Via Hit & Run, I see that Gerard Magliocca of Concurring Opinions has called Huey Long “the forgotten man in The Forgotten Man,” by which he means that, whatever you want to say about FDR, at least he wasn’t Huey Long:
Among other things, [Governor Long] wanted to establish a personal income cap through massive wealth and income taxes to pay for public works and subsidies for the poor. FDR told his aides that he “needed to steal Long’s thunder” in 1935, which led to the proposal of Social Security and a much more modest wealth tax. (FDR was also responding to other protest movements — Father Coughlin and Dr. Francis Townsend come to mind.)
But this nesting doll has one more babushka in it: the forgotten man in “The Forgotten Man in The Forgotten Man” is James Michael Curley, or any number of other urban bosses who found themselves eclipsed by the New Deal’s federal bureaucracy.
When the New Deal upstaged Huey Long, it took down one demagogue by replacing him with something not quite as bad — no great loss, and no great accomplishment. But when the New Deal took away the patronage and relief systems that were the lifeblood of urban machines, it destroyed an entire way of doing politics and replaced it with something worse.
How so worse?
1. Machines Come Cheap. Herbert Hoover crunched the numbers in 1936:
Recently I had the opportunity to observe comparative morals in the spoils system by a contrast between Tammany Hall and the New Deal. In a Tammany-dominated borough in New York in early 1933, before the New Deal, there were about 11,000 persons on relief. Tammany had appointed about 270 additional officials under their particular spoils system to manage relief at a cost of $30,000 a month for the officials. This job was taken away from wicked Tammany influence and directly administered by the New Deal. At a recent date there were in the same borough 2000 federal officials appointed under the New Deal spoils system at a cost of $300,000 per month for salaries to manage 16,000 persons on relief. Tammany may learn something new in this spoils system. It was only 10 percent efficient. And the same thing is going on all over the country.
2. Machine Politics: Part of This Complete Burke-Fest. Any traditionalist shibboleth you want — “organic change,” “personalism,” “little platoons” — they had. Especially personalism, as Jack Beatty points out:
“I think that there’s got to be in every ward somebody that any bloke can come to—no matter what he’s done—and get help,” Martin Lomasney is reported to have told the writer and social critic Lincoln Steffens in the course of his research into the plight of American cities. “Help, you understand,” said the ward boss, emphasizing the particularistic nature of the ethnic philosophy, “none of your law and justice, but help.”
3. Metis Me in St. Louis. Politics is a skill that can only be acquired by experience, and a well-run machine guarantees that anyone who makes it to the top of the greasy pole has paid his dues among the foot-soldiers and, consequently, knows important things like who to call to get a particular pothole filled. Which, in local politics, is more important than wonkery — as John Lindsay learned the hard way.
4. “I’m a Democrat, Not a Liberal!” Machines redistributed wealth, but never for the sake of any grand social revolution. As far as they were concerned, the rich could stay rich and the poor stay poor, just so long as no one starved and the voters were happy. Their lower- and working-class constituents didn’t have more revolutionary ambitions than that. (It’s worth noting that, for the most part, urban machines were hostile to organized labor.)
5. Catholicism. Everywhere. Just sayin’.
So, Magliocca is certainly correct that any evaluation of the New Deal needs to consider its effect on local and state politics, but the fact that it superseded Huey Long doesn’t mean the effect was uniformly a helpful one.