1 Fed. Hist. 1 (2009)

handle is hein.journals/fedhijrl1 and id is 1 raw text is: Federal History 2009

The American People and the New Deal
MICHAEL KAZIN
In 1941, director Frank Capra and scriptwriter Robert Riskin, a
passionate New Dealer, created Meet John Doe, an allegory of a
failed fascist takeover of the United States. The film concludes
with perhaps the purest expression of populist defiance ever seen
on screen. A group of ordinary Americans-members of the
John Doe Clubs-has just convinced their hero, played by Gary
Cooper, not to commit suicide. Their unofficial spokesman, a
tough newspaper reporter, turns to the would-be Mussolini-a
wealthy publisher named D. B. Norton-and declares: There
you are, Norton! The people! Try and lick that!
Meet John Doe reflects a cultural shift that owes a good deal to
FRand the New Deal-and to the people and movements that          BraaSawc      n   ayCoe
Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper
FDR ain Meet John Doe, 1941.
thrived in their shadow during the 1930s and early 1940s. The
idea that Americans constituted a united or nearly united people who came together across
religious and ethnic boundaries, and that this people formed a bulwark of opposition to eco-
nomic elites who threatened democracy, was essential to the building of the New Deal coalition.
Of course, there's seldom, if ever, a clear cause- and- effect relationship between culture and
politics. Cultures change more slowly and in different ways than do political parties and
electoral majorities. And the conventional wisdom that groups that have conservative val-
ues tend to vote for conservative politicians has little basis in U.S. history. For example, it
wasn't until the 1980s that regular churchgoers began to vote more for Republican candi-
dates than Democratic ones.
But there's little doubt that the idea of the people as a united force-often beset by elite groups
more powerful than themselves, and responding sometimes timidly, sometimes with righteous
determination-suffused the imagery of the New Deal era.
Here are some examples of how the people were represented in this imagined New Deal community:
* the migrant mother by Dorothea Lange
* the CIO's ordinary working man-Joe Worker
* Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid-the eternal cowboy
* Dr. Seuss's tough bald eagle-fighting fascism
* Paul Robeson, the great actor and singer
Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University.
* This is a revised version of my keynote address to a conference on The New Deal at 75 that took place at the Library of Congress
in March 2008. Thanks to Nancy Groce, Guha Shankar, and everyone else at the American Folklife Center for inviting me. I've always
thought of the LOC as the People's Library- it's certainly been indispensable to my own work. Without it, I couldn't have written
my books on populism and William Jennings Bryan. To paraphrase the old bumper sticker, I look forward to the time when the Library
of Congress has all the money it needs, and the Air Force has to hold a bake-sale if it wants to build another missile system.

Federal History online

Kazin

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