Planning with the People: Jess Gilbert on the “Intended” New Deal

Jess Gilbert is a professor and chair of the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a founding faculty member of the Center for Culture, History and Environment, and was the CHE Director from 2011 to 2013. He’s retiring this summer after 31 years teaching in Madison.

Planning Democracy: Agrarian Intellectuals and the Intended New Deal

Jess’s new book, Planning Democracy: Agrarian Intellectuals and the Intended New Deal is out this month from Yale University Press’s Agrarian Studies Series. In it, Jess draws from over two decades of research on the policy intellectuals who shaped the New Deal’s agricultural programs. Focusing on six reformist “agrarian intellectuals” in the Department of Agriculture, he argues that their “Third New Deal,” in which federal planners worked closely with local communities in thousands of rural counties, forces us to reconsider the dichotomy between top-down planning and bottom-up participatory democracy. Though they managed vast federal programs, those planners articulated a robust vision of democracy that included not only local participation but also economic equality as core goals. I sat down with Jess to talk about the book and what its lessons entail for both academics and the broader public.

Garrett Nelson: Reading through the publications on your CV, I noticed how much Planning Democracy seems to tie together a number of different themes that have interested you throughout your career. Could you say a bit about how you came to write the book?

Jess Gilbert: After graduating college, I received an early National Endowment for the Humanities grant to study agricultural reform in the south, focusing on the Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union. Soon I discovered Theda Skocpol’s work, and was attracted to both history and social science. I’d always loved history, and so I was delighted to discover historical social science. And Theda, of course, was an excellent example of that at the time. Some of her major claims, though, I found questionable, and so, in the mid-80s, soon after I got here, I wrote a critique of her work with a grad student, focusing on her work on the New Deal and especially on agricultural policy. But I became very interested in some of the characters she highlights: M. L. Wilson and Howard Tolley and others in the Department of Agriculture, policy intellectuals. And so I applied and received a Hatch grant from the UW Agricultural Experiment Station to study in more detail the whole sweep of New Deal agricultural policy and planning. I got into that work in earnest, went to the National Archives in the early 90s for the first time, and was blown away by the work of these people that I now call the “agrarian intellectuals”: Henry Wallace, M. L. Wilson, Howard Tolley, and others. I revised my critique and kept reading more and more of their unpublished speeches, memos, and letters.

GN: The New Deal, and the FDR presidency in general, are probably two of the topics most well-covered by American historians. Yet this book feels very fresh, and I think it offers an important critique of the predominant portrayal of the New Deal. It also treats a handful of people who have been mostly ignored. Why do you think it took until now for the story of these agrarian intellectuals to be told as a critical component of the New Deal?

JG: The discipline of history, like all disciplines, has fads, and ideological predispositions. My book’s focus goes back fifty years, to Richard Kirkendall’s 1966 Social Scientists in Farm Politics in the Age of Roosevelt. It was his dissertation book, done here under Merle Curti in the History Department. It deals directly with the same things I do. He’s got two chapters on what most of my book is about.

What happens after that, in the 60s, is a sort of revolution, so to say, in historical studies, with bottom-up history, and the New Left historians, loosely speaking. And that work, which appeared in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s—the intellectual progeny of the New Left historians—had as one of its predispositions an antipathy toward big states, big government projects. They coined the idea of “corporate liberalism,” which they formulated as a critique of Woodrow Wilson and Progressivism. But what I think they really disliked was their current president: Lyndon Johnson! The New Left historians and those influenced by them, I think, over-reacted by not looking closely at what some New Dealers had in mind and actually did on the ground, especially at the end of the ’30s.

In some cases they did. Pete Daniel has written many books on the agricultural policy of the New Deal, and he’s absolutely right about the early New Deal’s impact on sharecroppers. And others—Jack Temple Kirby has work along the same line. But that’s not the full story; there’s more to say. Importantly, almost all historians stop their treatment of New Deal agriculture in 1937–38. That makes sense. What became known as New Deal agricultural policy ran from 1933 to 1937: that’s the subsidy program, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration; the Soil Conservation Service; the poor people’s agencies, the Resettlement Administration and later Farm Security Administration; the Rural Electrification Administration; the Farm Credit Administration; and others. All of these were early or mid ’30s, and they all survived the war, except for FSA.

