Voices of the Depression
Task: to convert material conditions to public will for action
- Roosevelt sought to capture the national
mood in the face of the depression.
- Began the process with a huge election victory
in Fall 1932, but a rhetoric to convert that victory into public will
- "Public" does not mean "governmental."
That we think of the two the same is testament to the power of government
rhetoric in the 20th century to assume leadership of the public sphere. "Public"
are those things that we decide to address as a community. Governmental power
is acquired as the government is seen as leading public response. Thus, converting
public commitment to governmental power is a rhetorical problematic.
- In a democracy, political power arises from organizing
the public. In "normal" times "the public" is diffuse
and unorganized. The public is various and divided. Leaders need to articulate
the motivation for public action in a way that unites the public in commitment.
When they do so, non-public or private matters pass into the public domain
and become the focus of public will. The leaders who articulate the motivation
for public action acquire political power. (Note that political power does
not flow from having a governmental office, although that office can be a
base for political power. Political power emerges when public will is organized
toward public action.)
The rhetoric of the New Deal was fundamentally
about establishing the power of governmental leadership in the public sphere.
So, it behooves us to consider what the rhetorical power of leadership entails.
Look for how Roosevelt accomplishes these in discourse as you study his speeches.
- To Give Voice: A successful rhetoric of situation.
A voice of leadership is able to express people's frustrations and to articulate
for them a viewpoint that makes the experiences of their lives make sense.
Thus, a leader is able to made sense of, to give meaning to, the situations
that a community faces.
- Direction: An encompassing rhetoric of action.
A voice of leadership articulates a viewpoint on the situation that identifies
action that will guide the community in responding in a way that will address
the needs of the situation. This includes a rhetoric that provides a sense
that actions are solutions -- that they promise effective response. There
is, therefore, a faith in the efficacy of community action.
- Authority as Legitimacy: The leader's actions are
right. Right in both senses of the term: that actions are the correct
choices and that they are appropriate for effective leaders. A voice of leadership
connects his/her actions with traditions of action and leadership in the community.
They clothe their actions in accepted patterns of earlier leaders.
- Authority as Power: Naming targets for action &
communicating effectiveness in addressing them. The voice of leadership
asserts itself. It not only provides legitimacy -- that sense of rightness
-- but it celebrates its success to reinforce that power.
- Mood or Attitude: Posturing the public. The
voice of leadership not only directs action, but sets the mood of the community.
It restores faith, directs anger, and channels these emotions into support
for its leadership
Understanding Franklin Roosevelt's Rhetorical Strategies
These ways of mapping his strategies help us to understand
how FDR accomplished his rhetorical tasks.
Roosevelt had to manage the dialectic
of permanence and change that all leaders who support or oppose change must
- To achieve change, rhetoric must communicate continuity.
There has to be a vision of how we will get from here to there along familiar
paths. There has to be a sense that the change is "in character"
for the community.
- To preserve, rhetoric must communicate adjustment
to new circumstances. We must see new events in familiar ways. Old motives
must be reinvigorated.
Roosevelt's task was in many ways to save
capitalism, so he had to preserve the belief in capitalism. At the same time,
he had to motivate change to address the crisis of the depression. How does
he do it?
The New Deal Motive
- A language structure with which to construct an account
of the moment that guides response.
- A framework for telling the story of where we are?
How we got here? How we can get out?
The New Deal provided a rhetoric that provided a way of understanding
events that motivated community response led by government. This motive lasted
for fifty years and was one of the most long-lasting of American motives for
- Problem-Solution structure
- Problem caused by human failure. Thus, it was manageable by controlling
- Problem is humanly addressable. Government passes laws to control such
- The personae
- The people as dispossessed. The human devastation in the community
resulted not from characteristics inherent in the people so effected, but
because the power of others affected their success.
- Oppressed by the irresponsible (greedy, negligent). Power had been
exercised for evil purposes and to oppress the dispossessed.
- Government as leader. The New Deal offered the government as a power
source to counter the greedy exercise of power. Government power could
instantiate values of the community ignored by those who sought their personal
- The action
- In human system. The New Deal saw power exercised by human beings against
each other. The "automatic" adjustments of the marketplace were
seen as overcome by powerful humans. So humans were caught in a system
- Government provides power to solve. Government exercised its
power to counter the power of others. Thus, government actions required
limiting the abuses of the powerful.
This frame for talking about events drew problems into a rationale
for governmental power. New problems incorporated into it enhanced governmental
power and expanded the sense of public problem.
of Political Will
Public will responds to the material conditions
of a society, but material conditions do not become the target of public commitment
without the use of discourse to frame understanding and motivate response to
the conditions. The material conditions may be in the economic -- poverty or
exploitation of the poor by the wealthy -- social -- crime or the deterioration
of family structure -- health -- pollution or AIDS -- or any other domain of
life. To transform the conditions into the motivation for public action several
rhetorical dimensions develop:
Naming a concern: A vocabulary that draws
a frame around the conditions is necessary to awareness of them. The name
also serves to invoke the value judgement. For example, once notions of
corporal punishment of a child becomes "child abuse" it has moved
from being a private interest in disciplining our children to being a public
interest of abusing children. Once telling a crude joke to the female employee
has moved from being "treating her as one of the guys" to being
harrassment, it has become a public issue.
