Grassroots Democracy

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Born of desperation and political impotence, grassroots democratic action in the 1930s sought to force government and business leaders to assist in providing direct assistance to individuals while at the same time improving overall economic conditions. As the effects of the Great Depression spread across the United States, most Americans had few options for seeking relief. Private charities were quickly overwhelmed, while state and local governments did not have the financial resources to combat the economic crisis. On the federal level, a mechanism did not exist to provide support for these beleaguered institutions.

Spontaneous demonstrations erupted across the nation as more Americans found themselves entangled in poverty. Starving farmers rioted for food in the South while their brethren in the Midwest violently opposed property foreclosures and destroyed crops in the hope of increasing farm prices. In the cities, industrial workers struck for increased wages, apartment dwellers refused to pay high rent and ignored eviction notices, and property owners refused to pay taxes.

Hunger marches held simultaneously in several cities on March 6, 1930, brought 500,000 people into the streets demanding government assistance for the unemployed. Sixteen thousand World War I veterans marched on Washington, D.C., in June 1932 demanding early payment of their promised bonus for military service. This grassroots organizing influenced both of the major political parties and began to subtly alter the relationship between citizen and government.

The first major shift came in July 1932 when Congress passed the Emergency Relief and Construction Act, which authorized the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to provide $300 million in loans to states for relief payments and $1.5 million for public works projects. The relationship between the federal government and the people evolved dramatically after the inauguration of President Franklin Roosevelt in March 1933. The New Deal programs and government agencies adopted by Roosevelt and the Congress were not only designed to provide assistance to the thousands suffering from economic disaster, but were also a response to the grassroots activism of the American people.

Several New Deal agencies adopted measures demanded by citizens. In 1933 the Department of Agriculture, under the aegis of the Agricultural Adjustment Act, ordered the destruction of crops in an attempt to raise farm prices, just as Midwestern farmers had advocated. Responding to the discontent over property foreclosures, the Federal Housing Administration regulated and underwrote home mortgages. Agitation by Francis Townsend and his millions of followers for federally guaranteed old-age retirement pensions helped lead to the adoption of the Social Security Act in 1935.

Politics was also influenced by this marriage between grassroots democracy and government bureaucracy. Much of the discontent evidenced before 1933 was absorbed by the New Deal and redirected into the traditional two-party system. Farmers, industrial workers, African Americans, and progressive liberals recast the Democratic Party, altering the American political landscape. The reforms introduced by the Roosevelt administration transformed the economic and social life of the nation, but they were largely adopted because of grassroots democracy practiced by the American people.



Brinkley, Alan. Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the Great Depression. 1982.

Kennedy, David M. Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945. 1999.

Levine, Lawrence W., and Cornelia R. Levine, eds. The People and the President: America's Conversation with FDR. 2002.

McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941. 1984.

G. Wayne Dowdy