“The farmers of the Nation look to these men to solve their many problems”: left to right, M. L. Wilson, Henry A. Wallace, and Howard R. Tolley. Image: Library of Congress

The program I’m looking at didn’t even get formulated until 1938 and didn’t get started until 1939. A couple of historians over the past few years have talked about a “Third New Deal” that started in ’37 or ’38, with several characteristics, the main one being: they all failed. They never went anywhere. These programs had to do with planning, administration, coordination—not new economic policies or new social initiatives. That fits in perfectly with what I’m doing. I’m looking at an initiative of the USDA in the very late 1930s that tried to coordinate and integrate the previous New Deal programs—the AAA, the FSA, and others. Its distinctive characteristic was that it actually got off the ground. It was operative in three-quarters of all rural counties in the country, over 2200 rural counties working with 200,000 local farm people on county and community committees to do what was called “land use planning.”

That term was chosen because the AAA, FSA, SCS—all the New Deal agencies of the previous five years—had some impact on land. So land use was the common denominator. The idea was to get local farm people, 15 or 20 per county, together with decentralized administrators of these New Deal programs, and with scientists from land grant institutions, in order to coordinate, integrate, unify, and—crucially—localize these programs to fit the needs of a particular county.

So this program really got going in 1939, but it was killed in early 1942. I really think it was the culmination, or as I call it, the “intended” New Deal in agriculture. I think this is what Wallace, Tolley, Wilson, and a couple of others envisioned: a comprehensive, integrative planning. They called it “planning;” today we would call it “rural development” or “community development.”

GN: You describe this brief period of time, this flowering of an ideal where state, expert-led planning is carried through a localized, democratic process, as “low modernism.” Could you talk more about that term? It’s a provocative twist on James Scott’s critique of “high modernism.”

JG: Yes, in his 1998 book Seeing Like a State, Scott develops the term “high modernism” and he became associated with it. Scott’s subtitle is “How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed.” Everything he says in that book is about failed big-government projects. I remember talking to him as he was working on it; he wanted to include a chapter on the TVA—though it didn’t “fail” in the same way as his other cases. So “high modernism” to Jim Scott is an extreme reliance on science, rationality, technology, and a diminution of folk culture, religion, rural livelihoods, family farming. “High modernist” agriculture was industrial, large-scale agriculture, not diversified, small-scale farms. Scott almost always prefaces the phrase “high modernist” with “authoritarian.” He says it doesn’t have to be—the TVA wasn’t necessarily authoritarian—but almost all his examples are about high modernists who are technocratic, bureaucratic, top-down planning elites who are imposing projects on hapless rural citizens. One reason they’re able to do that, as he says, is because civil society in these episodes—war, depression—is “prostrate.” You have to have an administrative state and a leadership willing to make those impositions. That’s his idea of “high modernism,” and the book has had a big influence.

An Agricultural Adjustment Administration technician works on a land-use map from aerial photography in 1937. Image: Library of Congress

But he cites “my” agrarian intellectuals as “high modernist”—that is, Wallace, Wilson, Tolley, and so on. Based on the work I had done with them, I just couldn’t agree with that. The term “low modernism” actually started as a joke with a grad student, Cliff Westfall—we were having coffee one day, and joked “high modernism; what about low modernism?” Everybody enjoyed the joke, but then people started taking it seriously. Several young historians, especially in international development, have used it.

What do I mean by “low modernism”? I deal with six New Deal Intellectuals: Wallace, Wilson, Tolley, Carl Taylor, L. C. Gray, and Bushrod Allin. (Half of those are from the University of Wisconsin!) They all had graduate degrees in the social sciences, and they were Progressives in the 20s and 30s. They believed in big states, they believed in planning, they certainly believed in the positive value of social science. They started all these huge New Deal programs and implemented them. So it’s fair to say they are modernists. That’s half of it.