Valuing: With discourse we declare the condition
to be something that deserves our attention and our energies. We condemn
some aspects of it; we may praise other aspects. We connect the condition
with the values and commitments of our community.
Historicizing: Once we see something as a
concern -- something that deserves our attention -- we still need to see
it as a community or public concern rather than a personal one. To achieve
this we must fit the concern into the context of the values and commitments
of our community.
Effective leaders frame the condition in the dialectic
of permanence and change. Those seeking change must present the change
as a continuation of something traditional, it is an extension of an old
commitment. Those opposing change must offer change to meet the concern
without adopting the proposed change. Thus, those seeking change must locate
their change in conservative principles and those opposing change must describe
the evolution in their world.
Motivating: Rhetoric also intensifies the
motivation for action. Vivid images in discourse call attention to the the
problem and activate concern. Deeply held values and commitments are connected
with the proposed activity. The more deeply the commuinity feels its commitment,
the more motivated the action.
Policiticizing: For a political
leader, rhetoric offers political vehicles as a way to fulfill public commitments.
The leader must frame the problem in such a way that governmental solutions
seem possible. Otherwise, leaders other than governmental leaders are the
appropriate leaders to follow. Political leaders build their power by claiming
problems and giving faith that they can address problems
The Changing Media
Early in the century public speaking had been in the public square.
By Roosevelt's day, radio was in its infancy. He learned to master this
- In the 1920s, radio mushroomed in the United States. In the decade
of business power, control of radio was established in a commercial system.
The government was used as a registry for wave-bands, but little else.
- Radio narrowed the public sphere. Listening shifted from the public
spaces such as the square and the lecture hall into the privacy of the
living room. The home, which had been the location of the private domain,
became a territory for the public as well. But access to voice was now
controlled by the commercial decisions of broadcasters. To get access to
the radio, you had to deliver a large audience. Those who would draw smaller
audiences -- earlier to the square or the lecture hall -- were silenced
in the new media. Yet, the growth of radio meant that the power to be on
the radio became a power to influence the public sphere. The result was
that the public sphere narrowed to community leaders and voices that could
marshall a mass of listeners. Participation by the masses (newly defined
by the "mass media") became the passive act of listening rather
than the active role of an audience member.
- Franklin Roosevelt established his power through his ability to master
this new medium. Roosevelt could make listening in the living room seem
like a friendly chat in person. The strategies through which he did this
established a source of his public power.
Voices of the Depression
- Dominated by Roosevelt and his coalition. Included
the unemployed, labor, the victims of the banking system. Guided by Roosevelt's
so-called "brain trust. Included Democrats in Congress.
- On left, Communists and Socialists. Especially
concentrated in literature and the arts. Included Communist Party, USA, and
the Socialist Party. Their themes were the death of capitalism and "Workers
of the World, Unite."
- Less radical was Huey Long and his share the wealth
campaign. Long favored establishing a ceiling on wealth. Wealth above this
limit would be redistributed by the government to the poor. He was not, however,
Socialist or Communist, not promoting government ownership of industry.
- On right, anti-socialists and anti-communists including
the German Bund. The latter was a Nazi inspired group with many of
the rhetorical accoutrements of German Nazis. But it also included extreme
nationalists seeing Roosevelt's program as socialist.
The New Deal Political Agenda
The New Deal was Franklin Roosevelt's proposals to address
the devastation of the depression. The changes involved the three R's:
- Regulation: Rebirth of Progressivism. The New
Deal reasserted regulatory power.
- Banks. Roosevelt called a bank holiday and instituted
bank insurance to protect savings and the regulatory structure we have today
to protect the quality of loans.
- National Reconstruction Act. Established "business
codes" in which firms in particular industries met and developed standards
to eliminate unfair business practices.
- Labor relations. The New Deal established the right
of unions to collectively bargain with employers.
- Limits on production in agriculture. The idea was
to support prices of agricultural goods by having the government enter the
market to buy surpluses. Thus it used the free market to effect a reasonable
- Relief. Two major programs provided relief
for those displaced by the depression.
- Works Progress Administration or WPA provided employment.
It built public parks and roads, provided theatre and other arts, and organized
the unemployed for useful work.
- Social Security Act. Established a governmental
"insurance" program for the disabled, the elderly through the
Old Age and Survivors Fund, and unemployment insurance.
- Reinvestment. Programs that attempted to enhance
- National Industrial Recovery Act. Continued Hoover's
strategy of loans to business to organize economic growth.
- Tennessee Valley Authority or TVA. Built a series
of hydroelectric dams on the Tennessee River in one of the most undeveloped
sections of the country. The cheap power and transportation would promote
- Rural Electrification Act. Set up local electric
cooperatives to provide power to farms. The New Deal "lit up rural
What the New Deal did was to promise governmental leadership
of public efforts to address the depression.