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We Need More Protest to Make Reform Possible | The Nation

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We Need More Protest to Make Reform Possible

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Seizing the Moment

The protests that occurred after FDR was elected, and that accelerated after he took office, were not spontaneous bursts of action by angry people. They were organized by people who were willing to take risks, acting somewhat on faith and suspecting that if they acted courageously, others would follow.

About the Author

Peter Dreier
Peter Dreier teaches Politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His...

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As Marshall Ganz points out in Why David Sometimes Wins, a brilliant new book that focuses on Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers movement, the instigators of social movements don't wait for the time to be "ripe." They find people and invent or reinvent tactics to help them make the most out of what is typically an awful situation. They make their own opportunities, hoping, almost as a matter of faith, that at some point the crack will open wider and they will be able to take advantage of it. Often they fail and are thus lost to history. But as Ganz says, sometimes they win. And small victories whet their appetite for further change. If they have the skills, persistence and imagination, initial gains can become steppingstones to bigger victories as more people get involved.

At the core of an effective social movement, Ganz explains, is a diverse group of leaders with a variety of skills, a deep commitment to their cause and a willingness to take chances without being foolhardy.

In many cases, the instigators and organizers of the Depression-era protests were radicals who believed that New Deal reforms were a steppingstone to more dramatic change. Many of these radicals had been involved in activist causes for years; others were newly radicalized by the apparent collapse of the economic system and were recruited through issue groups. A self-conscious cadre of radicals helped lead groups as varied as the National Farmers Union; the Unemployment Councils, which engaged in eviction blockings and other militant actions in big cities; the Southern Tenant Farmers Union; and caucuses in workplaces, which laid the groundwork for industrial unions. They were joined by progressives and liberals--clergy, journalists, artists, tenants, workers, farmers, Jews, African-Americans, immigrants and others--who may not have shared the leaders' radical vision but who were willing to try something new and different to bring about change.

FDR's election stimulated protest because it offered the missing piece--hope to go with the anger. Americans pushed aside their fear and protested for change. The organizers, in turn, helped channel people's hopes into specific actions that had some likelihood of winning concrete victories.

In time, FDR recognized that his ability to push New Deal legislation through Congress depended on the pressure generated by these protesters. As the protests escalated, Roosevelt became more vocal, using his bully pulpit to lash out at Big Business for its greed and selfishness. He used his speeches and his fireside chats to explain his New Deal agenda and to encourage people to contact their representatives in Congress.

FDR was initially ambivalent about protest and about radicals. For example, he wasn't happy about the pressure exerted by Upton Sinclair--the muckraking journalist, novelist and onetime Socialist--to endorse him after Sinclair shocked everyone by winning the Democratic Party nomination for governor of California in 1934 on a platform to "end poverty in California." But FDR understood that Sinclair's primary victory, and his impressive campaign and narrow loss in the runoff, helped change the nation's political climate and made his own success more likely, since he could be seen as more moderate.

Likewise, FDR wasn't enthusiastic about the mounting protests by farmers, workers, veterans, community groups and the advocates of the Townsend Plan (for old-age insurance), but he understood their utility.

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