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  • The Success and Contradictions of New Deal Democratic Populism: The Case of the Civilian Conservation Corps
  • Melissa Bass (bio)

Between 1933 and 1942, nearly three million unemployed young men worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to rehabilitate, protect, and build America's natural resources—planting trees, building dams, forging trails, fighting fires, preventing floods and more. Enrollees lived in forest camps, and in exchange for their labor received education and job training, room and board, and $30 per month—about $530 per month in today's dollars—most of which was sent home to support their families. The CCC widely was considered an environmental and social success, in Roosevelt's words, "conserving not only our natural resources, but our human resources" as well.1 But the question remains as to whether it was a democratic or populist success, as understood in this volume. In other words, in the process of providing and accomplishing useful work, did it engage its participants as citizens or build their capacity to act as citizens in our democracy? If a program must be democratic in itself to further democratic ends, then the answer is no. There was much in the CCC that was exclusionary and authoritarian. However, I will make the case that as structured the CCC still was able to accomplish democratic goals and on the whole should be considered a democratic success. In some instances, the CCC's lack of internal democracy was a lost opportunity to accomplish even more. In other cases however, more internal democracy likely would have undermined its substantial democratic contributions. [End Page 250]

The Undemocratic CCC

There are many ways in which the CCC could have been democratic but arguably or in fact was not, for a range of reasons. To the extent that inclusion and diversity are hallmarks of democracy, the CCC fell far short, choosing its participants by sex and class, and then segregating them by race, age, and location. Given the nature of the CCC's work and gender-role expectations of the times, the program excluded the entire female half the population out of hand. As a relief program, it also limited enrollment to the poor. Given the huge numbers in need, spending scarce funds on those with means was politically untenable, but this did mean that the CCC would not be a vehicle for bringing the rich, the poor, and those in-between together for a shared purpose. Unwilling to challenge social norms, the program ran separate camps for blacks, whites, and Native American Indians, as well as separate camps for "junior" (young adult) enrollees and older military veterans. Focused on forest-based conservation work, it further segregated enrollees from society at large, placing them in wilderness camps far from their home communities—or any established community. Thus any civic lessons enrollees might learn had to be portable; they neither would be developed nor practiced in places where enrollees had or could have roots and long-term relationships. Short-term, with radio often out of range, the program's major academic researchers of the day, Holland and Hill, concluded that the typical enrollee "tend[ed] to think less and hear less about public affairs than he did before."2

Given that it was a work program, one important way that the CCC could have been democratic was in how it chose and organized its work. Enrollees, the "local experienced men" who supervised their work, nearby community-members, and CCC officials jointly could have determined an area's top conservation priorities and then created work projects to meet these needs. Instead, projects were determined in top-down fashion, with no enrollee or local resident input. While this does not seem to have resulted in enrollees doing good work on the wrong things—there were few complaints about work project choice (or anything else) from those in affected areas—it did leave those most affected without any say in the matter. Further, enrollees and supervisors jointly could have determined what needed to be done, when, and how on a project, giving enrollees practice with a range of civic skills from negotiating to planning. But again, these decisions, in un-populist fashion, were left to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-9731
Print ISSN
1089-0017
Pages
pp. 250-260
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-03
Open Access
No
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