the Kingfish would certainly applaud. As the history of the twentieth century shows all too well, where every man is a king, the vast majority are paupers. John Dryden again: "For whatsoe'ver their sufferings were before That change they covet makes them suffer more."
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