Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Planning Democracy: Agrarian Intellectuals and the Intended New Deal

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Planning Democracy: Agrarian Intellectuals and the Intended New Deal

Article excerpt

Planning Democracy: Agrarian Intellectuals and the Intended New Deal. By Jess Gilbert. Yale Agrarian Studies. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015. Pp. [xxiv], 341. $45.00, ISBN 978-0-300-20731-6.)

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. …

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