Sweeper: It Can’t Happen Here

Our groups discussion of Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel “It Can’t Happen Here” was centered on the historical context in which Lewis wrote his piece, more specifically focusing on Louisiana politician Huey Long’s potential challenge to President Roosevelt. Huey Long was assassinated shortly before the publication of “It Can’t Happen Here”, taking that into consideration many members of our group noted that Sinclair Lewis could have very well written his novel as a warning to the American public on the danger an authoritarian populist such as Long posed to the United States hoping that Americans would be able to recognize the signs of fascism and not be blinded by their own sense of exceptionalism. I could not help but wonder what it was about Huey Long that inspired such a sense of anxiety in Sinclair Lewis that he felt it necessary to write an entire novel essentially warning Americans about the danger he presented. Following the class discussion, I did further research into the background of Huey Long that both helped me understand the mindset of Sinclair Lewis and yet also raised many question on the nature of both populism and fascism. As the then governor of Louisiana Long implemented several extremely authoritarian policies, many of which are eerily reminiscent of those pursued by Adolf Hitler during the early years of his accession to power. Long purged the state government and bureaucracy of his political rivals, filled his cabinet with a network of loyalists and forced all state employees dependent on him to contribute financially to his personal “war chest”. Despite these authoritarian tactics what makes Long’s governorship particularly interesting is that rather than simply pursuing personal gain, Long utilized his over extended reach of power to serve his community. Long implemented massive public works programs within Louisiana which helped drastically lessen the impact of the Great Depression. He was also responsible for the creation of comprehensive social programs which made great strides in expanding the adult literacy rate within Louisiana. Being both a populist with the support of the masses as well as an authoritarian who utilized many of the same tactics as reviled fascist leaders throughout history it is easy to understand why Lewis so greatly feared the potential of individuals such as Long. The question remains, why it was only under an authoritarian such as Long that the government of Louisiana was able to meet its obligations to the people of the state? A trait of many populist regimes appears to be the strange blending of both authoritarian positions of the far right and progressive and popular policy of the left. A flaw which I feel plagues many of the responses to fascism is the disregard of the legit victimization which often preludes the rise of fascist regimes and the subsequent sacrificing of progressive policy in order to dismantle and prevent these regimes. My reading of Sinclair Lewis and following research into Huey Long has left me trying to understand why democratic regimes are often unable to pursue popular policy despite mass political participation, and why individuals so often resort to authoritarianism as the medium to achieve progressive change.

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