Voices of Protest
is a non-fiction book published in 1982 by the American author and historian Alan Brinkley. The book compares and contrasts the populist philosophies of two of the most prominent and polarizing figures of early twentieth-century America: Louisiana governor Huey Long and the Catholic radio host Father Charles Coughlin. Brinkley focuses largely on the height of their careers in the years 1934 and 1935. Brinkley was awarded the National Book Award for History for Voices of Protest
Though by 1934, Long had left the Governor's office and was serving as a Democratic U.S. Senator for the state of Louisiana, he was still heavily involved with Louisiana state politics through his successor, Governor Oscar K. Allen. Long also had many allies in the Louisiana state legislature where he continued to draft and propose laws even though he had no official authority to do so. This was in keeping with Long's political style, which was marked by flamboyance and an aggressive flouting of conventions and niceties.
Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, Long had become one of the few lawmakers on the political left to break with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt over the New Deal. The New Deal was designed to lift the country up in the wake of the Great Depression and to install safeguards to ensure a similar economic meltdown of that magnitude never happened again. While Long agreed in theory with FDR's efforts to implement strong federal laws and programs to help improve the economic outlook of the United States, he felt that the President wasn't nearly serious enough about redistributing the wealth in the United States more equally.
In response, Long proposed the "Share Our Wealth" plan in a February 1934 radio address. Under Long's proposal, personal fortunes would be capped at $50 million, while annual incomes would be capped at $1 million. Inheritances, meanwhile, would be capped at $5 million. The wealth that exceeded these amounts would be pooled by the federal government and redistributed to households in the form of one-time $5,000 grants as well as guaranteed annual incomes between $2,000 and $3,000 for those not already earning that much. The plan also included free college tuition, federal assistance for farmers, guaranteed pensions for veterans and the elderly, and 30-hour limits to the workweek. The Share Our Wealth radio address was full of language indicative of Long's populist, almost religious rhetoric.
Meanwhile, Father Coughlin's support for FDR and the New Deal began to waver around the same time as Long's. Despite initially campaigning for Roosevelt under the slogan "Roosevelt or Ruin," Coughlin came to view the New Deal as being far too capitalistic. In response, Coughlin founded the National Union for Social Justice, advocating for the nationalization of a number of American industries and institutions, including banking, utilities, oil, and the Federal Reserve. To spread his ideas, Coughlin spoke to a radio audience of 40 million, then the largest in the world.
According to Brinkley's analysis, FDR and his advisors were sufficiently anxious about Long and Coughlin's growing influence to push the President considerably to the left when it came to economic reforms. The president was spurred to the embrace "The Second New Deal" which included key reforms like the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act. In the end, however, FDR's fears over Long and Coughlin would never come to fruition. In 1935, Long was assassinated by the son-in-law of one of his political opponents. Meanwhile, Coughlin had planned to put his support behind Long for a presidential challenge to FDR in 1936. When these plans fell apart in the wake of Long's assassination, Coughlin failed to find a replacement that posed a significant risk to FDR's presidency.
After FDR's reelection, Coughlin's populism gave way to an increasingly fringe and ugly form of demagoguery. Although Coughlin's rhetoric always contained subtle hints of anti-Semitism—his rants against "international bankers" were usually viewed as thinly-veiled attacks on Jews—his anti-Jew hatred became more and more explicit, particularly in the wake of Hitler's rise in Europe.
While Long is best remembered for his flamboyance and aggressive tactics, and Coughlin is best remembered for his anti-Semitism and support of Hitler, Brinkley argues that both men at one time expressed pure populist sentiments that significantly influenced the policies of FDR.