If someone hadn’t spent 15 or 20 years reading their memos and unpublished papers, you’d just have a case that they’re simply “high modernists.” But they had this other side to them that did not believe exclusively in science and technology, did not exalt reason or rationality, or the idea of planning. In fact, they were the opposite of technocrats, in my view. I present them as grassroots participatory democrats, while at the same time being federal bureaucrats. A paradox is two statements that seem to contradict each other but are actually true. So “low modernism” means they are in touch with the grassroots—they’re all family-farm boys from the Midwest. I think they retain connections to their families and thousands and millions of people like them. They certainly supported the family farm as opposed to a larger-scale industrial farm. They were close students of cultural anthropology. They took local folk culture very seriously—Ruth Benedict and Robert Redfield were major influences.

Yes, they were social scientists enacting gigantic programs affecting millions of rural citizens. But, the point of my book is: they wanted to involve farmers in these decisions. They wanted to bring them into, not just the administration, but the planning, the research, educational efforts, and policymaking. I think they have a claim to be called radical democrats—like John Dewey. That’s what they said, and that’s what they did.

GN: Could you explain the divide between the “low modernists” of your book and the New Deal’s “eastern urban liberals,” who you say better fit Scott’s “high modernist” description?

JG: Yes, thanks for bringing that up. First, we need to be clear, these are the two progressive groups in the New Deal when it comes to agricultural policy. Rexford Tugwell, who was the first undersecretary of agriculture until 1936, and the group that he had under him, mainly Ivy League lawyers, were called the “urban liberals.” These two groups collaborate in the early New Deal. They do the AAA together, they set up food stamps. But I think Tugwell is much more the top-down technocratic planner. Now, one of his books is called The Battle for Democracy. He always maintained that he was not going against the democratic tradition of the country, but in fact deepening it, and expanding it.

But Tugwell’s group did not have, I think, as much a sense of participatory democracy. They were more skeptical of traditional rural cultures—not just in the Midwest, but especially in the plantation South. They were absolutely right in that sense: Tugwell had this critique of the plantation South, while Wallace and the agrarian intellectuals were not willing to go that far. It’s arguable—I think you have a point worth discussing—how “grassroots” they are. But for my purposes, and I think overall, they’re just not for decentralization as much; they’re more top-down and less bottom-up. Tugwell’s idea of planning is not M. L. Wilson’s idea of planning.

GN: Yes, and I think part of why this book is so important is that it reminds us of the existence and influence of this agrarian wing in articulating a progressive vision that was not based in the same political constituencies as the eastern liberals—the constituencies that would become the mainstay of the Democratic party later in the century.

JG: Yes, the big thing to remember is these were the two reformist groups in the Department of Agriculture. There were other groups, including many conservative representatives of the plantation South. Conservatives dominated large parts of the department. All of these progressive steps had enemies, inside the USDA, in the countryside, and in Congress. It wasn’t a cakewalk. And of course, eventually they were defeated by those very forces.

I think the agrarian intellectuals’ ideology or vision has been largely lost in our understanding, not just of the New Deal, but in some sense, of American history. They arose at a particular time, between the two World Wars, and disappeared after the Second World War as a major influence on domestic policy. But during those twenty or so years, they had a major impact and had this amazing vision. The reason I think it’s important to recover is that it’s so little known today.

Let me add one more thing about that on the idea of “top down” and “bottom up.” I think their point, and the agrarian intellectuals say this explicitly, is to try to overcome that dichotomy, and to institutionalize that. You know, Dewey had great ideas, and he set up schools, among other things, but his ideas were not really institutionalized in the way the agrarian intellectuals’ were. These are policy experiments in adult education, action and participatory research, grassroots planning, citizen policy-making. Things that Dewey touted, but he wasn’t in a position, as a professor, to do anything about.

The agrarian intellectuals saw this bottom-up and top-down not as a dualism which you have to choose between, but a question of how you integrate those two things. They’re federal elites, heading this giant department, but they wanted to work with—and they did work with—local farmer-planners on these committees that they set up.

