Marshaling Public Will:
FDR at the Depression
Public Will and Political Power
- "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
- 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.)
- In the early 20th century, the relationship between the government
and community has ebbed and flowed.
- In the years prior to 1900, the power over the public agenda was in
the hands of economic concentration -- the robber barons of American industrial
- Progressives sought to drain this power into governmental support.
The progressives used a rhetoric of crime to characterize the robber barons
and employ government to drain their power. Through political reform they
sought to institutionalize government as public voice.
- In the 1920s, business (not the robber barons, but business big and
small) controlled public power. "The business of America is business,"
said the Secretary of Treasury. Henry Ford promised a wage for the working
man that allowed him to own a car. "We are within sight of eliminating
poverty in American," President Herbert Hoover promised in 1929.
- But the depression came, and the New Deal offered itself "as the
leadership of the great army of the people."
- It was a personal collapse. Many found themselves destitute
as a result of the loss of employment in an economy that did not provide
programs such as social security and unemployment compensation. Not only
were such governmental programs not available before the New Deal, but
the traditional sources of charity were taxed beyond their ability to provide.
- It was an economic collapse. The price of wheat was $ 1.43 per
bushel in 1925; 38 in 1932. The price of cotton was 23 in 1925; 6 in 1932.
In Chicago, unemployment reached 40 percent in 1932. In Boston, 7400 families
were on welfare in 1929; and 40,600 in 1932.
- It was an institutional collapse. The institutions with which
communities provided for public commitments collapsed under the weight.
Banks collapsed losing the life savings of depositors. Corporations collapsed
leaving pockets of heavy unemployment. Churches that provided charity were
overwhelmed and unable to provide for the needy. Local governments saw
their tax receipts plummet at the same time the need for community services
soared. Families who had lost jobs and had diminished wages could not support
themselves and certainly could not support the elderly.
- Had capitalism collapsed? The boom of the 1920s had been described
by public leaders in business and government as the miracle of capitalism.
Thus, when the bust came in 1929, the question was being seriously asked
whether capitalism had failed as an economic system. The Socialists and
Communists were especially vocal in proposing this explanation.
- Was it a community problem? Devastation was all around. These
could be told as individual stories, but the devastation seemed universal.
The community began to think that individual resources were insufficient
to address this problem, that community commitments were needed.
Roosevelt's Task was to convert the conditions
to public will to action
- Roosevelt sought to capture the national mood in the face of the depression.
- He began the process with a huge election victory in Fall 1932
The Voice of Leadership
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
Managing Permanence and Change
Roosevelt had to manage the dialectic of permanence and change that
all leaders who support or oppose change must master.
- 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
- 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
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 government action.
- 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.
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.
The New Deal
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
- 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 price.
- 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 business development.
- 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 business
- Rural Electrification Act. Set up local electric cooperatives to provide
power to farms. The New Deal "lit up rural America."
What the New Deal did was to promise governmental leadership of public
efforts to address the depression.