The Art of the Demagogue

Posted on September 22, 2020

by Eric A. Posner

Huey Long: United States Governor, Senator, and perhaps one of its greatest demagogues. In the following excerpt from The Demagogue’s Playbook, Eric A. Posner examines how Long highlighted American democracy’s susceptibility to the demagogue in the 20th century.

Senator Huey P. Long of Louisiana (1933-1935)
This image is in the public domain via Wikicommons.

Huey Long was the most successful American demagogue of the twentieth century. Highly intelligent, astonishingly energetic, charismatic, and cynical, he owed his success to the terrible economic times, and his ability to entrance a mass audience and navigate around the institutional barriers to power. He demonstrates better than any modern historical figure American democracy’s vulnerability to the demagogue. As a matter of theory, democracy means rule by a majority, but in normal times, the majority of voters are content with the status quo, and cannot be organized and mobilized to support a plan of radical redistribution. In bad times, however, they can be. Then it is a matter of identifying an underlying cleavage between a majority and a minority. For the left-wing Long, that cleavage divided the rich and the poor, creating a rare chance to mobilize the far more numerous poor to support expropriation of property from the wealthy. For right-wing demagogues like Coughlin, the cleavage divided whites and non-white minorities. Most southern demagogues targeted a narrower but still majority group of poor white voters, hoping to expropriate from the rich and from blacks. To mobilize their supporters, the demagogue circumvents established arbiters of opinion and appeals directly to the masses, using whatever advances in communication that are ready at hand, and draws on emotionally resonant images, ideas, and arguments to stir up tribal emotions—anger, greed, envy, resentment. The truth is pushed to the side to make room for conspiracy theories that explain all that is wrong. The final step is the use of graft and patronage to destroy institutions that stand in the way of power, and to organize new institutions—one’s own political party if possible—to replace them.

But while Long elevated demagoguery to an art form, it seems unlikely that Long could have been elected president in 1940 as he planned. Long prospered in backward Louisiana but his style was otherwise inconsistent with the spirit of the times. The Progressives had earlier targeted government corruption, machine politics, and the tribal aspects of politics. Many of their innovations—including the introduction of the secret ballot, voter registration, and government regulation of the party primaries—were contrary to Long’s no-holds-barred style of political warfare. The Progressives’ commitment, bequeathed to the New Dealers, to administrative regularity, nonpartisan expertise, and academic specialization could not have been farther from Long’s backslapping, deal-making, pajama-wearing tactics. Long could not gain control of the national Democratic Party in such an environment. And a Share the Wealth party would have petered out as the People’s party did in the 1890s. The two-party system had not seen a significant challenge since 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt, head of the short-lived Progressive Party, received 88 electoral votes. And Theodore Roosevelt’s cousin Franklin Roosevelt was a far cannier politician than any of Long’s opponents in Louisiana were. Long’s demagoguery was a game for keeps; if he attracted attention and support by attacking entrenched interests, he also made powerful enemies of those same interests. Long spent the last years of his life ringed by bodyguards.

But if Long could not obtain the presidency for himself, he did show that demagogy could carve a path to power at the national level. His lessons would be quickly absorbed.

Credit: Lloyd DeGrane

Eric A. Posner teaches at the University of Chicago. He has written more than one hundred articles on international law, constitutional law, and other topics, and as well as more than ten books, including Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society and The Twilight of Human Rights Law. He has written opinion pieces for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New Republic, Slate, and other popular media. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the American Law Institute.

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