That’s important, and that’s not always noticed.

GN: It seems like, in this ideology, there’s a great optimism and faith in education as the mortar that binds the bottom-up and top-down together. You see that in Dewey as well as your agrarians.

M. L. Wilson arguing in front of a Senate committee that vocational and extension programs for youth must be expanded. Image: Library of Congress

JG: Absolutely. Of course, for Dewey, education is his thing. The agrarian intellectuals, they share with Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Dewey the idea that democracy demands an educated citizenry. If we don’t have that, then democracy is severely compromised, and maybe doesn’t deserve the name. The agrarian tradition of American history, back to Jefferson, also talks about a “virtuous” citizenry. They partook of that; that’s the agrarian side of their thinking.

Perhaps it’s naïve, given where we are, politically, today. On the other hand, one of the chapter epigraphs says that this project that they were engaged in was “as idealistic and as practical as democracy itself.” If you dismiss them as utopian or naïve, it raises a very serious question, and that is, well: is democracy possible? That’s a big question.

I should say, every time I say “democracy” in this conversation, and in the book, I do not mean the formal, juridical democracy of going to the polls every couple of years and voting for representatives. That is important, but it’s not what they meant. They meant a deeper, thick, strong sense of democracy that includes citizens in the administration, implementation, research, planning, and policymaking—a strong sense of democracy, of citizen participation. Like the New Left in the 60s! Not a light, formal, simply representative democracy. The term used for this deeper sense of democracy, often throughout the twentieth century, is economic democracy: where people affected by decisions have a hand in making those choices.

Back to education, they did some amazing experiments in adult education. I’ll mention just one: these four or five day schools of philosophy for Extension workers. They had 150 such schools in land-grant institutions, where they got leading intellectuals to catch up Extension workers, who were usually trained in a narrow agricultural discipline, to broaden their horizons, basically. These schools were this amazing experiment in cultural democracy.

They were certainly optimistic, and thought that they could foment progressive change through education. I guess we’re more jaded these days about those possibilities, but I wanted to present their vision.

GN: So much of the agrarian intellectuals’ political dream was rooted in a particular vision of a particular working landscape, as you describe: middle-class Midwestern farms. Is it translatable outside of the very specific cultural and historical context?

JG: The underlying basis of what they were doing—and that’s why I focus on these governmental functions, public administration, education, research, planning, and policy-making—still exist today. These things still have to be done by somebody. The question is how they will be done. And I think there are a lot of policy experiments around. What I’m trying to do here is offer an example of an amazingly integrated and unified effort to do that at the policy level. To actually say that a democratizing state is not just theoretically possible, in John Dewey’s mind, but actually—with warts and all—actually existed on the ground, circa 1941, in much of rural America! It had a lot of problems, but the ideals and the principles underlying it, I think, still hold.

Featured image: Jess Gilbert, who calls himself “half historian,” looks at the past to understand the ideals of agricultural planners. Photo credit: Nathan Jandl

Garrett Dash Nelson is a graduate student in geography who works on historical geography, landscape and community planning, and intellectual history. His dissertation research follows the search for the “unit landscape” at different geographic scales across a 150-year arc of American land planning. WebsiteTwitterContact.



  1. I enjoyed reading the interview and plan to read the book. It is fascinating to get a clearer idea of what the agrarian Mid-West ideals of participatory democracy meant in the 1930s. It is also very useful to know more about the history of different currents within the New Deal. I liked the fact the interview allowed me to go back to the article in the American Sociological Review that deals with state and society. I learned a number of things about the project that I had not yet learned from speaking with Jess Gilbert about his book as he was working on it. We had a discussion about the term “democracy.” It can mean many things to many people, of course. The relationship between education and democracy is important to study in more depth. There were many highly educated and very well trained people in Germany in the 1930s. It is not clear that “education” is a good predictor. A history of democratic institutions is important but many of the most “democratic” people in the U.S. were not highly educated. Abraham Lincoln barely had one year of “formal” grade school education in a country school house. Thank you for an interesting interview with a very important scholar.

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