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People Power Pushed the New Deal
by Sarah Anderson
YES! Magazine Summer 2009: The New Economy
Farmers crowd around the auctioneer at a foreclosure
a foreclosure sale in
bidders so they can buy the farm for a low price. Farms
bought at such "penny auctions" were returned to their
owners. During the Great Depression, my grandfather ran
a butter creamery in rural
heard how a group of farmers stormed in one day and
threatened to burn the place down if he didn't stop
production. I had no idea who those farmers were or why
they had done that--it was just a colorful story.
Now I know that they were with the Farmers'
Association, a protest movement that flourished in the
organizing "penny auctions," where hundreds of farmers
would show up at a foreclosure sale, intimidate
potential bidders, buy the farm themselves for a
pittance, and return it to the original owner.
The action in my grandfather's creamery was part of a
withholding strike. By choking off delivery and
processing of food, the Farmers'
aimed to boost pressure for legislation to ensure that
farmers would make a reasonable profit for their goods.
Prices were so low that farmers were dumping milk and
burning corn for fuel or leaving it in the field.
legislation it wanted, but its direct actions lit a
fire under politicians. Several governors and then
Congress passed moratoriums on farm foreclosures.
that he feared an "agrarian revolution," rushed through
reforms that helped millions of farmers stay on their
land. These new policies regulated how much land was
planted or kept in reserve. Although it was eventually
replaced by the massive subsidies that today favor
large agribusiness and encourage overproduction,
prosperous and stable decades for
This is just one example of how strong grassroots
organizing during the last severe
was key in pushing some of that era's most important
progressive reforms. Social Security is another such case.
The Depression had been particularly tough on the
elderly, millions of whom lost their pensions in the
stock crash and had few options for employment.
Roosevelt, however, felt the nation was not ready for a
costly and logistically challenging pension program.
Then a retired
Townsend wrote to the editor of his local paper,
proposing a pension system that would also stimulate
the economy by offering $200 per month to every citizen
over 60, on the condition that they spend the entire
amount within 30 days. The idea spread like wildfire.
Thousands of Townsend Clubs around the country wrote
millions of letters to the President and Congress
demanding the pension system Townsend suggested.
join with populist Louisiana Senator Huey Long to
challenge him in the 1936 election, eventually changed
his position. Although he rejected the details of the
1935 that created Social Security, still one of the
country's most important anti-poverty programs.
Seventy-five years later, these stories offer important
lessons for a country again mired in economic crisis.
Neither the Farmers'
Townsend Clubs got exactly what they wanted. But their
bold demands and action moved the policy debate much
further than it would have gone had these social
movements not existed.
Like President Barack Obama,
popular leader, particularly among the disadvantaged
who saw him as their champion. But it wasn't enough to
have a generally good guy in the White House. Likewise
today, our chances of achieving real change have more
to do with the power of social movements than with the
occupant of the Oval Office. Obama has opened some
doors of opportunity, but to go beyond economic
recovery to a more just and sustainable economy, we'll
need to follow in the footsteps of Depression-era
activists and organize around bold ideas.
Sarah Anderson wrote this article as part of The New
Economy, the Summer 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Sarah
directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for
Policy Studies. YES! Magazine encourages you
to make free use of this article by taking these easy