Thursday, March 19, 2009

One and Half Cheers for Father Coughlin: Populist Backlash, Part II

So what am I reading these days, inquiring minds want to know? First, I have decided to read all of Shakespeare, for no particular reason other than I have never done it before, and I guess its one of things that I always wanted to do—one thing I don’t want to do is reading all of those 1,000 things to do, or go to, or buy before you die books that have been cropping up as of late— and there’s no time like the present. So I’m starting with the obscure ones I never read before—just finished Troilus and Cressida, and I’m on to Cymbeline—and will work my up to the biggies, and see if they really deserve their reputation.

And I have been reading about the New Deal, for obvious reasons, and I would like to add a note to my recent post on the “populist backlash.” I just finished re-reading Alan Brinkley’s Voices of Protest on Huey Long and Father Coughlin, on this unlikely duo of gadflies who helped push FDR leftwards in 1935 and 1936. What an odd couple, and how likely was it that a decisive leftwards pushin 1935 was administered by two men hailing from awfully conservative precincts; the the unreconstructed post-Reconstruction South on the one hand, and the pre -Vatican II hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church on the other, perhaps the only major American institution more conservative in its instincts than the Jim Crow South. But they were probably the last true populists of any real stature in the nation’s history. Long’s share-the wealth movement was dedicated to sharing the wealth, and it had at its heart a program for radical redistribution. And Father Coughlin had as his main purpose reforming and remaking the financial industry Father Coughlin’s principles of his National Union for Social Justice, included nationalizing “banking, credit and currency” and in the abolition of the “Federal Reserve Banking System and its replacement by a Government owned Central Bank,” both very pertinent suggestions. Both men had economic issues as the center of their initial appeal, though it is true of course, that after the peak of his popularity, after 1936, Coughlin made a sharp move towards an overtly anti-Semitic agenda, but as Brinkley shows, anti-Semitism had little or nothing with his initial rise to influence. The rise of both men to national prominence is an indication of just how seriously people took economic issues in the mid-1930s. But hey, I love the music of Richard Wagner, so I guess its okay to admire aspects of Father Coughlin’s program.

Indeed, the person Coughlin seems to most resemble in his crusade against Wall Street is the Brandeis of Other People’s Money, who liked Coughlin wanted the government to step in ensure that bigness and monopolies will not unduly dominate small businesses and mid-level entrepreneurs. (If Jews have been big players in Wall Street since the middle of the 19th century, they have been equally big players in anti-Wall Street bashing, from Karl Marx to Louis Brandeis to Elliot Spitzer .) Brinkley criticizes the wish of both Long and Coughlin for an economy once again dominated by small and local businesses as a retreat from modernity, towards the village green and vanished gemeinschaftlishe community . (As Rob said in a recent post, the golden age is always vanished.) Perhaps this seemed correct in 1984when Brinkley was writing, but in 2009, with the failure of so many “too big to fail” companies has turned Wall Street into a necropolis, perhaps the populism of a Long and a Coughlin deserve a second look. In any event, the current Democratic Party has so distanced itself from any kind of talk such as this, that it is finding it difficult to learn its language again.

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