- Planning Democracy: Agrarian Intellectuals and the Intended New Deal by Jess Gilbert
The New Deal retains remarkable currency in contemporary U.S. and international politics in no small measure because it still retains currency in contemporary political arguments. But the New Deal also remains compelling because it was an attempt to reckon with questions modern societies still face. In Planning Democracy: Agrarian Intellectuals and the Intended New Deal, Jess Gilbert ably reconstructs the efforts of a cadre of agrarian reformers and their creation of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BAE) within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The book shows how these intellectuals, many of whom emerged from rural life themselves, attempted to put democracy at the core of their reforms.
The programs of the BAE sought to include farmers and other rural people in the wide decision-making process about reform. In just a few years after its creation the reach of the BAE was remarkable, spanning the country and involving hundreds of thousands of people in rural areas. Gilbert addresses the shortcomings of the program in terms of race and class—those able to participate were often not the poorest or the most marginalized—but he prefers to focus on the BAE’s accomplishments. Gilbert also traces how many people influenced by the democratic planning efforts of the BAE carried these ideas abroad after World War II. But here the book bumps into one of its limitations. There is little sense of how New Deal programs and the New Dealers themselves were shaped by the variety of agricultural reform efforts that were in vogue internationally before the war. The author provides tantalizing glimpses of how the democratic ideals of the BAE’s programs were arrayed against totalitarian societies as World War II approached. However, [End Page 711] the book largely stays in a narrow domestic furrow and overlooks the globally interconnected nature of agricultural science and reform.
What Gilbert does show is that the New Deal retained its firm, even radical, institutional commitments to democratic ideals far later than many standard narratives recount. His book also shows that democracy was more than just a goal of some BAE and other New Deal programs: it was a real and effective mechanism to make them work. What is more, while the cases available are limited, the author makes a good argument that the democratic nature of the programs actually led to economic benefits.
The actual accomplishments of the BAE programs demonstrate that democracy was not a simple or cynical rhetorical device used by the New Dealers. These accomplishments also suggest that the war effort did not euthanize the New Deal, although in the early phases of American involvement in World War II the BAE struggled to reconcile wartime planning with democratic participation. Rather, it was hostile groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation that helped prod Congress into denying funds, which left innovative programs to die on the vine. While the discussion of how and why this opposition was so effective, particularly in the political realm, is thin, the author gives a compelling sense of constrained possibility. The book extends our understanding of the New Deal era in several senses, reminding us that many issues regarding economic, social, and political participation that we wrestle with today were also being tackled, rather creatively, three generations ago.