On the eve of the Great Depression the great Spanish existential and political philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset published The Revolt of the Masses. In it he predicted the rise of mass man -- undifferentiated, unanchored and unthinking citizens of modern, western societies attached to none of the traditional sources of community, which were being destroyed by capitalism anyway. For Ortega y Gasset, these folks all too easily moved to charismatic, emotional leadership to give meaning in their political lives. Twentieth century thinkers like Dwight MacDonald and Hannah Arendt have explored some of the implications of Ortega y Gasset's work, noting its eerie forershadowing of Nazism, Fascism and Stalinism. American historians such as Richard Hofstadter, meatime, found in American radicalism the same linkages between charismatic leadership and mass man. In Hofstadter's telling this phenomenon folded within the tradition of radical critiques of American capitalism.
Hofstadter's works, most notably The Age of Reform, were pretty critical of the causes of the American attraction to radical politics, such as it was -- that attraction was fostered by emotional anxieties that all too often morphed into nostalgic, irresponsible, politically conservative, anti-Semitic, racist movements.
Alan Brinkley clearly relies of Hofstadter quite a bit, but with a much more sympathetic treatment of American mass politics and its causes. For him, the anxieties were fully justified. He focuses on the alternative visions offered by Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s to President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Brinkley argues both men attracted large followings accross the nation by the use of the radio and mass-circulation print publications. By 1935 their combined popularity was enough to scared the hell out of the Democratic Party and President Roosevelt, with the result that FDR pushed through the Second New Deal in the run-up to his 1936 re-election effort. Brinkley argues that Long and Coughlin emphasized redistribution of wealth and economic justice for the common man/consumer, not the New Deal concern with "stabilizing business" and "restoring business confidence." In a sense we have these two rabble-rousers to thank for Roosevelt's turn to the left in 1935 in the form of specific public policies such as the Social Security Act (which Long opposed for some technical federalist reasons, actually).
As part of his argument, then, Brinkley streses the positive, substantive aspects of Long's and Coughlin's message over the psychological anxieties stressed by Hofstadter and his scholarly followers. In what is probably the best chapter in Voices of Protest, "The Dissident Ideology," Brinkley connects the Long/Coughlin program with the anti-modern, anti-urban, anti-capitalistic radical political tradition informing American protest politics, from Thomas Jefferson to Orestes Brownsen to William Jennings Bryan.
Long's Share Our Wealth scheme of income redistribution thus, in Brinkley's telling, represented a geniune, substantive response to the economic hardships of the 1930s and their root cause -- not enough consumer power!
This is good as far as it goes I suppose. But Brinkley certainly could have emphasized more the rank irresponsibility of Long and Coughlin -- they must have known, for example, that simplistic schemes such as Share Our Wealth had zip chance of success. Even if they could succeed in the abstract, they could never be implemented logistically as Brinkley notes in passing. As Voices of Protest makes clear, Coughlin and Long -- despite, or perhaps because of, their manic energies -- had no patience or desire to construct meaningful, sophisticated, sustained politices to help their constituiencies. Long, for example, had no interest in Senate business for most of his term in that august body, no desire to manipulate the institution (a la LBJ for example) and form effective coalitions to bring about meaningful change.
This is a beautifully written, beautifully constructed narrative. Brinkley is a fine heir to popular/scholarly narrative/analytical history in the tradition of Commager, Nevins and Schlesinger. Voices of Protest covers alot of ground already well plowed by masters such as T. Harry Williams in his biography of Long. But Brinkley adds alot more archival sources and fascinating letters from the common people -- mass men -- who Long/Coughlin attracted. But for reformers looking for historical models on which to base effective, modern, sophisticated methods for political and economic change, they'll have to look elsewhere than the examples of Charles Coughlin and Huey Long. I don't think Brinkley emphasizes that quite enough and himself falls for their charismatic qualities -- a serious shortcoming in an otherwise fine book