Two Roads to Prosperity: Huey Long Versus Bobby Jindal

The heady excitement of the fracking boom hides some deeply important — and little discussed — political choices, of course. In the last Louisiana oil boom, from 1928 to 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, Louisiana governor Huey Long, the progressive demagogue — the Kingfish, as he was called — taxed oil companies, using that money to put a “chicken in every pot,” give out free textbooks to schoolchildren, create evening literacy courses for adults, and build roads, bridges, hospitals, and schools. Long curbed homelessness and poverty. Before succumbing to the lure of oil money himself, Long embraced the ideal of an activist government that lifted the poor and added to the common good.

By contrast, from 2007 to 2015, as mentioned, Governor Bobby Jindal drew $1.6 billion from schools and hospitals to give to companies as “incentives.” This strategy put some chickens in some pots, of course, and indirectly took them away from others. Like nearly everyone I talk to, Mayor Hardey twice voted for Governor Jindal, as did his family. And were he alive today, very few Louisianans would vote for Huey Long.

When I ask Hardey about his political orientation — he was a moderate Republican — he immediately answers, “I’ve had enough of poor me.” As he explains, “I don’t like the government paying unwed mothers to have a lot of kids, and I don’t go for affirmative action. I met this one black guy who complained he couldn’t get a job. Come to find out he’d been to private school. I went to a local public school like everyone else I know. No one should be getting a job to fill some mandated racial quota or getting state money not to work.” Jindal had reduced state money for “poor me’s.” With the jobs coming in now, we “ought to close the unemployment office,” Hardey declares. “You can get a $15 to $18 job flagging” (i.e., holding traffic flags around construction sites).

The second of five children, Hardey had learned to stand his ground among friendly competitors for parental attention. And it was rare that he pleaded “poor me.” He had become a beloved and effective defender of his community. But it was industry itself, he felt, that had permitted him to access his own potential, and to become the man he was.

“In grade school and high school,” he tells me solemnly, “I wasn’t anything. I couldn’t comprehend things.” Might he have had an undiagnosed learning disability? I ask. “No,” he replies simply. “I just couldn’t comprehend. And I wasn’t an athlete, either. There was nothing I was good at.” But he continues, “When I got to the plant, starting in the maintenance department, I discovered I could do things. They promoted me from there. When I retired I was an instrumentation foreman overseeing a lot of operators, and had a salary of $180,000.” Phillips 66 had done for Hardey what college or the army did for others: helped him discover his native intelligence, feel honored, provide handsomely for his family without leaving his ancestral home — achieve the American Dream.

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Why couldn’t blacks and legal immigrants do the same? he thought. As a young man in the 1970s, seeking work in the plants, Hardey had been told, “We had to fill our quotas for blacks.” Was this truly the case, I wondered, or was this what company recruiters told white job seekers they turned down? He was not a racist, Hardey told me, but he favored no special breaks for blacks or foreigners. In a racially separated world, it’s possible to have racial disadvantage without racial prejudice. Whites can turn for help to white neighbors with good connections in the plant. Blacks turn to black neighbors without them. Maybe, Hardey thought. But that seemed a problem you could fix without the federal government horning in. Hardey had worked his own way up despite federal intervention, as he saw it.

Others I talked to felt the same, only more strongly. Governmentsponsored “redistribution”? No! Hardey’s family members had all prospered. But in other families, some struck it rich, others got drunk and divorced and ended up poor. The family was a chancy redistribution system all its own, it seemed. After the 2008 crash, too, some got rich, others got poor. And you didn’t want the government playing favorites on top of that. It felt better to stick to the free market, to industry, to a company like Phillips 66 or Sasol.

And Governor Jindal’s $1.6 billion incentive to lure industry to the state? “Good idea,” Hardey says. Sure, these were the richest companies in the world, and Louisiana was a poor state. “But you needed to sweeten the deal to get companies to come to Louisiana instead of Texas,” he explains. “Now my grandson will have a good job here!” Maybe from a national point of view, it didn’t matter if Sasol located in Houston or Lake Charles, but for Bob Hardey and his son and his grandson, it mattered greatly.

As for pollution, the mayor thought it was a problem from the past. “We used to vent bad stuff,” he says, “but the EPA restricts flares now.” As for cancer, he thinks it is mainly genetic. “My dad’s worked in and lived near the plants all his life, and I have too, and so have my brothers and son, and none of us have had cancer. But the best man at my wedding worked in and lived around the plants just like we did. And he got cancer. His brother died of it. His cousin got it. It’s genes.” But he adds, “I’ll tell you where they do have a problem, that’s east of here, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. There, it’s the chemicals.”

Copyright © 2016 by Arlie Russell Hochschild . This excerpt originally appeared in “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right,” published by The New Press Reprinted here with permission.