I am putting together a book proposal for The Forgotten New Deal, which I have posted about several times. The centerpiece of that story is Huey P. Long–the regime that he built in Louisiana, his influence on the development of the New Deal, and the constitutional consequences of his assassination. In a nutshell, his premature death had three effects:
1. It removed a key political lever that was driving Franklin D. Roosevelt to the left. In anticipation of Long’s presidential campaign in 1936 (either in the Democratic primaries or as a third-party candidate), FDR initiated a wave of reforms in 1935 (including Social Security and a wealth tax). Once Long was dead, this pressure diminished and the pace of change slowed dramatically.
2. It cut off a congressional inquiry into whether Louisiana was in compliance with the Guarantee Clause. That investigation was launched (with the active encouragement of the White House) not long before Long was shot. Absent the assassination, this process would have continued and made the Guarantee Clause a vital element of the New Deal Constitution. That, in turn, would have weakened judicial supremacy by giving Congress a greater role in shaping constitutional meaning.
3. It delayed the incorporation of the Bill of Rights by decades. Litigation was in motion challenging Long’s deprivation of fundamental liberties in Louisiana, and Congress might well have reached similar conclusions in its Guarantee Clause declaration. These claims would have been much more appealing in the context of a personal dictatorship erected within a state. When he died, these issues died with him.
In thinking about these issues recently, I think there’s a fourth category. In 1938, FDR tried to purge the Dixiecrats (conservative Southern Democrats) from the Senate and got his head handed to him in a set of primaries. This obviously set back the cause of racial justice and liberal reform for many years.
These same Senators, though, were terrified of Huey Long. In part, that was because he single-handidly elected Hattie Carraway, the caretaker Senator from Arkansas, to a term in her own right in 1934. (Carraway was the first woman elected to the Senate and was the widow of the previous Senator.) Long’s campaign for Hattaway was a challenge to the authority of the Senate Majority Leader, Joseph Robinson of Arkansas. Moreover, Long backed populist candidates to challenge other Southern incumbents. This threat was so serious that these Senators were willing to support (or, at least, not obstruct) the use of the Guarantee Clause to stop Long, even though that was the legal bogeyman that was used by the Republicans to occupy the South.
In effect, a powerful Huey Long would have forced the Dixiecrats to either tow the White House line (in exchange for presidential support), or be pushed aside by progressives. I still need to think through the implications of that counterfactual.